TOKYO (AFP) - Olympics chief Thomas Bach said athletes gave "soul" to the Tokyo Games, admitting on Friday (Aug 6) that he feared for the event after almost all spectators were barred.
The International Olympic Committee president said the postponed 2020 Games "exceeded (his) expectations" as he underlined that the decision to ban fans was made by Japanese authorities.
"After we had to accept the decision by the Japanese authorities to have no spectators, I must admit we were concerned that these Olympic Games could become an Olympic Games without soul," Bach said.
"But fortunately what we have seen here is totally different, because the athletes gave these Olympic Games a great Olympic soul.
"From what I experienced at the Olympic Village and the competition sites, I must say that the atmosphere has been more intense than ever before."
Two weeks of competition, beamed to a worldwide TV audience, has unfolded in empty venues in Tokyo, with teammates, coaches and media the only people present.
Japan initially banned overseas fans and last month locked out domestic spectators too as the country battles a Covid-19 surge that has left Tokyo and other regions under a state of emergency.
The first postponed Olympics teetered on the brink of cancellation last year but Bach said the IOC had borrowed money to dish out US$800 million (S$1.081 billion) to struggling sports federations.
He also said it would have been a cheaper and "easier solution" for the IOC to draw on its insurance policy and cancel the Tokyo Games, rather than plough ahead "for the athletes".
"We decided not to draw on this insurance, but on the contrary to invest even more, and to make the Games happen for the athletes," he said.
The Olympics, with a pricetag of nearly $15 billion, have met with a mixed response in Japan, where they have polled badly for months, mainly over fears they could be a coronavirus superspreader event.
Japan and Tokyo are reporting record coronavirus cases but officials have dismissed any link with the Games.
Bach called the Olympic participants in Tokyo "the best-tested community anywhere in the world".
"Billions of people around the globe were longing for such a unifying message of hope," he added.
"We can see now that these Olympic Games are coming at the moment when the world was really longing for such a symbol of hope and efficiency," said Bach.
"To show that even under these conditions you can organise such a worldwide event, you can come together and you have to adapt and learn. This is also a kind of progress." Bach was speaking ahead of Sunday's closing ceremony. Beijing will host the Winter Olympics next February, just six months away.
"The Games used to be different, yes, but under the conditions of a pandemic they need to be different," said the German.