Updated: Aug 26, 2021
The Summer Olympic Games is the most high-profile sporting event on the planet, the pinnacle for athletes in their prime to test and prove themselves against the best, an occasion when the world convenes and unites under the communal banner of sport.
As we are all fully aware, the Tokyo 2020 Games almost never went ahead due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the world to its knees. Originally scheduled for July 2020, it was deferred a full year, during which time it was literally anyone’s guess as to whether the occasion would proceed or not. Right up to the last minute there were still serious reservations and whispers that it would not go ahead.
Residents of Tokyo and Japan were dubious to say the least, reluctant, unwilling even, to welcome the world’s largest sports event to their capital during a time of such uncertainty and fear. Many felt their country was being held hostage in effect by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who, with billions of dollars on the line, had insisted the occasion proceed, seemingly prioritising profit over the health of a nation who didn’t want to play ball. The Japanese government dithered, turning one way then the other before deciding to tow the line and bow to the wishes of the IOC.
Once finally approved to proceed it was confirmed that spectators would be banned and robust health and safety protocols would be enforced to ensure any threat from the virus could be combated. In a similar vein to the Euro 2020, the European football championships which was also deferred a year, the Olympics would retain ‘Tokyo 2020’ as its title.
And what an occasion it was! What was witnessed over 15 days of competition was among the most enthralling, entertaining and inspiring sporting action in recent memory with numerous feel good stories and examples of super-human achievement, drama and controversy.
The tournament once again emphasised the power of sport in being able to unite people from all four corners and promote a notion of positivity. It was truly the first occasion when nations from all over the world came together since the pandemic had begun, serving as a bastion of hope and triumph.
It also shone a light on key social issues that are so prevalent within our societies and that shape our daily news. Gender equality, inclusion, race, mental health issues and many more came to the forefront as the Games progressed.
The two-week festival also highlighted the durability, tolerance, and spirit of the Japanese people who dealt with such a precarious occasion with their renowned accommodating grace and warm hospitality. They deserved every ounce of praise and applause that came their way.
However, as previously stated, there was much trepidation and resistance leading up to the Games...
Japan winning a gold medal on the first day of official competition was crucial as it seemed to soften a significant portion of the Japanese public’s perception and resistance to the tournament. Naohisa Takato’s gold in the men’s 60kg judo appeared to almost immediately break an invisible barrier and make it OK for the host nation’s population to not only support the venture but actually enjoy it. There’s nothing quite like being sucked into the occasion and carried along with the raw emotion that only sports can provide and much of Japan, like most other nations, was immediately hooked. The feel good factor of national pride is a powerful dynamic and something millions around the world had been desperately seeking for close to 18 months.
It was very much a family affair the next day as siblings Uta and Hifumi Abe won the women’s 52kg and men’s 66kg titles in judo, piquing the country’s interest levels and engagement furthermore.
Later on that second day, 22-year-old Japanese Yuto Horigome became the first athlete to win gold in Olympic street skateboarding as the sport made its Olympic debut. Momiji Nishiya won gold in the women’s category. The country was well and truly hooked now!
Sakura Yosozumi, 19, then won the women’s park skateboarding contest, ahead of compatriot Kokona Hiraki who is only 12-years-old and Great Britain’s Sky Brown who is only 13-years-old.
Australia got in on the act too as 18-year-old Keegan Palmer claimed the inaugural men’s park skateboarding Olympic gold medal in stunning fashion with two giant scores in the final.
Skateboarding was introduced to the Games roster to connect with new, younger audiences and, along with the likes of surfing and sport climbing, was a huge hit.
Not to be outdone, the oldest medal winner was 62-year-old Australian equestrian rider Andrew Hoy who won a silver from team eventing and a bronze from the individual.
Singapore’s golden boy of diving, Jonathan Chan became Singapore’s first-ever male Olympic diver. 24 year old Jonathan competed in the Men’s 10 metres Platform Preliminaries. Due to his Olympic qualification, Chan was nominated for the Straits Times Athlete of the Year award in 2020.
Photo credit: Foo Yan Nuen
Upsets and shocks
As is often the case at major international sports events, there were upsets galore.
In the pool, Tunisian teenager Ahmed Hafnaoui caused a seismic shock as he won gold in the men’s 400m freestyle, upsetting the much-fancied Australian Jack McLoughlin, who took silver, and American Kieran Smith.
The US men’s basketball team were stunned as they were beaten at an Olympics for the first time since 2004 as France paid no heed to the profile of the NBA superstars led by Kevin Durant in a 83-76 win. Maybe it was the kick up the backside that team USA needed as they ultimately went on to win gold in the final.
