‘We did it’ IOC’s Bach declares as Olympic Games close
As athletes and media climbed off buses outside the Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony two weeks ago, they were greeted by a young boy, maybe 4, standing with his parents.
“Hi, how are you?” he said with a wide smile. “Hi, how are you?”
He would prove a tough act to follow.
As he welcomed the world to his home town, the young boy stood behind one of the many barriers erected to keep the Japanese public away from the first Olympic Games held during a state of emergency because of COVID-19 cases in the host city surging to record levels.
The 2020 Olympic Games, delayed a year by a pandemic, will be remembered for the courage of Simon Biles and Allyson Felix, the record-shattering brilliance of hurdlers Karsten Warholm and Sydney McLaughlin, the relentlessness of distance runners Eliud Kipchoge and Sifan Hassan, the domination of swimmer Caeleb Dressel and the U.S. women’s basketball, water polo and indoor and beach volleyball teams.
But the legacy of Games, which wrapped up Sunday night with a glittering if disjointed and flat closing ceremony, will also be their failure to connect with the very people hosting them and who now have to pick up their projected $25 billion tab.
The vibe around these Games was as empty as the stadiums and arenas they were held in.
The protests outside Olympic Stadium that from three blocks away drowned out parts of the opening ceremony even inside the stadium, or greeted International Olympic Committee officials as they came and went at their five-star hotel, soon gave way to indifference. Before the Games, some Japanese media polls reported that more than 80 percent of the Japanese public opposed the Olympics.
Once they started the Japanese tuned in on some nights in record numbers. But the curiosity or interest reflected in the ratings was not evident on busy Tokyo streets, subways, stores or restaurants.
It was only outside Olympic venues that there was a sense that the Japanese felt like they were missing out on something. There were children and their grandparents waving at and taking photographs of buses shuttling athletes into the Tokyo Aquatic Centre and the gymnastics arena. And every night a few dozen people stood and gazed through a 20-foot high reinforced chain link fence, past the armed soldiers, at the Olympic Stadium towering before them; the devoted locked out of their shrine.
Not that any of it seemed to matter to IOC president Thomas Bach.
“After we had to accept the decision by the Japanese authorities to have no spectators, I must admit we were concerned that these Olympic Games could become an Olympic Games without soul,” Bach said.
“But fortunately what we have seen here is totally different. Because the athletes gave these Olympic Games a great Olympic soul.”
No one more so than gymnast Biles, the biggest star heading into the Games who loomed even larger after them without winning a single gold medal, further establishing herself as the ultimate champion of the MeToo era.
These Games will be remembered when the Olympic movement was forced to take a long hard overdue look at mental health issues in the post-Nassar, post-Karolyi era, a reckoning forced by Biles taking herself out of the team competition citing safety and mental health concerns and her subsequent comments on the issue. She also forced an equally long overdue discussion at home, finding herself at the center of the latest culture war along the way.
“To bring the topic of mental health, I think should be talked about a lot more, especially with athletes,” said Biles, after returning to competition to win a bronze medal on the balance beam. “I know some of us are going through the same things and we’re always told to push through it.”
Biles’ concerns would be echoed through the Games at the pool, track, courts and pitches by other athletes.
Biles, however, wasn’t the only icon who delivering a message that resonated beyond the Games.
The Olympics bid farewell to two other American women’s icons—quarter-miler Felix and the U.S. soccer team.
Felix, competing in her fifth Games, picked up an unexpected bronze medal in Friday night’s 400 and then returned a night later to help the U.S. claim gold in the 4×400-meter relay. She leaves as the most decorated female athlete in Olympic track and field history with 11 medals, seven of them gold. Only Finish distance running great Paavo Nurmi from the early 20th Century has more track and field medals (12).
With her two medals, Felix also surpassed Carl Lewis’s record for most medals by an American track athlete, and even more significantly continued to raise awareness to issues ranging from equal pay, maternity leave to maternal health in communities of color.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Felix said. “But hopefully I’ve brought some attention to those things. That what I was trying to do.”
The reigning World Cup champions soccer team struggled from an opening match loss to Sweden and was knocked off by Canada in the semifinal en route to a bronze medal. While some will argue players were distracted by their ongoing legal dispute over compensation and other equity issues, in reality, unlike Felix, this Team USA, relying too much on aging, past their prime veterans, simply couldn’t outrun time.
Team USA won the medal count with a late surge, finishing with 39 gold medals, one more than China, and 113 medals total. China had 88 medals followed by host Japan with 58 medals, 38 of them gold.
Australian swimmer Emma McKeon became only the second woman in Olympic history to win seven medals in a single Games, the first since Soviet Union gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya did so in 1952. On the men’s side of the pool, Caeleb Dressel raced to five gold medals and was potentially denied two more by a pair of relay debacles.
German dressage rider Isabell Werth became only the third athlete to win gold medals in six Olympics. Japanese skateboarder Nishiya Momiji at 13 years, 330 days is the youngest Olympic champion since 1960.
