Erratic pandemic Olympics come to a mixed end


TOKYO (AP) – It started with a virus and a one-year hiatus. It ended with a blowing typhoon and, always, a virus. In between: pretty much everything.

The Tokyo Olympics, dubbed “2020” but staged in mid-2021 after being interrupted for a year by the coronavirus, ended Sunday night in a stadium emptied of COVID like an often surreal mixed bag for Japan and for the world.

A frenzied closing ceremony themed “From the Worlds We Share” – an optimistic but ironic notion at this human moment – featured everything from stunts to intricate light shows as it attempted to convey an “atmosphere of celebration and celebration. release ‘for athletes after two strained. weeks. It pivoted to a live stream from Paris, host of the 2024 Summer Games. And with that, the strangest Olympics on record closed their books for good.

Hosted in the midst of a resurgent pandemic, rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative problems, the Games presented logistical and medical hurdles like no other, offered serious conversations about mental health – and, of sport, offered the two triumphs and some surprising failures.

From the start, expectations were mediocre at best, apocalyptic at worst. Even Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said he feared these could “become soulless Olympics”. But, he said, “what we’ve seen here is totally different. “

“You were faster, you went higher, you were stronger because we were all united,” Bach told the Olympians as he closed the Games. “It was even more remarkable considering the many challenges you have had to face as a result of the pandemic. In these difficult times, you are giving the world the most precious gift: hope.

“For the first time since the start of the pandemic,” he said, “the whole world has come together”.

He exaggerated a bit. At these Games, even the word “together” was heavy. Spectators were kept at a distance. A patchwork of rules kept athletes masked and separated during much of the medal ceremonies, but saw them exchanging bodily fluids at some venues. It was less about being careless than about being real: the risks that could be mitigated were, but at the same time, events had to continue.

The perseverance of the athletes has become a central story. Mental health demanded bandwidth like never before, and athletes revealed their stories and struggles in vulnerable, sometimes excruciating, ways.

Japan’s fourth Olympic Games, held 57 years after the 1964 Games reintroduced the country after its defeat in World War II, represented a planet trying to come together at a time in history when disease, circumstances and politics had separated him.

Sunday’s closing ceremony reflected that – and, at times, took the debates to a sci-fi flavor. As the athletes stood in the arena for the final push-up, digital scoreboards at each end of the stadium featured what organizers called a “fan video matrix,” a Zoom call-type screen of videos uploaded by cheering spectators at home.

Even the parade of athletes carrying national flags – thousands of Olympians, masked and unmasked, regrouping before deploying again to the world – has been affected. Volunteers carried flags around the stadium, likely due to rules forcing athletes to leave the country soon after their events ended.

In front of such a formidable backdrop, athletic excellence exploded, from the first gold medal of the Games (Chinese Yang Qian with the 10-meter rifle on July 24) to the last (Serbia beating Greece in water polo male Sunday afternoon).

Among the highlights: Allyson Felix winning a record 11th medal in the United States on track, then moving away from the Olympic stage. The amazing performance of five-time American gold medalist Caeleb Dressel in the pool. The emergence of surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing as popular and viable Olympic sports. Host nation Japan took home the number of medals – 58, their all-time record.

All the Olympic Games are a microcosm of the world they reflect. The preparations for these Games, and the two weeks of the Games themselves, have featured tens of thousands of COVID tests spewed out in a vial for athletes, staff, journalists and visitors. That produced just over 400 positives, a far cry from the rest of Japan’s non-Olympic bubble, where an increase in the number of positives has prompted 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 consideration of mental and emotional health and the pressure on top athletes to compete fiercely and succeed. at almost any cost. The interruption of this pressurized narrative, led by the struggles of gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka in particular, permeated these Games and sparked the spark of an athlete-led conversation about stress. , tolerance and inclusiveness that everyone hopes to continue.

As Tokyo hands over the Summer Games to Paris for 2024, the delay has effectively crammed two Olympics together. The next Winter Games meet 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 manner. , virus or not.

Beyond that, Parisian organizers on Sunday promised to “take sport out of its traditional spaces” and “connect with new audiences in new ways” in 2024 – assuming, of course, the lack of a protracted pandemic. They went live from the shutdown to groups of excited fans gathered near the Eiffel Tower, a crowded public stage that Tokyo did not allow.

In recent weeks, many people – officials, athletes, journalists – have wondered how these Tokyo Games will be remembered. It depends on the story, of course, but there are clues.

The momentum was messy and contested. The days of competition were busy but, in general, without incident other than sporting milestones. Even a moderate earthquake sounded and was quickly forgotten. Scattered anti-Games protests – including one outside the stadium on Sunday night – reflected some of the sentiment in Japan, but certainly not all. The spending – over $ 15 billion – was colossal and will reverberate in Tokyo long after the athletes leave.

What are the Olympics supposed to be? A sporting event without politics, as the IOC claims? A boon for sponsors and broadcasters? A small step towards world peace? Despite all the spinning, their identity remains unanswered and this fundamental question remains.

But as the cauldron was smothered on Sunday night after the end of the pandemic Olympics, it’s easy to argue that Tokyo can take its place as Games that haven’t failed – as games that have overcome a lot of things to happen. And as vaccines are rolled out, variants emerge and blockages reappear, another city and another government – Beijing, the Chinese capital – must face the same question.

In the meantime, the Tokyo Closing Ceremony program, describing its theme “Worlds We Share,” captured the effect of the pandemic and the virtual worlds and separation anxiety to which it gave birth.

“We are in a new normal, and this edition of the Games was a different matter,” he said. “Even though we can’t be together, we can share the same moment. And this is something we will never forget.


Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, was AP’s Asia-Pacific news director from 2014 to 2018. This is his sixth Games. Olympic. Follow him on Twitter at

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