In tennis, world number one and Wimbledon women’s champion Ashleigh Barty lost to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo resulting in a shock first round exit.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka then followed when she lost to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the third round. It was not what the organisers envisaged as Osaka was very much the face of the Games, having been the last bearer of the Olympic flame to ignite the Olympic cauldron within the National Stadium to officially inaugurate the tournament at the Opening Ceremony.
Novak Djokovic, fresh off his Wimbledon success, was looking to add Olympic gold in his pursuit for the perfect Grand Slam in 2021. However, he fell in the bronze medal men’s singles match against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta meaning he left the tournament empty-handed. His frustration evident, the world number one Serb threw one racket into the stands and smashed another on the court, drawing criticism for his unsporting conduct.
Minnows’ day in the sun
There were a number of firsts at the Games where underdog nations and athletes rose to the occasion that epitomised the spirit and glory of sports perfectly.
Flora Duffy’s gold medal triumph in the women’s triathlon meant Bermuda won their first ever medal and became the smallest nation to ever win one in the process.
Just two days later, however, Alessandra Perilli won a bronze for San Marino in the trap shooting, meaning it was not only the first time the country had won an Olympic medal but it then adopted the mantle of smallest nation to triumph, usurping Duffy’s previous efforts.
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history when she became the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold, the 30-year-old triumphing in the women’s 55kg class and becoming an instant national heroine in the process. The victory was just reward for Diaz who trained for almost 18 months in exile in Malaysia because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Kimia Alizadeh came close to securing a first ever medal for the IOC Refugee Team, shocking Great Britain’s Jade Jones who was searching for her third straight Olympic gold in taekwondo, on the way.
After winning gold in taekwondo in 2016 in Rio, Alizadeh renounced her homeland of Iran in January 2020 when she released a fierce and fearless criticism of the mandatory wearing of the hijab, blasted corruption and sexism and described herself as “one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran”. She subsequently sought refugee status in Germany and was offered a place on the refugee team, established in 2016 for misplaced athletes.
Win for LGBTQ+
The Games was very much regarded as a triumph for the LGBTQ+ movement with rights campaigners hailing it as the Rainbow Olympics, hoping its message of positive inclusivity can be felt and maintained globally.
“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” said 27-year-old Great British diver Tom Daley after winning gold in the men’s synchronized 10m platform with teammate Matty Lee.
Following his victory, Daley spoke to the press about his husband and son while sitting between athletes from Russia and China, both countries where same-sex marriage is illegal. It prompted Daley to air words of caution: “There’s still a lot further to go. There are 10 counters competing at these Olympic Games where being LGBT is punishable by death.”
Daley then showed off his knitting skills as he crafted a Union Jack pouch to protect his gold medal while cheering on his teammates in the stands, before later designing a Great Britain cardigan and a purple sweater for his friend’s French bulldog.
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender Olympian as she contested the women’s +87kg weightlifting category.
Seemingly overwhelmed by the occasion, Hubbard’s participation was brief but was hailed by trans activists as a historic occasion for a marginalised community. Conversely, it drew harsh criticism and prompted a firestorm of debate about transgender participation in women's sport.
The intensely private Hubbard announced her retirement from the sport immediately afterwards, saying she was now ready to step away from the spotlight. “I’m not sure that a role model is something I could ever aspire to be - instead I hope that just by being I can provide some sense of encouragement,” she said.
Aussie boxer Harry Garside certainly provided some colour in the ring. The 24-year-old, who won a bronze in the men’s lightweight division, had proudly shown off his painted fingernails after his quarter-final bout, stating each one represented a different colour of the rainbow.
A certified plumber and a sucker for ballet, Garside had said he initially wanted to wear a dress to the Opening Ceremony parade but declined as “I didn’t want to offend anyone”.
“There’s a lot of people out there who feel like they have to be something because they’re a male or a female,” Garside said. “I’m all about just being different.”
It was reported there were a total of at least 172 LGBTQ+ athletes at the Games, more than three times the number confirmed in Rio in 2016.
Shining a light on mental health
Three of the most high-profile figures at the Games were amongst several athletes who highlighted their struggles with mental health issues.
US gymnastics star Simone Biles decided to stand down from competition for five or her six finals events, citing her struggles with mental health as the reason. Unsurprisingly, it drew praise from certain quarters and scorn from others.
“My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win,” said the 24-year-old, who has a career total of four golds and seven Olympic medals in all.
