IT WAS always going to be an Olympics unlike any other – postponed by a year thanks to a pandemic that put the world at peril, athletes pushing themselves to the limit in near-empty stadiums, masks covering the smiles of winners on the podium, frequent Covid tests deciding who would stay and who would go home.
“The Olympics are often billed as a slice of the globalised 21st-century world in miniature – humanity’s very best on display,” the Associated Press’ Ted Anthony says.
“But at Tokyo 2020, the entire affair instead has felt more like an industrial-strength clip reel of humanity’s past 18 months.”
In the days leading up to the Games, a fast-spreading resurgence of the virus saw authorities clamp down even harder to slow the spread as close to 130 people connected to the Olympics tested positive.
Calls for the Games to be scrapped grew louder as D-day approached, with polls showing the majority of Japanese people supported the cancellation of the sporting spectacle. Was it really worth risking the lives not only of 11 000 athletes but the entire island nation of Japan if Tokyo 2020 turned into a super-spreader event?
But go ahead it has. And the stark difference of a Games blighted by a pandemic was obvious in the pared-down opening ceremony, usually a heady highlight of the tournament with capacity crowds watching the cream of the world’s athletes enter the arena.
The 68 000-seater Olympic Stadium had fewer than 1 000 spectators, mostly dignitaries and government officials, while during the sporting events only athletes, officials and press were in attendance.
Yet for athletes – many of whom will get only one shot at competing at the world’s greatest sporting event – qualifying for the Olympics is still the ultimate achievement.
And like the Olympic flame that keeps burning, nothing can douse the indomitable human spirit.
GOING FOR GOLD
For athletes such as Simone Biles (24), the world’s greatest gymnast and one of the major drawcards of the Games, missing out on Tokyo 2020 wasn’t an option.
The diminutive American, who won four gold medals at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, said the object was to deliver the impossible.
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Maybe it’s the one-year delay. Maybe it’s the global pandemic that caused that delay and lends these Olympics more significance than any in recent memory. Or perhaps it’s the fresh energy of new events. Regardless, now—finally—is the time to learn about the athletes and sports the whole world will soon be watching.
LET THE GAMES BEGIN!
Simone Biles leads Team USA to Tokyo—finally—for the Summer Olympics. Here’s your guide to the most compelling competitors going for gold in your favorite sports