There is no 'asterisk' needed for the Tokyo Olympics

This year's Games have been a roaring success despite being held without spectators, and in the shadow of a pandemic

And just like that, the Tokyo Olympics is almost over. The flame will be extinguished on Sunday and the baton of responsibility will pass to Beijing for the Winter Olympics next year and then to Paris in 2024 for the summer games.

Both of those events - the action begins in Beijing on February 2, which barely seems enough time to catch our collective breath after Tokyo - will have to go some way to beat this summer, which has delivered day after day of beguiling and compelling competition.

Pre-Games and, indeed, throughout the course of the pandemic, many people wondered about the merits of staging this festival of sport. There had been plenty of talk about sports competitions being asterisk events if no fans were present or if they were hewn of their normal and natural conditions. There was even more chatter about the liability of hosting an Olympic Games during a global health crisis that has, at times, stretched the world to breaking point over the past 18 months.

Days before the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach conceded that he had had many “sleepless nights” over whether the Games should go ahead.

It was easy to understand why. Opinion polls suggested more than 80 per cent of the Japanese public was opposed to the event being staged only a couple of months before opening day. The influential Asahi Shimbun newspaper, a sponsor of the event, said it could not “accept the gamble” of the Games being staged. Protests have frequently pressed the same point. The tide has turned more recently and opinion in Japan appears to have softened as the Games have gone on and its success story has gathered pace.

We should have known it would.

It helps that the Olympic Games occupy a unique place in the hearts and minds of the broader watching world, just as they represent the pinnacle of sport for those athletes who train for years to compete.

To most of us who watch on TV, the Olympics is a harbour from which improbable and inspirational stories set sail to fire the soul and the imagination.

They are about moments and memories, such as Usain Bolt scorching into the record books in Beijing 13 years ago or Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 in Montreal in 1976 or a wounded Derek Redmond being helped across the finishing line in Barcelona in 1992 by his father after a torn hamstring shattered his Olympic dream.

You didn’t have to be there to understand the humanity and importance of those moments or for them to stay with you.

Why on earth did we ever think Tokyo might be any different?

For the past two weeks, thousands of elite competitors have made us believe once again that anything is possible. Far from taking away from the experience, the unusual circumstances surrounding the Games have seemed to elevate the competition and the magnitude of the performances.

How else can you explain the women’s 400-metre hurdles final on Wednesday morning, in which Sydney McLaughlin smashed the world record to claim gold and Dalilah Muhammad took silver in a time that was also inside the old world record. Femke Bol claimed bronze in the same race, while also running the fourth-fastest time in history.

This was only a day after Norway’s Karsten Warholm claimed gold and destroyed a world record in the men’s 400m hurdles race.

Records have kept tumbling and magic moments have accumulated. Time and again we have seen performances that have been better, faster and stronger than ever before.

Elaine Thompson-Herah claimed an unprecedented sprint double-double gold on Tuesday. Yulimar Rojas broke an Olympic record with her first attempt in the women’s triple jump and set a new world record with her final attempt on her own glorious road to glory. Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shared gold in the men’s high jump on Sunday evening, minutes before Tamberi’s compatriot, Lamont Marcell Jacobs, tore down the track to win the 100m and prompt wild spontaneous celebrations by the pair.

“It's a dream,” the sprinter said later. It really was. The entire Games have been.

But it is not just the breaking of records that have made such a lasting impression.

Over the course of these Games, Simone Biles, the US gymnast, who is often referred to as “the greatest of all time” has shown she is the embodiment of that epithet by being such a powerful advocate for mental health and well-being.

We’ve heard from Nourredine Hadid, the Lebanese sprinter, who battled against the odds even to make it to the games in the first place. He bowed out in the 200m heats. And we cheered when Tunisia's teenage swimming sensation Ahmed Hafnaoui claimed gold in the pool. He was in tears on the podium when he saw his country’s flag being raised.

We’ve watched Oksana Chusovitina, 46, compete in her eighth and final Olympics, and we’ve seen a succession of young skateboarders showcase their skills. On Wednesday, Sakura Yosozumi, 19, Kokona Hiraki, 12, and Sky Brown, 13, locked out the podium at the skate park. Earlier, Syria’s Hend Zaza, also 12, took part in the table tennis competition, becoming the youngest athlete to compete in Japan.

These are the tales of Tokyo, but they barely even scratch the surface of the rich and sprawling story of the Games.

And soon it will all be over. Thank you, it has been incredible.

Published: August 5th 2021, 4:00 AM
Nick March

Nick March

Nick is one of The National’s assistant editors-in-chief. He was previously Comment Editor and editor of The Review section, the paper’s weekly politics and culture supplement. He has been on staff since 2008 and is a regular columnist. He is also the author of a book chronicling the history of one of Abu Dhabi’s older schools.