When history looks back on this year’s Tokyo Olympics, images of masked athletes and empty stadiums will likely be the defining feature. But look beyond the Covid-19 protocols and it will be clear this was a Games with more than one story to tell.
Much will be made of the moment Simone Biles stepped away from gymnastic competitions and spoke openly and emotionally about the need to protect athletes’ mental health.
“At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re humans,” Biles told reporters following her balance beam bronze.
It’s a medal she said means more than her golds after grappling with the “twisties” – a mental block during which gymnasts lose sense of where their bodies are mid-flight.
Biles arrived in Tokyo as a decorated competitor, but left having shone a light on athlete well-being and the pressures of elite sport. And she wasn’t the only one to redefine her legacy over the course of the Games.
Fellow American Allyson Felix became the most decorated US track and field athlete in history with 4x400 meter relay gold on Saturday. The two medals she won in Tokyo also represent her role as an athlete mother.
“There have been so many women before me who had to stay silent about their fight,” Felix said of the way sport and athletics so often overlooks women’s careers during and after childbirth.
“For me to be able to step out – I think my daughter gave me the courage to do that.”
Her Olympics career spans five Games, which World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said is” frankly, off the planet.”
“We are just lucky she is from our sport,” added Coe. “She is magnificent.”
New sports, new medalists, new records
While Biles and Felix may have both competed in their final Games, Tokyo 2020 also highlighted athletes at the start of their Olympic careers.
Take skateboarding – a sport that made its debut in Tokyo. The podiums in the women’s street and park events had combined ages of 42 and 44 years old respectively. That’s an average age of 14 across the two medal events.
Skateboarding wasn’t the only sport added to the Olympic program in a bid to attract a younger audience; sport climbing also sought to draw new fans to the Games with a head-to-head speed discipline and an unpredictable, down-to-the-wire scoring format.
Expect more of the same at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where breakdancing has been added to the event lineup.
Records are broken at every Games, but perhaps not in the same stunning fashion as they were in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
In the men’s 400 meter hurdles final, gold and silver medalists Karsten Warholm and Rai Benjamin ran faster than Warholm’s previous record by more than half a second, while Sydney McLaughlin also smashed the world record in the women’s 400 meter hurdles.
Olympic records were also set by Elaine Thompson-Herah in the 100 meters and Jakob Ingebritsen in the 1500 meters.
Some put it down to a springy running track and advancements in shoe technology, while others credited the athletes themselves.
“There’s some efficiency in the shoe, don’t get me wrong, and it’s nice to have a good track,” said Benjamin.
“But no one in history’s going to go out there and do what we did just now, ever. I don’t care who you are.”
New landmarks weren’t just set on the running track. Yulimar Rojas broke the women’s triple jump world record with a leap of 16.57 meters – 17 centimeters further than the previous mark that had stood for 26 years.
For others, it didn’t require a record to leave a mark on the Games.
Shot put silver medalist Raven Saunders, as so many other athletes have done over the past 15 months, used her moment in the spotlight to highlight social injustice.
Saunders, a Black, LGBTQ athlete, raised her arms in an X symbol as she posed for photos on the podium, telling NBC that it represented “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.”
Fans may have been kept away from virtually all Olympic events amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that didn’t stop them trying to experience the Games in person as many clustered around venues to try to catch a glimpse of the action.
At the Aomi Urban Sports Park, for instance, fans lining the adjacent pedestrian street had a distant view of the sports climbing competitions – despite signs and security officials urging people not to gather there.
Similar scenes played out about a kilometer away where the Olympic cauldron is on display. The site, located on Yume no Ohashi Bridge, was rarely without a crowd taking pictures, even though notice boards and security advised members of the public to keep walking.
Then outside the Olympic Stadium, fans often queued up to pose for photos with the Olympic rings, while the nearby Tokyo 2020 store was busy with people buying T-shirts, pins, and other memorabilia.
There’s little doubt that athletes would have been well supported if fans were allowed into venues – not least because of Japan’s success, winning a record 27 golds.
“All I have now is sadness. Every time I look at the tickets, I cry,” one superfan told CNN ahead of the Olympics about the $40,000 worth of tickets he was unable to put to use.
At times, particularly at the start of the Games, venues were eerily quiet.
Two days after Naomi Osaka had lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony, she walked out onto the Ariake Tennis Park’s Centre Court to barely a ripple of applause.
On some occasions, it was the chattering sound of cicadas that was the dominant sound of the Games.
That’s not to say venues were completely devoid of atmosphere. Non-competing athletes showed they could be voracious cheerleaders from the stands, while stadium announcers and music – blared through loudspeakers at most events – also filled the silence.
The buildup to the Tokyo Games was dominated by the backdrop of the pandemic as rumors of a cancellation or a further postponement swirled.
At venues, hygiene protocols – including temperature tests, mask wearing, hand sanitizer, and socially distanced seating – were all put in place and rigorously enforced by the huge number of volunteers.
Coronavirus cases in Tokyo rose as the Games got underway, regularly topping more than 4,000 daily new infections; inside the Olympic “bubble,” there were more than 400 confirmed positive cases, the majority of whom were residents of Japan.
“The flow of people in Tokyo’s downtown has not increased compared to the time before the opening of the Olympics,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Friday.
“I don’t think the Olympics has led to the increase of infection.”
On Sunday, the last day of Olympic competition, thick, gray clouds blanketed Tokyo as rain poured across the city – an unusual sight at the end of a sun-baked 16 days.
The dreary weather marked a temporary end to proceedings with the Paralympics getting underway on August 24 – another opportunity for Japan to deliver sporting drama in the midst of a global pandemic.