Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion on CNN.
In June of 2013, Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020 ranked first in the International Olympic Committee’s technical assessment, something that went a long way a few months later when it emerged victorious as the “safe pair of hands” the IOC was looking for in a host city. What that pair of hands hadn’t counted on was the global specter of Covid-19 and its very real body count in the millions, which threw the safety of the Games into question. But as Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo received the Olympic flag from Yuriko Koike during the closing ceremony, we are forced to look forward while reflecting on the last two weeks of international competition: What do we walk away from Tokyo knowing?
Title IX is on to something
As seen by the dominant performance of the basketball team – Brittney Griner scored 30 points in the gold medal game against Japan, second only to Lisa Leslie’s 35 points in Atlanta in 1996 – the performance of the American women in Tokyo might be the most commanding takeaway.
In the last hours of the Games, American women put the United States over the top in the overall medal count, 113 medals to China’s 88, 39 gold medals to China’s 38. The gold medals came in places with strong winning traditions, like basketball, gymnastics and water polo, but also demonstrated tremendous depth, from volleyball’s first gold to Jennifer Valente’s win in track cycling to Nelly Korda’s victory in golf. Title IX is nearing its half century mark, and the last several Olympics have shown the fruits of its labor, with women taking the majority of US medals since the London Olympics in 2012.
There is, of course, much more work to be done: increased coverage of women outside of the Olympics, more women working in sports media and more respectful coverage overall, including the language used to cover female athletes (no more use of “girl” to describe anyone over the age of 18!). But there can be no denying that the attempt by Title IX to legislate equity in sports is demonstrating some significant progress. If the relay team that brought Allyson Felix her historic 11th medal means anything, the future continues to be golden, with 400m hurdles champions Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad and 800m gold medalist Athing Mu likely to return for Paris 2024.
Sports might be the best Covid-19 lab to date
After the unprecedented postponement last year, Tokyo’s declaration of GAME ON in early July took place amidst resurging cases, lockdowns, travel warnings and uneven global vaccination distribution, heightening fears that the Olympics would serve as yet another superspreader event. Local polls showed just how worried Tokyo residents were of the arrival of tens of thousands of athletes, officials and media. While the city itself continued to experience a surge, the bubble created by Olympic organizers with extensive testing, high vaccination rates, sophisticated tracing protocols, social distancing and mask mandates – and a whole lot of plexiglass – showed how Covid-19 can be kept at bay.
Some athletes, of course, got locked out, surprised by positive tests that cut their time in Tokyo short or grounded them before they even arrived: American pole vaulter Sam Kendricks, German cyclist Simon Geswchke, US gymnastics alternate Kara Eaker, Portuguese surfer Frederico Morais, American golfer Bryson DeChambeau, numerous athletes and coaches from the Czech Republic and members of South Africa’s soccer team, who are considered to have been the first in the Olympic Village to test positive.
But of the some 600,000 tests during the Olympics, only 404 proved to be positive. The lessons of Tokyo will not only be important in staging the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in six months, but how other institutions, events, cities and countries can tackle the ongoing pandemic.
But the insights from Tokyo go beyond lessons on Covid-19. Tokyo demonstrated, as the Olympics always do, how sport serves as a powerful stakeholder in global society, providing a window into some of our most complicated social, cultural and political issues, from Black Lives Matters to, as demonstrated by none other than Simone Biles, mental health.
While the International Olympic Committee somewhat relaxed, but still upholds, its contentious Rule 50, which prohibits political demonstrations during competition, athletes found ways to make themselves heard in Tokyo.
The US Women’s National Team found itself on defense on the soccer pitch. The squad dropped its opening match against longtime rival Sweden, a shocking outcome as they hadn’t lost a game since January 2019 – a 44-match run. Yet the broken winning streak faded in the wake of conservative critics, who eviscerated outspoken team leader Megan Rapinoe and her teammates for taking a knee before the game, an action that worked within the latest IOC guidelines regulating political activism.
Those bent knees seemed a greenlight for some Americans to cheer against American teams. Donald Trump encouraged fans at a Phoenix rally to boo the American women, while Grant Stinchfield on Newsmax submitted that he was not only rooting against “Megan Rapinoe and her merry band of America-hating female soccer players,” but also the “anthem kneelers” on the US men’s basketball team, contending that progressive political activism causes failure on the field, proven as “the success of these woke stars diminishes.”
Americans rooting against Americans on a global stage presents a perverse interpretation of the performative patriotism that is part and parcel of global sport, expressing a tension over what is considered to be good, patriotic representation and what is not.
