In Depth

Tokyo’s ‘grand human opera’: a tonic for a weary world

Despite widespread ambivalence and fear, the Olympic Games managed to bring us together and lift our spirits

“They were the Games that nobody really wanted,” said Robert Hardman in the Daily Mail. “The host nation was so unenthusiastic that the only crowds at the opening ceremony were the ones booing outside the stadium.” Elsewhere, people either “yawned at the prospect” of an Olympics without spectators, sneered that the event was being held a year late, or “complained that it was the height of irresponsibility to gather tens of thousands of people from all over the globe in the midst of a pandemic”. But in the event, the 2020 Games proved “just the tonic we needed” – offering a joyful celebration of our ability to triumph over adversity, a gratifying reminder of what the U in United Kingdom stands for, and the rare chance to wake up each morning and hear some good news, as members of Team GB won medal after medal.

Its medal tally was impressive, said Jim White in The Daily Telegraph. But it wasn’t just the young athletes’ wins that cheered us up; it was their against-the-odds spirit, often in more obscure sports, that gladdened our hearts. Who could forget Emily Campbell, 27, “hair dyed red, white and blue, hoisting more than three times her own body weight to become Britain’s first medal-winning female weightlifter” – despite having taken up the sport only five years ago; or “the Prince of Peckham”, Kye Whyte, “hurtling at warp speed around the BMX course” on his improbable small bike; or Charlotte Worthington, who was denied funding by UK Sport on account of her gender, yet won gold in the BMX freestyle with an astonishing 360° backflip? Then there was Bethany Shriever, 22, also unfunded, who won the BMX race despite multiple injuries. All the competitors deserve praise, but it was striking that Team GB performed relatively poorly in the fields that had received the most National Lottery funding: while athletes false started, cyclists crashed out, and rowers “caught crabs”, medals went to “young grafters” from outside the sporting establishment.

Team GB’s BMX medalists Kye Whyte and Bethany Shriever

Kye Whyte and Bethany Shriever: a triumph for ‘young grafters’

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

That these youngsters did it without friends or family present to will them to victory makes their success all the more impressive, said Matt Dickinson in The Times. Everyone will have their favourite moments from these Olympics, but Tom Daley winning his long-awaited gold, then knitting a pouch for it poolside, will have won hearts and votes. All in all, it was a refreshingly modern Games. Some felt there was too much emoting; too much focus on mental health – but we’re living in challenging times. Athletes – training during lockdowns for a delayed event that was at constant risk of being cancelled – have felt the strain of the pandemic, and it has been “fascinating to hear them open up about it”. The US gymnast Simone Biles could have swept out of a back door after succumbing to the “twisties”. Instead, she came forward to explain the challenges she faces, “in one of the most impressive press conferences I have seen. Watching her return to win bronze on the balance beam was joyous.” The Olympics are like “a grand human opera”, all human life is present, “striving, chasing dreams and coping with failure”.

Yet for the Japanese public, a question still hangs over the Games, said Leo Lewis in the FT. Were they worth it? Thankfully, the events were far from the disaster many had predicted, said Philip Patrick in The Spectator. The organisation was impressive, given the complexities of manoeuvring 11,000 athletes and their entourages around Tokyo at a time of Covid restrictions. The athletes seem to have been well looked after and generally happy (notwithstanding the grumbling about the flimsy “antisex” cardboard beds in the Olympic Village). Even so, the Tokyo residents who will pay much of the estimated $20bn or more cost of the 2020 Olympics may yet feel shortchanged. These Games did not provide a showcase for their city. With no visitors, locals did not enjoy the festival feeling that normally accompanies the Olympics; and local businesses saw no benefit. “And then there was the heat” that athletes and organisers had to endure. Even the long-distance swimmers had no respite: at 29°C, the water in Tokyo Bay was described as being “as hot as soup”. It was lucky no one died.

Still, they pulled it off, and the Japanese eventually “fell in love with their Olympics”, said David Parsley in The i Paper. Sales of large-screen TVs soared, and there were record viewing figures – reflecting an enthusiasm no doubt boosted by the host nation’s excellent medal haul. British viewers may not have been able to watch events live, owing to the time difference, and the BBC’s restricted coverage, but “in a world full of sadness and division” Tokyo 2020 still managed to bring us together and lift our spirits. So onwards to the Paralympics, and Paris, just three years away.

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