Tokyo Olympics: Games that didn’t fail?


TOKYO—It began with a virus and a yearlong pause. It ends with a typhoon and, still, a virus. In between: just about everything.

The Tokyo Olympics, christened with “2020” but held in mid-2021 after being interrupted for a year by the coronavirus, glided to their end Sunday night as an often surreal mixed bag for Japan and for the world.

Held in the middle of a resurging pandemic, rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative problems, these Games presented logistical and medical obstacles like no other, offered up serious conversations about mental health—and, when it came to sport, delivered both triumphs and a few surprising shortfalls.

From the outset, expectations were middling at best, apocalyptic at worst. Even Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said he’d worried that these could “become the Olympic Games without a soul.” But, he said Friday, “what we have seen here is totally different.”

“You could experience and feel and see and hear how much they enjoyed to be together here again,” Bach said.

At these Games, even the word “together” was fraught. Spectators were kept at bay. A patchwork of rules kept athletes masked and apart for much of medal ceremonies, yet saw them swapping bodily fluids in some venues. That was less about being remiss than about being real: Risks that could be mitigated were, but at the same time events had to go on.

Athletes’ perseverance became a central story. Mental health claimed bandwidth as never before, and athletes revealed their stories and struggles in vulnerable, sometimes excruciating fashion.

Japan’s fourth Olympics, held 57 years after the fabled 1964 Games effectively reintroduced it to the world after its World War II defeat, represented a world trying to come together at a historical moment when disease and circumstance and politics had splintered it apart. But even against those formidable backdrops, athletic excellence burst through.

Among the highlights: Allyson Felix taking a US-record 11th medal in track, then stepping away from the Olympic stage. American quintuple gold medalist Caeleb Dressel›s astounding performance in the pool. The emergence of surging, skateboarding and sport climbing as popular, and viable, Olympic sports even as an earlier typhoon whipped up the waves for surfers during the Games’ first week. Host country Japan’s medal haul—58, its most ever.

Image courtesy of AP

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