But the most impressive numbers came on the second week of the Games on the track at Olympic Stadium.
Norway’s Warholm’s 45.94 world record victory in the 400 hurdles is possibly the single greatest performance in the history of the world’s oldest sport.
In less than a month Warholm has knocked nearly a second off what had been for parts of three decades one of track’s most unapproachable world records—Kevin Young’s 46.76 winning time at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
A day later, McLaughlin lowered her own 400 hurdles world record to 51.46, edging past Dalilah Muhammad in the closing meters of the most thrilling race of the Games.
Hassan of the Netherlands became the first track and field athlete to win medals in three individual events since 1988, sweeping the 5,000 and 10,000 titles while picking a bronze medal in the 1,500 in between. Her 10,000 victory encapsulated both her dominance and the all too frequent incompetency of Tokyo organizers and volunteers.
After blowing away the field with a blazing kick she collapsed a few meters past the finish line. After laying on the track for several minutes unattended, Hassan, dehydrated by track temperatures pushing 90 degrees with over 80 percent humidity, began crawling on her hands and knees toward the sideline in search of fluids.
“Water, water,” she pleaded. Finally, a volunteer handed her a bottle of water.
“Dear athletes, over the last 16 days, you amazed us with your sporting achievements,” Bach said in his closing ceremony address. “With your excellence, with your joy, with your tears, you created the magic of these Olympic Games.
“You were faster, you went higher, you were stronger, because we all stood together – in solidarity. You were competing fiercely with each other for Olympic glory. At the same time, you were living peacefully together under one roof in the Olympic Village. This is a powerful message of solidarity and peace.
“You inspired us with this unifying power of sport. This was even more remarkable given the many challenges you had to face because of the pandemic.
“In these difficult times, you give the world the most precious of gifts: hope.”
The decision by the IOC, Tokyo 2020 organizers and the Japanese government to implement strict restrictions inside the Olympic bubble and keep spectators out of it was largely successful. A relatively small number of COVID-19 positive cases were reported among more than 11,000 athletes. U.S. beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb and American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, the World champion, were two of the most notable.
“Our mission was and is to keep the athletes safe and have no transfer from athletes to the population,” Bach said last week. “All the figures confirm this concept has worked. This is supported by the WHO and experts around the world. We have full confidence in the Japanese authorities and that they are addressing these in the right way.”
But in the press conference and again in his remarks Sunday night, Bach almost immediately came under fire within the Japanese media and on social media for once again appearing tone deaf.
His comments to reporters came a day after Tokyo health officials announced a single day record of 5,042 new coronavirus cases in the city. Before the Games, local and national health officials feared that the rate of new cases in Tokyo might surpass 2,200.
The months ahead could be as trying for Bach and the IOC as the past year and a half has been.
There are already calls for a boycott of the Winter Olympics next February in Beijing because of the Chinese regime’s human rights record and handling of protests in Hong Kong. The push for alternative Games in Calgary or Scandinavia could gain momentum if Winter Games superpowers like Norway or Canada opt out of Beijing.
Bach also has some explaining to do to the IOC’s broadcast partners and corporate sponsors. Bach and the IOC pushed through—some would argue bullied Japanese officials—into holding the Games in the same window planned for 2020 in large part to avoid a refund to NBC and other international networks of more than $4 billion.
Even so, the Tokyo ratings were grim for NBC.
The network’s opening ceremony audience was the smallest in 33 years, down 36 percent from the Rio opening five years earlier, according to Nielsen. And it wasn’t just NBC. The BBC reported a 39.4 percent drop from 2016.
The ratings weren’t all that was embarrassing for NBC.
Just when you thought the Peacock’s “journalistic” standards might improve with the departure of Billy Bush, along came a truly cringe worthy performance in Tokyo by “Today” show host Hoda Kotb.
Kotb, dressed in red, white and blue Ralph Lauren similar to Team USA gear, at one point, standing on her NBC perch above the gymnastics competition floor, tried to get the small crowd to join her in cheers for Biles. Later during the competition, Kotb yelled loud enough to be heard through the arena “I love you, Simone!”
As he did in his opening ceremony, Bach slapped the IOC and the cheerleaders at NBC on the back.
“Yes, these were unprecedented Olympic Games. It took us, the IOC and our Japanese partners and friends, an equally unprecedented effort to make them happen,” he said. “The same is true for the solidarity demonstrated by everyone in the Olympic community. Our warm thanks go to the National Olympic Committees, the International Federations, our TOP Partners, sponsors and Rights-Holding Broadcasters for their truly outstanding show of unity and support.
“We did it like athletes and for the athletes. We did it – together.”
And so Bach and IOC’s celebration continued with singing and dancing and not a lot of social distancing.
Not far from the stadium an ambulance’s siren could be heard every few minutes as life, reality moved on in a country not invited to the party.