Tokyo 2020 has been and gone. Was it worth the wait?
Woah boy, where do you even start to answer such a question?
Let’s begin with where we were a little over two weeks ago when the Games were finally declared open. A year later than planned, of course, due to a global health pandemic that continues to wreak havoc across the continents.
To say there was scepticism would be an understatement. In parts there was downright anger, in others just bafflement that the Olympics would go ahead in such circumstances.
For some there was excitement, too. An unrepentant Thomas Bach delivered a message of solidarity and unity at an opening ceremony many thought might come.
“We are standing in solidarity to make the Olympic Games happen, and to enable all of you dear athletes, and from all sports to take part in the Olympic games,” the IOC chief said in front of millions watching around the world.
“This solidarity fuels our ambitions to make the world a better place through sport. Only through solidarity can we be here tonight. Without solidarity there is no peace.
“This feeling of togetherness this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel, the pandemic forced us apart, to keep our distance from each other, to stay away even from our loved ones. This separation made this tunnel so dark.”
There is no escaping the fact these will forever be the pandemic Games, a permanent reminder forever etched in the history books of the utterly bizarre, and at times terrifying, times the world has lived through.
These Games have not completely succeeded in leading us out of the dark tunnel. They never could, there is still too much pain and hardship being caused by COVID-19 for it to have truly healed the globe.
Nor will we ever really escape the fact that Tokyo 2020 was an Olympics that could have been. A beautiful, vibrant, colourful, futuristic city – it is immensely sad we will never know how good the Olympics could have been. It is sadder still that so many great moments were played out in the absence of spectators.
But you know what, despite it all, the greatest show on earth delivered. At least at times it did. That this was the pandemic Games needn’t be the only legacy left behind in the Japanese capital.
The majority of the success stories naturally belong to the athletes. Whether it be the unheralded Austrian Anna Kiesenhofer securing gold in a women’s cycling road race where her rivals had no idea she had even won. Or maybe Annemiek van Vleuten, the runner-up in that event, finally taking Olympic gold in the time trial five years after a horrific crash scuppered her hopes when leading the road race at Rio 2016.
Perhaps you took inspiration from the exploits of Emma McKeon, Ariarne Titmus, Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Adam Peaty in the pool, maybe it was the utter joy and emotion of Tom Daley finally diving his way to Olympic gold. It could have been at the track, where Elaine Thompson-Herah etched her name into history perhaps as the greatest female sprinter ever, or Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin breaking astonishing new ground in the 400m hurdles, or Marcell Jacobs’ unlikely 100m success, or Andre De Grasse living up to the billing as the heir to Usain Bolt with his ascension to the top of the podium in the 200m, or Neeraj Chopra breaking new ground for India with a heck of a javelin throw.
Every which way you turn there are stories to ignite that burning love of the Olympics. There is just something enduringly beautiful about humans (yes, humans not just athletes) conquering greatness, yielding reward for unthinkable hours of graft just to peak at the right time in an allotted slot over two weeks of sporting bedlam.
Credit must be given too for the way Tokyo 2020 has opened its doors to new (at least new in Olympic terms) sports such as skateboarding, speed climbing and surfing. Faster, Stronger, Higher, sure – but Younger, Fresher, Bolder as well. A whole new world of eyes has been brought to the Games, while the stars of tomorrow are engaged and motivated to dream that one day “that could be me”.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, was the ever-changing conversation and narrative surrounding mental health.
Simone Biles, the living legend gymnast was tipped to be the face of the Games but, sort of poetically in keeping with the theme of Tokyo 2020, it did not go exactly to plan. There was just one rotation in the team final before she sat out the rest of the night. Four more withdrawals followed before she returned to take a quite brilliant bronze on the balance beam.
Her message about struggling with the mental aspect of an Olympics and the pressure it brings was enlightening, brave and powerful. It allowed others to follow suit – Peaty, the unstoppable force in the men’s 100m breaststroke, himself later said he required a break from the gruelling demands of being an elite athlete.
Some people would try and convince you Biles’ decision was “weak” or lacked “mental toughness”. Those people are emphatically and unforgivably wrong. More to the point they are people, much like I, who will never come close to understanding the sacrifices it takes to achieve greatness.
With the closing ceremony bringing Tokyo 2020 to an end – after a wait that felt like a lifetime – and the Olympic flame extinguished, the dust will settle and perhaps it is time and reflection that will prove the most valuable gifts in assessing whether Tokyo 2020 was worth the wait.
In the immediate here and now, the mood seems still split between those inspired by the against-all-odds nature and those who felt like the Games just…sort of happened, we went through the motions, survived with a few blemishes but no major hiccups.
It is impossible to fully accept Bach’s opening-ceremony assertion that Tokyo 2020 is the light to lead us out of a dark tunnel.
But perhaps it is the message of hope that permeated light through the darkness that can be the real lasting legacy of Tokyo 2020. After all, given everything we’ve been through for over a year and a half, we could all use a little hope in our lives.