“It isn’t a normal job,” tweeted Peaty, who won two golds and a silver in Tokyo and became the first British swimmer to defend an Olympic title.
“There is a huge amount of pressure. Money does not buy happiness.
“I’m taking a break because I’ve been going extremely hard for as long as I can remember. I’ve averaged 2 weeks off a year for the last 7 years.”
US swim sensation Caeleb Dressel, who won five gold medals in Tokyo, aired similar sentiments when describing the immense pressure put upon competing athletes.
“Every morning I’d wake up the first words out of my mouth weren’t ‘oh I’m so excited’, sometimes it was ‘this is going to suck today’,” he said.
“The Olympics are different, I’ll admit that now and stop lying to myself. There’s so much pressure in one moment. Your whole life boils down to a moment that can take 20 or 40 seconds - how crazy is that?”
Ready for Doglympics?
No sporting event is ever complete without at least some form of controversy and Tokyo 2020 was no exception. Many argued the fact it had gone ahead in the first place was controversial enough but several incidents throughout the fortnight soon attracted the gaze of disapproval elsewhere.
Russia was undoubtedly the elephant in the room. The country had been barred from competing after being implicated for running a state-sponsored doping program designed to boost its medal haul at international sporting events.
Instead they just re-branded as the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC), adopted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as their national anthem and subsequently sent 335 athletes to compete. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, you could say.
China and controversy seem to be synonymous during the past few years and it was no different at the Games. Many commentators and critics argued that China’s very presence was questionable after their irresponsible and opaque handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and reluctance to cooperate during the subsequent fallout. Politics and sports shouldn’t mix but it is naive and inaccurate to suggest otherwise.
China and Taiwan’s tempestuous relationship is well documented. Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin won Taiwan’s first ever Olympic gold medal in badminton - a victory made sweeter as the male duo’s opponents were from China. “I am Lee Yang. I am a proud Kinmen (islander). I am a proud Taiwanese,” Yang posted on Facebook, much to the chagrin of Beijing.
Taiwan’s record 12-medal-haul has prompted a patriotic surge and seen calls for the country to drop the “Chinese Taipei” title it has used for 40-years in preference of just “Taiwan”. After all, “Chinese Taipei” appears on no recognised maps outside of the halls of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.
Residents of Hong Kong witnessed booing the Chinese national anthem also antagonised the leading elite on the mainland and stoked furthermore a hugely contentious and divisive relationship that has been indiscriminately controlled by force from Beijing in the past year.
Still with China, two cyclists got into hot water for wearing badges embossed with the image of hugely controversial former leader Mao Zedong which violated Olympic rules on political gestures which prohibits the display of political paraphernalia on the podium. Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi were warned by the IOC as a result.
Last but not least is a tale that epitomises everything that sport should be about – serious competition but played in good, fair spirit with respect for one’s opponent.
Opponents and friends Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar were tied after their final efforts in the men’s high jump.
Offered the chance of a one-time jump-off with winner taking all, Barshim asked: “Can we have two golds?”
The answer was yes and the two shared top spot and Olympic gold on the podium.
Australia Olympic team boss Ian Chesterman said that the Tokyo Olympics had provided organisers of the Brisbane 2032 Games with “a roadmap” for their own event.
Chesterman hailed Japan’s resilience and organisational skills, rating the pandemic-postponed 2020 Games “11 out of 10”.
“We thank very much the Japanese organisers who have done an incredible job working for an extra 15 months to make this happen,” he said.
“It’s not the Games they had planned for, but they still delivered and the athletes will always be grateful for that,” he added.
It is a sentiment that was shared by many, far and wide.
The Closing Ceremony was done with an elegance and grace that seemingly only the Japanese can attain. It was subtle, almost sombre at times, but very much a celebration of the most unusual major sports event ever witnessed.
As the notes of Suite Bergamasque, Isao Tomita’s take on Debussy’s Clair de Lune No.3, evaporated into an electronic shimmer, so did the occasion of Tokyo 2020, staged in 2021, officially end.
Ultimately, the Tokyo 2020 Games comes away with its head held high, deserving of a medal itself in more ways than one. Tokyoites deserve praise for how they managed the precarious occasion with grace despite reservations of hosting a global event in a city where the contagion and control efforts had already been stretched to breaking point.
The Games served as a symbol of triumph and hope in the face of the debilitating global pandemic that has wrought so much disruption and suffering. It emphasised how integral a part of our lives sport is by connecting athletes and viewers across the world and suggested that hopefully one day soon we will all be able to truly unite again.
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