Tokyo Olympics: Sporting drama amid a state of emergency but how will Games be remembered?

By Dan RoanBBC sports editor
Image showing Tom Daley, Matty Lee, Simone Biles and a member of the public wearing a mask and using hand sanitiser
There were plenty of incredible moments in Tokyo in what was one of the most controversial Olympics in modern history

Tokyo's spectacular early evening skies, as the light fades and the energy-sapping heat and humidity of the day starts to ease, is one of the things that many visitors to the city this summer will miss most.

But as the sun sets on a Games like no other, and the Olympic family prepares to pack up and leave town, thoughts will now turn to how one of the most controversial sports events in modern history will be remembered in years to come.

Every Games is different of course. But Tokyo 2020 was truly unprecedented. Regardless of the undoubted sporting drama that has unfolded here over the last 17 days, it will always be the Covid Olympics. The first such event to be staged since the start of the pandemic, the first to take place amid a state of emergency, and the only one to be stripped of spectators.

Given those challenges, the fact this event was completed at all, and provided so many special moments, will be viewed by some as a minor miracle. By others, as a powerful symbol of sport's defiance and the hosts' resilience. A gamble that has paid off.

But at the same time, rarely before has the judgement and motives of the organisers been under such scrutiny. These Games raised major questions for the International Olympic Committee in particular, and it will be some time before the wisdom of its decision to press on with the Olympics can be properly evaluated.

Reporting on the opening ceremony - traditionally one of the world's great shared experiences - in Tokyo's stunning but empty National Stadium, with the athletes' parade depleted, sponsors missing, a noisy protest by campaigners outside, and local people locked out of their own £12bn party, was among the saddest and most surreal experiences I can recall.

It will be hard to find a more potent image of the pandemic age.

But in what was effectively a made-for-TV event, the contrast between the experiences of those of us on the ground here, and viewers watching on from afar has rarely felt so stark. Having experienced the vibrant, joyous atmospheres at London 2012 and Rio 2016, and more recently the crowds allowed at the Euros earlier this summer, covering an Olympics without spectators made for a very strange experience.

Each visit to a venue without fans was inevitably accompanied by questions over what might have been, and where else the billions lavished on these Games could have been spent. The endless rules, restrictions and daily testing, along with the constant fear of being 'pinged' and sent away for two weeks' isolation ensured a highly anxious and stressful Games, for athletes, officials, and the media.

But just as Rio emerged as an iconic Games despite the many challenges it faced, the sense is that, once again, the athletes have come to the rescue of Tokyo 2020. In Britain, despite the unhelpful time difference, fears of images of empty venues, and a troubled build-up to the event, many have loved watching it, and will remember these Olympics as a classic.

Morning after morning, the country woke up to spellbinding stories of Team GB medals, a new generation of stars, an array of inspiring performances, and innovative new sports and mixed gender formats that captured the imagination.

The secrets of BBC Sport's Tokyo Olympics studio

As with the Euros earlier this summer, the Games have felt more needed and appreciated than ever by a Covid-weary nation desperately in need of something to distract and inspire.

Who could fail to be struck by the historic achievements of British Olympians such as Jason and Laura Kenny and Duncan Scott? Of Hannah Mills and Charlotte Dujardin? But also the emergence of lesser known, but no less inspirational names, such as Emily Campbell, Galal Yafai, Alex Yee, Charlotte Worthington and Bethany Shriever?

Who was not moved by the tears of joy of Tom Daley and James Guy, and those of Dina Asher-Smith, borne out of frustration after her hopes of sprint glory were dashed? Or impressed by the overall excellence of Britain's swimming, boxing and sailing teams?

Who could have seen the excitement, joy and passion of swimmer Tom Dean's friends and family, watching on from Maidenhead as he took gold in the pool, and not smiled at this outpouring of pride, such a heart-warming symbol of the years of sacrifice and belief, finally fulfilled? Every parent and coach who gives up their time to support a young athlete would have understood what those jubilant scenes represented.

World records, shock results and iconic sportsmanship all helped to define a Games that delivered no shortage of compelling storylines.

Indeed for every athlete here, Tokyo 2020 stands as a triumph of resilience, despite the challenges that a delayed Games and lockdowns presented.

The IOC maintains the decision to press on with the postponed Games, despite opposition from most of a largely unvaccinated Japanese public and local medical experts, was done with the blessing of the World Health Organisation, and with the interests of these athletes at heart.

And most competitors (as well as the those who enjoyed watching) will undoubtedly be grateful that years of training did not go to waste, especially those for whom this will have been their only chance to be an Olympian.