Yet the USOPC – the same body that ejected Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their Black power action in Mexico City in 1968 – emerged as a voice of reason. Stating before the start of Tokyo that US athletes would not be punished for political demonstrations, the USOPC stood by silver medalist shot putter Raven Saunders in Tokyo after she raised her hands in an “X” formation during her medal ceremony.
While Saunders is under investigation by the IOC for possible Rule 50 violation, an investigation that has been postponed in the wake of the death of her mother just two days after her medal ceremony, 18-year-old gymnast Luciana Alvarado skirted the IOC regulation by incorporating her protest into her routine, finishing her floor exercise by raising a clenched fist over her while kneeling. As the move is considered an artistic element, rather than an overt protest, the IOC could do nothing about the nod to Black Lives Matter.
The Kids are All Right… and so are the veterans
The support shown by Team USA’s Lilly King, who came to Tokyo favored to defend her gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke, exemplified sportsmanship when 17-year-old teammate Lydia Jacoby – she of the joyous fan base back in Seward, Alaska, that went viral – swam for the upset. “We love to keep that gold in the USA family,” King said after the race, a bronze medal around her neck, “so this kid just had the swim of her life and I am so proud to be her teammate.”
Indeed, youth reigned supreme in Tokyo. Skateboarding, one of five sports added to the Olympic program in Tokyo, had seven teens among the 12 medalists, with three teen girls standing on the podium in the street event. Gold medalist Momiji Nishiya, just 13 years old, became the youngest Japanese athlete ever to win a medal, accompanied on the podium by 16-year-old teammate Funa Nakayama. Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, also just 13, took silver.
But veterans, too, made their presence known in Tokyo, from King and Katie Ledecky in the pool to Felix on the track. At her fifth, and likely last, Olympics, Felix’s two-medal performance – a bronze in the 400m and a gold in the 4x400m relay, make her the most decorated US track and field athlete in history with 11 medals, and second overall behind Paavo Nurmi’s 12.
The women’s basketball team, which hadn’t lost in Olympic competition since the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and beat Japan for its seventh straight gold, also saw veterans make history. The win gave teammates Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi their historic fifth gold medal and keeps Coach Dawn Staley’s own streak alive: She has left every Olympics she’s attended, whether as a player (1996, 2000, 2004), an assistant coach (2008, 2004), or a head coach (Tokyo), with gold.
The world is a very big place…and there is kindness to be found
While the usual suspects dominated the medal count – the US, China, Japan and so on – the Olympics continue to be a lightning-round geography course that begins with the Parade of Nations during Opening Ceremony. In Tokyo, three national delegations won their first Olympic medals – Burkina Faso, Turkmenistan and San Marino, which landed two bronze and a silver by the Games’ end – while three others claimed their first gold – Bermuda, Qatar and the Philippines.
Not all athletes marched under a national flag. Setting aside the complicated loophole known as the Russian Olympic Committee, the Refugee Team returned to the Olympic Games after its debut five years ago in Rio, with Iranian defector Kimia Alizadeh, who had to square off against a friend competing for Iran, coming close to winning a medal in taekwondo.
But the IOC-assembled team of 29 athletes from 11 countries who competed in 12 sports weren’t the only ones who showed just how diasporic the world of elite sport is. At the end of the men’s marathon, Somali-born Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands yelled over his shoulder to Belgium’s Bashir Abdi, his training partner who was also born in Somalia and was battling a leg cramp – “Waryaa soo caraar!” “Brother, keep running!” – urging him to pass Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono so they could grab silver and bronze together behind marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge, who smashed the field by some 80 seconds.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Such acts of encouragement and kindness among athletes is what keeps competition ethical, ensuring moments in which the will to win makes room for sportsmanship, often regardless of team or country. In Tokyo, we saw American Isaiah Jewett and Botswan’s Nijel Amos fall to the track in the men’s 800m, their feet and legs tangled, and then get up with their arms around each other and jog together to the finish line; Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim negotiate with an official – “Can we have two golds?” – instead of holding a jump off against friend and rival Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy; and American swimmers embrace stunned South African rival Tatjana Schoenmaker when she won gold and set a world record in the breaststroke.
With the Olympic flame extinguished, perhaps we can shutter the debates about whether or not the Olympics should have taken place amidst a global pandemic, focusing instead on some of the good that we found within these weeks of competition, and looking ahead to what might come next on the world’s playing fields.
Paris is only three years away.