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, 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 U.S.-record 11th medal in track, then stepping away from the Olympic stage. American quintuple gold medalist Caeleb Dressel's astounding performance in the pool. Host country Japan's medal haul, nearly double its previous best. The emergence of surfing,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.
Any Olympics is a microcosm of the world it reflects, and this was was nothing if not that. Its runup, and the two weeks of the Games themselves, featured tens of thousands of spit-in-a-vial COVID tests for athletes, staff, journalists and visitors. That produced barely more than 400 positives, a far cry from the rest of non-Olympic bubble Japan, where surges in positive cases provoked the government to declare increasingly widespread states of emergency.
And, of course, there was that other microcosm of human life that the Games revealed — the reckoning with mental and emotional health, and the pressure put on Earth's top-tier athletes to compete hard and succeed at almost any cost. The interruption of that pressurized narrative, led by the struggles of gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka in particular, permeated these Games and lit the spark of an athlete-driven conversation everyone expects to continue.
“At the end of the day, we're not just entertainment. We're human, and there are things going on behind the scenes that we're also trying to juggle with," Biles said after withdrawing from the team competition in gymnastics.
While Tokyo is handing off the Summer Games baton to Paris for 2024, the delay has effectively crammed two Olympics together. The next Winter Games convenes in just six months in another major Asian metropolis — Beijing, Japan's rival in East Asia and home to a much more authoritarian government that is expected to administer its Games in a more draconian and restrictive way, virus or no virus.
In recent weeks, lots of people — officials, athletes, journalists — have been chewing over how these Games will be remembered. That's up to history, of course, but there are hints. The runup was ugly and messy and disputed. The days of competition were fraught but, in general, without incident other than sporting milestones. The expenses — upwards of $15 billion — were formidable and will echo in Tokyo long after athletes are gone and venues go dark.
What are the Olympic Games supposed to be? A politics-free sporting event, as the IOC says? A bonanza for sponsors and broadcasters? One small step toward world peace? Despite all the yarn-spinning around the Games, their identity remains up in the air and that fundamental question remains.
But as the cauldron goes dark Sunday after the Pandemic Olympics conclude, it's easy to argue that Tokyo can take its place as a Games that didn't fail — as one that overcame a lot to even happen at all. And as vaccines roll out and are taken or resisted, as variants emerge and lockdowns re-emerge around the planet, another city and another government — Beijing, the Chinese capital — now must grapple with same very same question.