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Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Perseverance Games: Surreal Olympics approach their end

Imperfect but not impossible, these Olympics - willed into existence despite a pandemic that sparked worldwide skepticism and hard-wired opposition from Japan's own citizens - just might go down as the Games that changed sports for good.

By: AP | Tokyo |
August 7, 2021 10:23:25 pm
Tokyo olympicsIn this Aug. 6, 2021, file photo, Paul Chelimo, of United States, lies on the track after the final of the men's 5,000-meters at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, File)

The cauldron will be snuffed Sunday on the exhausting, enlightening, sometimes enraging 2020 Tokyo Olympics – held, actually, in 2021. These are the Games that were to be tolerated, not celebrated.

They will be both.

Imperfect but not impossible, these Olympics – willed into existence despite a pandemic that sparked worldwide skepticism and hard-wired opposition from Japan’s own citizens – just might go down as the Games that changed sports for good.

These became the Olympics where the athletes had their say. The Olympics where mental health became as important as physical. The Olympics where tales of perseverance – spoken, documented and discussed loudly and at length – often overshadowed actual performance.

It wasn’t only those who stood on the medals stand at the hyper-scrutinized pressure cooker in Tokyo, where spit tests for COVID-19 and sleeping on cardboard-framed beds were part of the daily routine. It was all of them.

Their voices were heard, in big ways and small, through hundreds of reminders that their mental and physical health were not for sale, not even to the $15.5 billion behemoth that underwrites many of their grandest dreams.

Those voices were notably reflected in the words of Simone Biles, who, early on, reset the conversation when she pulled out of the gymnastics meet, declaring her well-being was more important than medals.

“It was something that was so out of my control. At end of the day, my mental and physical health is better than any medal,” said Biles, who benched herself while battling “the twisties.”

And by Naomi Osaka, the tennis player who lit the cauldron on Day 1, but only after spending the summer insisting that the world listen to her – really listen – instead of only watching her on the court. The planet’s highest-paid female athlete and the host country’s poster girl, she faced expectations that were hard to handle.

Tokyo Olympics In this July 23, 2021, file photo, Japan’s Naomi Osaka lights the cauldron during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

“I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this,” said Osaka, choice of host country Japan to light the cauldron.

Hundreds of athletes found some way to use their voices in ways they hadn’t considered until the Tokyo Games – and the seismic 18 months that led up to it – all but commanded it.

They learned to talk about what it felt like to make sacrifices and accommodations for four years, then five, to come to the Games without friends and family, to put themselves out there, and to know they will be judged not on who they are but on how fast they run, how well they shoot, or whether they stick the landing.

“I’ve been afraid that my worth is tied to whether or not I win or lose,” Allyson Felix wrote the morning before her bronze-medal run in the 400 meters made her the most decorated female track athlete in Olympic history.

“But right now I’ve decided to leave that fear behind. To understand that I am enough.”

They came in all shapes and sizes. A transgender weightlifter, a nonbinary skateboarder, and Quinn, the first openly transgender Olympian to win a gold medal.

Teenage skateboarders, and surfers seeking gnarly waves – most of whom never dreamed of being on the Olympic stage, hugging and sharing tips and reminding us all that this is supposed to be fun.

They wove tales about sportsmanship: the high jumpers headed for a tension-filled tiebreaker for first, who stepped back and told a track official they should both win a gold.

And about advocacy: soccer players looking at a midday gold-medal game in the searing heat of the Olympic Stadium and deciding they deserved better.

Tokyo Olympics In this Aug. 7, 2021, file photo, a family takes pictures with the Olympic Stadium in the background at the observation platform of the Shibuya Sky the 2020 Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)

The world’s top tennis players demanding their matches be rescheduled, a request that went unheeded until Paula Badosa left the court in a wheelchair with heatstroke and Daniil Medvedev told the chair umpire, “I can finish the match but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?”

And about mental health: During a teary post-race interview, sprinter Noah Lyles conceded he came as much to run as to spread the gospel that became the slogan of these fraught Games held during fraught times: It’s OK not to be OK.

And about gender equity and inclusion: The International Olympic Committee added five new sports and 18 new events for Tokyo to create an equal number of women and men for every sport, excluding baseball and softball.

But when Britain’s first female Black swimmer was denied use of a cap that fit her voluminous afro, the conversation on a lack of diversity in the pool became louder.

“I just want people to know that no matter your race or background, if you don’t know how to swim, get in and learn to swim,” Alice Dearing, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, said after the women’s open water marathon.

“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not for you.”

IOC president Thomas Bach said two days before the close that the Tokyo Games “far exceeded my personal expectations,” because when spectators were barred as a pandemic precaution he feared “these Olympic Games could become an Olympic Games without soul.”

Instead, Bach said, he found the intimacy in the empty venues made for an intense atmosphere.

“In many cases you did not realize that there were no spectators,” he said.

“Maybe in some cases you could even experience the feelings of the athletes closer and better than being surrounded by so many spectators.”

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