Even until a day before the Tokyo Olympics started on July 23, there was scepticism over whether the Games would go ahead – and questions asked about whether they should be held at all. Views diverged on this not just in Japan, where many thought that the decision to go ahead would put lives at unnecessary risk. Given the toll Covid-19 was continuing to exact, there was reason for the fear and anxiety felt across the world.
Besides the daily infections in Tokyo, there were cases of Covid-19 being diagnosed in the Olympic village. Athletes who tested positive returned home with their hopes dashed even before the opening ceremony. It added to a sense of foreboding about how much of a success the "silent" Games would be as no fans, international or domestic, were allowed in to most venues. The deck was clearly not stacked in the Games's favour. And yet, as the closing ceremony gets under way, the Japanese government, the International Olympics Committee, the organisers and all the participants can be rightly satisfied that the Games went off better than perhaps imagined even by the staunchest critic.
Given the precautions, the daily testing, the Olympic bubble, the requisite vaccinations, and the Games themselves largely being held behind closed doors, it is fair to say that Tokyo 2020 was a success. This is true not just in terms of sporting brilliance – as in the case of the gold won by Tunisia's 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui and some stellar performances by the refugee team and athletes of the Middle East.
Despite the contextual hurdles, of the Games being held amid a pandemic, a notable legacy was created in other areas, in social and environmental terms. This year's Games were billed as the most gender equal, under the guidance of Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, with 49 per cent of participants being women. Massive strides were also made in other areas – such as mental health.
Even as she withdrew from her fifth Olympic final, Simone Biles, the American gymnast and one of the greatest in her field, created a much-needed global conversation. Struggling to vault over the pole, Biles confessed to being unable to orientate herself in mid-air. In her public sharing of a condition called the "twisties", she shone a light on the pressures even champions face to reach the top – and maintain that position.
The carbon-conscious aspect of Tokyo 2020 was another hallmark. As many parts of the world, from Germany to Turkey and Greece, battle floods and wildfires, the entire Olympic village being powered by hydrogen sets a precedent for the way forward. It tells us something about how integral a circular economy – where goods are recycled or repurposed, like the Olympic medals made of e-waste – will be in future. This summer's Olympics showed how there is an opportunity at every global event to tackle climate challenges. All in all, Tokyo 2020 after a year's delay and the months of apprehensions, has given Paris some ground to cover in 2024.
We don't know where the world will be in three years' time when eyes turn to the French capital, which has one less year to prepare for the next summer Olympics. Europe has had a head start with vaccinations and France is in the rare, elite position of being able to host the Games 100 years after they last did so in 1924 – coincidentally, not long after the last pandemic, the Spanish flu, devastated the world.
But despite essential logistics already in place, there can be no room for complacency. The recent protests in France by tens of thousands of people against vaccines could well be history in three years' time. But the world is likely to still be in the shadow of a recently abated pandemic. Japan pulled this off in the middle of a mutating Delta variant. It is in the hands of France now to take the baton further.