The success of Japan in the medal table also seems to have helped mellow some of the anger towards the event. On Friday night the protesters were still outside the athletics stadium, but it was a noticeably smaller, less vocal group.

But many critics insist it was the multi-billion dollar broadcast contracts that the Olympic movement relies on that were the real reason for its refusal to countenance another delay or cancellation, and some believe this will mean more scrutiny of the IOC going forward. Perhaps it will also make it harder to attract bidders, even if the next three hosts of the summer Games are now secured up to 2032.

With much of Tokyo society carrying on as normal despite the state of emergency, at times it was hard to understand the need for spectators to be banned, especially from the large, outdoor venues.

Organisers however can point to the fact that there has only been 438 positive cases from people affiliated with the Games, despite tens of thousands of visitors from overseas. The sports industry will now hope this shows that with strict protocols, the virus can be kept at bay, even at an event as complicated and sprawling as this.

Equally, while some highly unfortunate athletes have been prevented from competing, fears of a major outbreak in the athletes village, with competitions ruined, have proved unfounded.

And yet, outside of the Olympic bubble, the reality is that since officials and athletes started arriving in Tokyo last month, positive cases in Tokyo have surged from around a thousand a day to a record high of more than five thousand on Thursday.

Organisers insist there is no evidence linking this to the Games, but others believe the fact the event was on has led to people relaxing and being less disciplined in their precautions.

With the Japan government asking Covid patients with moderate symptoms to isolate at home instead of the increasingly over-stretched hospitals, the decision to continue with the Games could still come back to haunt the country if cases continue to surge over the coming weeks.

Tokyo 2020 meant scrutiny of the IOC for other reasons too.

The issue of athlete welfare was raised by the extreme heat that competitors were expected to contend with. The plight of Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya, whose coaches allegedly attempted to force her to leave the Games in Tokyo, highlighted the treatment of athletes in Belarus, and whether the IOC should do more to stand up for them.

The participation of weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the first openly transgender athlete to compete in a different gender category to that which they were born at an Olympics, was another milestone in one of sport's most contentious issues, intensifying debate over the IOC's transgender policy.

And whether it was Simone Biles raising awareness of mental health and the pressure that some athletes struggle to cope with, Holly Bradshaw talking about body-shaming, Hannah Mills about climate change, US shot-putter Raven Saunders, whose cross-wristed gesture on the podium supported racial and social justice, or Ross Greenbank, who raised concerns over Russian doping, the sense was that the importance of these Games went way beyond medals.

This was the first summer Olympics to be held since Russia's ban for its great state-sponsored doping scandal. And yet you would have hardly noticed. While the team, flag and anthem were officially barred, more than 330 athletes represented the 'ROC', and performed better than Russia did at either the 2012 or 2016 Olympics.

For many critics, a top five finish in the medal table makes a mockery of the punishment, and taints the legacy of Tokyo 2020, proving the inherent weakness of authorities charged with protecting clean sport. Given the restrictions on anti-doping officials during the pandemic, it would also be little surprise if, as with other recent Games, a number of results end up being changed, and medals re-awarded in the years to come, thanks to retrospective testing.

Given the spate of athlete welfare scandals in recent years, a new emphasis on winning 'in the right way', and expectations that the Team GB medal tally would suffer a 'correction' after the remarkable second-place finish at Rio, the haul achieved in Tokyo will be seen as a major triumph.

The failure of traditional powerhouse rowing will see funding agency UK Sport come under pressure to redistribute some of the millions it receives, but any disappointment has been balanced by the success of other disciplines, especially those like BMX and skateboarding, which have the potential to attract new and younger audiences.

To have won as many medals as in London, and in more sports than any other nation is a significant achievement, and many will now desperately hope that this translates to a new emphasis by policy-makers on community and school sport, after the damage lockdowns have done to participation rates and grassroots facilities.

Many thought a new focus on duty of care would mean less medal success, but perhaps Tokyo proves it need not be 'either or'.

Eight years ago I was in Buenos Aires to see Tokyo awarded the 2020 Games. Just as the city's first Olympics in 1964 was about re-emerging from the impact of World War Two, the promise to use its second to symbolise the country's recovery after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster was a compelling one.

Instead of course, it was another huge crisis that has come to define this event.

But ultimately, even something as monumental as the pandemic could not deny the Games. Many will be relieved. Others dismayed. And whether it was right that the Olympics happened at all will always be a matter for debate. But what seems certain is that, as ever, the athletes proved an uplifting and irrepressible force, even in these times of doubt.

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