Tokyo 2020 took place in empty arenas but brought together eight billion people | Tokyo Olympics 2020

So How was it for you? Whether you love them or hate them, you have to admit that these Olympics were a crazy proposition. With 206 teams competing, they were larger and more diverse than the United Nations and – with a bill estimated at at least £ 12 billion, 111% more than budget – the Japanese could have bought 300 new hospitals from 300 beds, or 1,200 elementary schools, with what they cost to put.

The Games have always been and always will be like this. This is why, when French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin first suggested reviving the ancient Olympics in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1892, many in the audience thought he was joking.

Even after De Coubertin harassed the Greeks to continue the first Games in Athens in 1896, they continued to try to withdraw. None of the sites would be ready, the costs were too high, the scale was too large, the whole project was too ambitious. And that’s still the case today, 125 years later, when Coubertin’s original concept morphed into something entirely different. Sports historian David Goldblatt accurately describes the modern Olympics as a “secular and commercialized celebration of universal humanity.” They’re the closest to a global gathering, so big now that the tent even includes room for people who want to be outside. The Games have designated spaces for all demonstrators who want them to be abolished.

There are a few more now, in Japan in particular. These Olympics set unwanted records. In the second week, daily Covid cases hit a new national high. More than a third of them were in Tokyo, where the numbers have almost tripled in the past fifteen weeks. Only around 350 of them were directly linked to the Olympics, but that doesn’t count side effects, such as mixed messages sent by a government telling people to stay home and obey social distancing even during that he was holding a two-day national holiday to celebrate the start of the holiday.

Spectators watch the mixed relay triathlon competition at Odaiba Marine Park. Photograph: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images

A party that cost more than $ 6 billion in public money, but which the public itself could not attend. You would be angry too, wouldn’t you? It was the saddest part, all the parents and children waiting outside the Olympic fences trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside, people lining up to take pictures through the wire fence between them and the Olympic stadium. It also made for surreal moments. On the first weekend, the only section of Tsurigasaki Beach that wasn’t busy was the section reserved for people who had tickets to watch Olympic surfing.

All those empty stands meant that these Olympics lived side by side with the promise of who they could have been. The decision not to let in any spectators, even at reduced capacity, was all the more puzzling as cinemas and concert halls were still open for business throughout the city. It was a consequence of the “push me pull you” political struggle between the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government.

The IOC will continue regardless of the damage done to its reputation, as it always does. The Beijing Winter Olympics begin in six months and will bring their own set of entirely new challenges. The Japanese government, on the other hand, could pay the price in the next general election.

So what did the Japanese get in return for all of this? A record number of medals and countless hours of content, which they, like everyone else, devoured greedily. Most of the time, Olympic coverage reached over 85 million Japanese, or more than two-thirds of the population. The sport was spectacular, of course, and a welcome distraction for weary people everywhere. You can choose your own favorites, be it one of the three gold medals Elaine Thompson-Herah won in the sprints, the five Caeleb Dressels won in the Olympic pool, the one Momiji Nishiya won in women’s street skateboarding. , or one of the 330 other gold medals awarded in the last fortnight.

What it all added to, whether or not it was something more than sport, is yet another question. IOC President Thomas Bach insisted that the Games had given “hope and confidence not only to the Olympic movement but to the whole world”. Some were not so sure. “It’s special,” Fijian rugby sevens captain Jerry Tuwai said after his team won, “but a gold medal cannot replace human life.” Tuwai’s teammate Asaeli Tuivuaka also spoke fondly of his experiences over the past few months. Tuivuaka lost his father during the pandemic and has a one-year-old boy whom he hasn’t seen for five months because he’s locked up with the rest of the team. “I couldn’t even kiss her goodbye when I left …”

Anti-Olympic protesters march through Tokyo during Games
Anti-Olympic protesters march through Tokyo during the Games. Photograph: Issei Kato / Reuters

This ties in with what turned out to be, for me, the theme of these Olympics. It was there from the start, when Adam Peaty won Britain’s very first gold medal. Peaty explained how he had to balance training in confinement and becoming a father for the first time. “Last year we almost felt like we were under siege,” he said. “There were days when I woke up and said, ‘It’s hard, it’s really hard’, there were so many challenges, and a few fucking breakdowns as well.”

It was there that Tom Dean also won gold in the 200m freestyle and explained how he had been so sick with Covid that he was not sure whether he would ever make it to Tokyo.

This was according to the words of Czech beach volleyball player Marketa Slukova, who was forced out of the competition when she tested positive for Covid two days before her opener. “We cried, then we swore, then we cried again.”

It was to the gratitude of Tom Daley after winning his bronze medal in the 10m platform diving. “I made it to the Olympics after 18 months of uncertainty and every Olympian who is here should be extremely proud of having succeeded here.”

And that was, in a different way, again in Simone Biles’ decision to step back from Olympic competition. It was there in all the stories of people training in garages, roads and backyards. You might even find him among the tired protesters outside the Olympic stadium chanting, “No more games!

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There is something unmistakably silly and self-indulgent about wondering who won what amid the global pandemic, when so much of the local population was so fiercely opposed to the Olympics. Peaty said it himself: “Athletes have to be selfish. But one of the defining moments of the Games was when Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi chose to share the gold medal in the high jump. And listening to all these competitors, from all these countries, share their own stories of how they – and the people around them – struggled over the past 18 months, you felt a kind of kinship with them and with each other.

It was the same message delivered in dozens of different languages: it’s hard, but we persist. And it carried with him a sense of a pandemic as a problem shared among eight billion people. It felt like these Games were closer than ever to achieving the kind of universality that the IOC aspires to achieve.

About Wendy Hall

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