TOKYO - As Tokyo 2020 closed in a sea of colour amid tribute videos, fireworks, a light show and performances featuring traditional and modern elements, the empty stands at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium on Sunday (Aug 8) 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, and an example of how such a global spectacle can co-exist with the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together. Sport returned to centre stage,” said 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. Tokyo 2020 are the Olympics Games of hope, solidarity and peace.”
He also thanked the Japanese government and people for staging the Games despite the immense challenges posed by the pandemic.
Over 17 days, billions worldwide watched as athletes from 206 territories slugged it out across 339 events 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.
Alessandra Perilli’s bronze medal in women’s trap shooting made San Marino the smallest country (population 33,500) to ever win a medal at the Games.
There were podium finishes for 93 different teams, which is the Olympics’ biggest list of medal-winning sides, eventually topped by the United States with 39 golds. China was one gold behind in second place, with host Japan third with 27 golds, its best haul ever.
However, Singapore, represented by divers Jonathan Chan and Freida Lim at the closing ceremony march-in, will return without a medal for the first time in four Games, though it had 23 athletes across a record 12 sports.
There were many other breakthroughs.
The five new sports – skateboarding, karate, surfing, baseball and softball and sports climbing – captured the imagination with local flavour and urban cool, and these Games were the most gender-balanced edition 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.
Mental health became a hot topic after American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from five out of six events, as was physical health.
Despite Tokyo being in a state of emergency, and polls depicting a lack of public support for the hosting of the Games, thousands of curious and enthusiastic 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. It was a tough but perhaps necessary decision - helping to prevent Tokyo 2020 from becoming a virus super-spreading event.
With 430 positive cases out of over 20,000 participants since the start of July, the organisers and local authorities can consider it a job well done when there were so much adjustments and adaptations.
But with future organisers already talking about a “spectacular” Paris 2024, where delegations may stream down the River Seine in boats past the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Louvre – with coronavirus contingencies in place, of course – the sporting world will surely be one in hoping for another big change.
An Olympics without a pandemic.