Arigato Tokyo, bonjour Paris!

Fireworks lighting up the sky over the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last night. Athletes from 206 territories competed in 33 sports. In total, 26 world records were broken.
Fireworks lighting up the sky over the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last night. Athletes from 206 territories competed in 33 sports. In total, 26 world records were broken.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

As Tokyo 2020 closed in a sea of colour amid fireworks, a light show and performances by musicians and dancers, as well as freestyling cyclists and footballers, the empty stands at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium last night best symbolised the first Olympics to feature social distancing.

As the baton was passed to Paris 2024, and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach handed the Olympic flag to Paris Mayor Ana Maria Hidalgo, it was also a reminder that sport can still unite the world - even amid a pandemic.

"For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together. Sport returned to centre stage," said Mr Bach before he declared the Games of the 32nd Olympiad, which had been delayed by a year, closed.

"Billions of people around the globe were united by emotion, sharing moments of joy and inspiration. This gives us hope. This gives us faith in the future."

He also thanked Japan for staging the Games despite the immense challenges.

Over 17 days, billions worldwide watched as athletes from 206 territories slugged it out in 33 sports. In total, 26 world records were broken, and many more fairy tales written as the Philippines, Bermuda and Qatar each won their first Olympic gold medal.

There were podium finishes for 93 different nations, which is the Olympics' biggest list of medal-winning teams. It was eventually topped by the United States with 39 golds. China was one gold behind in second, with host Japan third with 27, its best haul ever.

Singapore, represented by divers Jonathan Chan and Freida Lim at the closing ceremony march-in, however, closed its efforts without a medal for the first time in four Games, though it had 23 athletes across a record 12 sports.

The Games marked some breakthroughs. The five new sports - skateboarding, karate, surfing, baseball and softball and sport climbing - captured the imagination with local flavour and urban cool, and this edition was the most gender-balanced, with 48.8 per cent women's participation.

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics. American skateboarder Alana Smith was also the Games' first openly non-binary athlete.

Despite Tokyo being in a state of emergency, and polls depicting a lack of public support for the Games, thousands of locals still thronged the streets for outdoor events such as the cycling road race, triathlon and marathon.

However, it was mostly empty in indoor arenas as no fans, local or foreign, were allowed in the stands.

With just 430 positive cases among over 20,000 participants since the start of July, the organisers and local authorities can consider it a job well done. But with Paris 2024 already talking about a "spectacular" Games, the sporting world will surely be one in hoping for another big change: An Olympics without a pandemic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2021, with the headline 'Arigato Tokyo, bonjour Paris!'. Subscribe