‘We did it’: Tokyo downs the curtains on Games in the middle of pandemic

Compared to the sombre, downcast opening, the closing ceremony was peppier, with a lot more razzmatazz, reaching a crescendo that is usually associated with Olympics ceremonies.

General view of the Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony. (Reuters Photo)

The Olympics bubble didn’t burst. And the Games did happen.

The strangest Olympic Games ended the same way they began: in front of empty stands, in a state of emergency, and with hundreds filling the streets, imagining what it must feel like to be inside the giant cauldron that Tokyo’s National Stadium is.

There was one slight difference, though.

Compared to the sombre, downcast opening, the closing ceremony was peppier, with a lot more razzmatazz, reaching a crescendo that is usually associated with Olympics ceremonies.

But then, the organisers had reasons to feel good. The Covid Games, after all, didn’t turn out to be a super spreader event – not yet. There were only 430 cases related to the Olympics since the start of July, with the positivity rate within the bio-bubble, where 624,000 screening tests were conducted, at 0.02 percent.

The relief was palpable in the voice of International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, when he said: “We did it”.

There weren’t any grand remarks of these being the “most successful” Games as it is usually done after every Olympics. Bach, however, did call it the “most challenging”.

It wasn’t just the pandemic. The athletes had to deal with the brutal summer heat, sidestep the thunderstorm warnings and, amidst all this, focus on what they were here for: be the best at what they do.

But the Tokyo Olympics went much beyond merely going faster, higher and stronger. These Games served another reminder that even during tense, highly competitive moments, there is space for spirit and solidarity.

Tai Tzu Ying was reduced to tears when P V Sindhu, in a touching gesture, consoled the rival who beat her in the semifinal but went on to lose in the gold medal match — a feeling the Indian shuttler can very well relate to.

The story of Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim, who chose to share the high jump gold instead of forcing a playoff, is sure to go down as one of The Olympics stories.

These Games will also be remembered for the women taking centre stage.

Dutch runner Sifan Hassan completed her journey from a refugee to one of the greatest athletes of all time, becoming the first to win medals in 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m.

The USA’s Allyson Felix lived up to the lofty expectations, becoming the most successful sprinter at the age of 35.

And, gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka didn’t even have to be on the field of play to leave a mark, telling the rest of the sporting world that it is okay to say ‘no’ if you aren’t up for the challenge psychologically.

Woman power was reflected in India’s best-ever medals tally, too. Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, Sindhu and boxer Lovlina Borgohain set the stage for a grand finish, before Neeraj Chopra became the country’s first athletics gold medalist.

India’s tally of seven medals, which placed them 48th, is still glaringly low when one looks at the 113 medals, including 39 gold, won by table-toppers USA and second-placed China’s tally of 88 (38 gold).

But it was Japan’s march that really changed the mood around these Olympics. As the host nation’s athletes raked in the medals — 27 gold to finish third — the public began to lap up the event. Barred from entering the venues, Tokyoites started lining up outside the stadiums to support their athletes.

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Inside the empty arenas, the polite volunteers doubled up as cheerleaders. They were the only link to the local population for the thousands of athletes who were not allowed to step outside the Olympic Village and their venues.

In the closing ceremony, the organisers tried to give the competitors a taste of the city that they never got to experience. They recreated the famous Yoyogi Park — a massive green space in the city’s centre — complete with fake grass and everyday scenes: dance troupes, joggers, freestyle footballers, yogis and picnickers.

And for the first time, a confident Tokyo was prepared to show what it really was. They showcased the Ainu culture, and set the feet tapping with a dose of Japanese song and dance before handing over the stage to Paris, who will host the next Olympics, for 10 minutes.

But it was again a reminder of these strange times that just as the organisers spoke about the “hope” these Games brought, the trailer for the Paris Olympics was remotely done due to the pandemic. So remote that they went as far as outer space, from where French astronaut Thomas Pesquet helped perform the national anthem on his saxophone from the International Space Station.

It was all very unusual, but then what isn’t about these Games?

Paris tried to charm with a video of the city’s romantic sights, packed rooftops, jets painting the skies around Eiffel Tower in the country’s colours and a little bit of break dancing, which will make its debut as an Olympic sport in 2024.

The scene cut back to Tokyo, where the flame was extinguished, and the athletes sauntered off the field to feel-good music.

Then, the volunteers, the real heroes of these Games, took centre stage. They posed for selfies, ran mock races on the track and shed a tear when the word ‘Arigato’ (Thank you) appeared on the big screen.

The Games that few thought could take place, and the build-up for which went on forever, were finally closed.

Arigato Tokyo. Bonjour Paris.

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