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Olympics Sport

Tokyo 2020 could yet have positive legacy despite unprecedented challenges

olympic games 2020 closing ceremony
Fireworks explode above the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony

A tropical storm was scheduled to sweep into Tokyo on the final day of the Olympics on Sunday, only to weaken shortly prior to landfall and fail to flood the capital city with the full extent of its expected deluge.

Consequently, the closing ceremony unfurled on a dry and still night amid a pleasant 27 degrees celsius, shorn of the humidity that had clogged so much of the outdoor action over the preceding fortnight and made it officially the hottest in history.

In more ways than one, Tokyo can truly claim to be the Games that got away with it.

The International Olympic Committee has already started slapping itself on the back and, in a break with tradition, has dished out golden orders to the Japanese prime minister and Tokyo governor respectively.

No wonder: a Games stricken with Covid pull-outs and soaring city-wide rates would have caused the movement itself untold damage, especially in the context of the IOC’s steadfast refusal to countenance a second postponement or cancellation, in defiance of some leading Japanese medical officials and plunging local approval rates.

Surprise, surprise: the sport was exceptional. It was still the Olympics, after all. From a boxing tournament that spectacularly shrugged off the taint of scandal that lingered from Rio, to the sailing regatta in beautiful Enoshima, to the thrills of the Ariake Urban Park which allowed fortunate observers to glimpse a future propelled by BMXs and skateboards.

The inherent sadness about Tokyo was the inability of the locals to see such heroics, save for strained necks through chain-link fences or from the balconies of the city’s never-ending high-rises. Kids with placards loitered at athlete entrances in the vain hope of catching a socially-distanced glimpse of their heroes.

But outside the Olympic bubble, Tokyo commuter life continued as normal, scarcely seeming to acknowledge that the Games were being played out at all.

If the rigours of coronavirus made it a laborious Games for all involved, and if so many great achievements were not exactly cheered from the rafters, those considerations alone ought not wholly detract from some outstanding performances that fulfilled the Games’ fundamental purpose – to encourage kids to get active.

In that respect, especially from a British sense, Tokyo was truly exceptional. The real value of Team GB’s superb, London-matching 65-medal haul was not the sheer number, or the fact it secured fourth place in the medal table, but in the opportunities it presented to awaken new demographics.

The challenge now is to facilitate and sustain the enthusiasm of the young girls nagging their parents to take them down to the local skate park or BMX track, or those who see an opportunity to emulate Emily Campbell’s history-making weightlifting silver medal.

Back home on television, it will not have mattered one bit that the latest record-breaking successes of Jason and Laura Kenny and of Charlotte Dujardin, the lung-bursting gold rush of Adam Peaty, the nerveless 90 seconds of Max Whitlock, were played out thousands of miles away in front of empty stands.

Inspiration defies time zones, and it endures much longer than any momentary cynicism, however well-placed, over quite why IOC president Thomas Bach was so reluctant to consider cancelling the Games in the wake of negative opinion polls and rising infection rates.

And yet despite the inevitably overblown rhetoric from those on high, this ought also to be a Games that provided a timely warning to Bach and others that the insatiable quest for win-at-all-costs belongs increasingly to a bygone age.

As much as Karsten Warholm’s world-record hurdles burst, or Brazilian boxer Hebert Sousa’s stunning one-punch stoppage win, Tokyo will be remembered for Simone Biles’ eloquent repudiation of the expectations she and other truly elite athletes are forced to endure.

In its own way, Biles’ recovery to claim bronze on the beam mattered as much as the four gold medals with which she swept the board in Rio; just as Dina Asher-Smith’s comeback to win relay silver after the heartache of withdrawing from the 200 metres underscored her desire to compete for the love of the sport.

It was entirely correct of Team GB’s Chef de Mission Mark England, speaking at the team’s final media debrief, to momentarily deflect attention from the record-holders to note the bronze medals won by the likes of Bryony Page and the 16-year-old Gadirova twins.

Such opportunities were even more evident amid the steaming bowl of the Ariake skate park, where the colour of the medals scarcely seemed to matter. Inspiration comes in many shapes and sizes: in Tokyo it scooted along with a shrug and a smile.

Tokyo was a Games that lived on the edge: of pandemics and tropical storms. Yet it provided a glimpse of a future in which winning is not quite everything, and runners-up and also-rans can be equally acclaimed.

If the Olympic movement takes heed and blows the right course towards Paris, if it continues to put inclusivity at its epicentre, then the legacy of two hot and bothersome weeks in Tokyo could yet prove to have been truly Games-changing.

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