Irregular pandemic Olympics involves a nuanced finish

TOKYO (AP) – It started with a virus and a year-long hiatus. It ended in a typhoon and still a virus. In between: pretty much everything.

The Olympic Games in Tokyo, baptized “2020” but held in mid-2021 after a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus, slipped to an end on Sunday evening in a stadium emptied of COVID as an often surreal hybrid for Japan and the world.

An exuberant closing ceremony with the theme “Worlds We Share” – an optimistic but ironic performance in this human moment – offered everything from stunt bikes to complicated light shows to give the athletes a “solemn and liberating atmosphere” after tense twos to convey weeks. It was about a live feed from Paris, the host of the 2024 Summer Games, and with that, the strangest Olympics ever closed their books for good.

In the midst of a resurgent pandemic rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative troubles, these games posed logistical and medical barriers like no other, offered serious mental health talks – and when it came to sport, delivered both Victories and some surprising setbacks.

From the start, expectations were mediocre at best, apocalyptic at worst. Even Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, said he feared that it could turn into “Olympic Games without a soul”. But, he said, “what we’ve seen here is completely different.”

“You were faster, you went higher, you were stronger because we all stood together – in solidarity,” said Bach in front of the assembled Olympians when he finished the games. “That was all the more remarkable given the many challenges you had to face as a result of the pandemic. In these difficult times you give the world the most precious gift: hope. “

“For the first time since the pandemic began,” he said, “the whole world came together.”

He overdid it a bit. In these games even the word “together” was used. Spectators were kept in check. A patchwork of rules kept athletes masked and segregated for much of the medal ceremonies, but saw body fluids exchange in some places. It was less about carelessness than about realism: there were risks that could be mitigated, but at the same time events had to go on.

Athlete endurance became a central story. Mental health was becoming more of a spectrum than ever, with athletes revealing their stories and struggles in vulnerable, sometimes excruciating ways.

Japan’s Fourth Olympiad, held 57 years after the country was reintroduced by the 1964 Games after its defeat in World War II, represented a planet trying to come together at a point in history when disease and circumstances and politics were splintering it.

The closing ceremony on Sunday reflected this – and sometimes turned the process towards science fiction tastes. As the athletes stood in the arena for the final pomp, digital scoreboards at either end of the stadium showed what organizers called a “fan video matrix,” a zoom-call-like screen of videos uploaded by spectators, who showed themselves cheering at home.

Even the parade of athletes who carried national flags – thousands of Olympians, masked and unmasked, who clustered together before spreading out into the world again – was affected. Volunteers carried some flags into the stadium, presumably because the athletes had to leave the country shortly after their events were over.

In front of such an impressive backdrop, athletic excellence broke out, from the first gold medal of the Games (China’s Yang Qian in the 10-meter air rifle on July 24th) to its last (Serbia defeated Greece in the men’s water polo on Sunday afternoon).

Among the highlights: Allyson Felix won an 11th US record medal on the track and then left the Olympic stage. The amazing performance of the American five-time gold medalist Caeleb Dressel in the pool. The advent of surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing as popular and sustainable Olympic sports. Host country Japan’s medal wins – 58, the highest ever.

Every Olympiad is a microcosm of the world that it reflects. In the run-up to these games and during the two weeks of the games themselves, tens of thousands of COVID tests for athletes, employees, journalists and visitors were tested in an ampoule. This led to little more than 400 positive results, a far cry from the rest of the non-Olympic bubble of Japan, where a surge in positive cases led the government to declare increasingly widespread states of emergency.

And of course there was this other microcosm of human life that the Games revealed – the reckoning of mental and emotional health and the pressures placed on top athletes to compete hard and succeed at almost any cost. The break in this pressurized narrative, led by the fights of gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka in particular, permeated these games and sparked the spark of an athlete-driven conversation about stress, tolerance, and inclusivity that everyone expects it goes on.

While Tokyo hands over the baton of the 2024 Summer Games to Paris, the delay has effectively crammed two Olympics together. The next Winter Games are set to take place 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 be more draconian and restrictive in managing its Games, virus or no virus.

In addition, the Paris organizers promised on Sunday that in 2024 they would “take the sport out of its traditional spaces” and “connect with a new audience in a new way” – provided, of course, that a protracted pandemic does not materialize. They went live from the closure on in front of excited groups of fans who had gathered near the Eiffel Tower, a crowded public scene that Tokyo would not allow.

In recent weeks, many people – officials, athletes, journalists – have chewed on how these games will be remembered in Tokyo. That is history, of course, but there are clues.

The start-up was chaotic and controversial. The days of competition were exhausting, but generally without incidents other than sporting milestones. Even a moderate earthquake rumbled through and was quickly forgotten. Isolated protests against the games – including one outside the stadium on Sunday evening – reflected part of the Japanese mood, although certainly not all. The spending – over $ 15 billion – was huge and will reverberate in Tokyo long after the athletes leave.

What should the Olympic Games be? A sporting event free of politics, as the IOC claims? A gold mine for sponsors and broadcasters? A small step towards world peace? Despite all the spinning of the yarn, their identity remains in the air and this fundamental question remains.

But with the cauldron wiped out on Sunday night after the pandemic Olympics ended, it’s easy to argue that Tokyo can take its place as a game that didn’t fail – one that overcame a lot to happen at all. And as vaccines hit the market, variants pop up, and bans popping up again, another city and government – Beijing, the Chinese capital – has to grapple with the same issue.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo graduation ceremony program that outlined the theme of “Worlds We Share” has captured the impact of the pandemic and the virtual worlds and separation anxiety that it has spawned.

“We’re in a new normal and this edition of the Games was a different matter,” it said. “Even if we can’t be together, we can share the same moment. And we will never forget that. “


Ted Anthony, Director of New Storytelling and Newsroom Innovation at The Associated Press, was Director of Asia-Pacific News at AP from 2014 to 2018. This is his sixth Olympic Games. Follow him on Twitter at

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