Pandemic Olympic Games leaves Tokyo with plenty to ponder

City faces a massive bill and no tourist boom but delayed Games brought great joy

Athletes from Japan arrive in the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Photo: James Hill/The New York Times

Athletes from Japan arrive in the Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Photo: James Hill/The New York Times

 

Tokyo doused its Olympic flame on Sunday in a ceremony that echoed the restraint of a Games held without spectators and transformed by the global pandemic, dazzling sport and deeply personal turmoil.

After postponing the Tokyo 2020 Games for a year, organisers said the event would serve as a symbol of world triumph over the pandemic. But with strict pandemic countermeasures and as Covid-19 variants have surged back around the world, the Olympics fell short of the triumph and financial windfall Japan had wanted.

The ceremony, although lustreless, gave athletes something of a glimpse of everyday Tokyo life as the Olympic Stadium was transformed into a park with grass, buskers and BMX riders.

The scene was meant so the visitors could “experience Tokyo”, organisers said, a poignant reminder of the many restrictions of the Games.

It was a duly odd ending to an unprecedented event. Japan is now saddled with a $15 billion bill, double what it initially expected, and with no tourist boom.

The president of the International Olympic Committee thanked the Japanese people and acknowledged the difficulty of staging the Games during the pandemic.

“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together,” Thomas Bach said. “Nobody has ever organised a postponed Games before.”

Public anger over the pandemic response and a slow-to-start vaccine roll-out have badly damaged Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s standing. Public opinion polls showed most Japanese opposed holding the Games during the pandemic.

Demonstrators protest against the Olympics outside the closing ceremony. Photo: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators protest against the Olympics outside the closing ceremony. Photo: Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images

Still, organisers appear to have prevented the Tokyo Games from spiralling into a Covid-19 superspreader event, notable given that some 50,000 people came together amid the pandemic.

Tokyo 2020

Full coverage of the Olympic Games in Japan READ MORE

“Before the Olympics, I thought people would come to Japan with many variants and Tokyo would be a melting pot of viruses and some new variant would emerge in Tokyo,” Kei Sato, a senior researcher at the University of Tokyo said.

“But there was no chance for the viruses to mutate.”

The main reason for the low number of infections was a vaccination rate of more than 70 per cent among the Olympians, organisers and the news media, daily testing, social distancing and a ban on domestic and international spectators, organisers say.

The organisers recorded 404 Games-related infections since July 1st. They carried out close to 600,000 screening tests with the infection rate of 0.02 per cent.

In a sign of the measures, winners accepted their prizes from trays, putting the medals around their own necks, although social-distancing protocols such as preventing hugging were largely ignored throughout the Games.

While the bubble – the set of venues and hotels to which Olympic visitors were largely confined – appeared to hold, elsewhere some things fell apart. Fuelled by the Delta variant of the virus, daily infections spiked to more than 5,000 for the first time in Tokyo, threatening to overwhelm its hospitals.

Japan’s record medal haul also helped to take out some of the sting for organisers. The United States finished top of the tally with 39 gold medals, one more than rivals China at 38 and Japan at 27.

The Games also showcased the Olympics’ push for more diversity.

For the first time, a victory ceremony was held for both the women’s and men’s marathon event. The Kenyan anthem filled the 68,000-capacity stadium twice, for gold medallists Peres Jepchirchir and Eliud Kipchoge.

And when they came, the Games themselves provided plenty of high drama.

In a moment more reminiscent of the Cold War, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board a flight home after she was taken to the airport against her wishes. She has since sought refugee status in Poland.

US superstar gymnast Simone Biles shocked the world when she pulled out of five of her six events, including abruptly abandoning the women’s team final after attempting just one vault, citing concerns for her mental and physical health.

Simone Biles had to withdraw from five of her six events at the Olympics as she was struggling with the ‘twisties’. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times
Simone Biles had to withdraw from five of her six events at the Olympics as she was struggling with the ‘twisties’. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Her frank admission, combined with earlier comments by Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, brought a sharp focus on issues of athletes’ mental health.

In athletics, Italy provided a different kind of shock with their amazing run. Their wins included a stunning gold in the men’s sprint relay, taking their athletics gold tally to five.

In swimming, a United States team without 23-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps still ended the meeting on top of the medals table.

Capping five years of intense preparations for athletes, some of them stretched out on the grass laid down in the stadium for the closing ceremony. Some appeared to relax as they watched a volley of fireworks light up the Tokyo sky.

In the end, two massive screens stadium projected a retro display that called back to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics: the word “ARIGATO” or “thank you”.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.