What was witnessed over 15 days of competition was among the most enthralling, entertaining and inspiring sporting action in recent memory with numerous feel good stories and examples of super-human achievement, drama and controversy.
It once again emphasised the power of sport in being able to unite people from all four corners and promote a notion of positivity. It was truly the first occasion when nations from all over the world came together since the pandemic had begun, serving as a bastion of hope and triumph.
It also shone a light on key social issues that are so prevalent within our societies and that shape our daily news. Gender equality, inclusion, race, mental health issues and many more came to the forefront as the Games progressed.
The two-week festival also highlighted the durability, tolerance, and spirit of the Japanese people who dealt with such a precarious occasion with their renowned accommodating grace and warm hospitality. They deserved every ounce of praise and applause that came their way.
Here we look at some of the highlights and memorable moments.
Japan winning a gold medal on the first day of official competition was crucial as it seemed to soften a significant portion of the Japanese public’s perception and resistence to the tournament. Naohisa Takato’s gold in the men’s 60kg judo appeared to almost immediately break an invisible barrier and make it OK for the host nation’s population to not only support the venture but actually enjoy it. There’s nothing quite like being sucked into the occasion and carried along with the raw emotion that only sports can provide and much of Japan, like most other nations, was immediately hooked. Of course there were still significant numbers still against it but the feel good factor of national pride is a powerful dynamic and something millions aorund the world had been desperately seeking for close to 18 months.
It was very much a family affair the next day as siblings Uta and Hifumi Abe won the women’s 52kg and men’s 66kg titles in judo, piquing the country’s interest levels and engagement furthermore.
Later on that second day, 22-year-old Japanese Yuto Horigome became the first athlete to win gold in Olympic street skateboarding as the sport made its Olympic debut. Momiji Nishiya won gold in the women’s category.
Sakura Yosozumi, 19, then won the women’s park skateboarding contest, ahead of compatriot Kokona Hiraki who is only 12-years-old and Great Britain’s Sky Brown who is only 13-years-old.
Skateboarding was introduced to the Games roster to connect with new, younger audiences and, along with the likes of surfing and sport climbing, was a huge hit.
Not to be outdone, the oldest medal winner was 62-year-old Australian equestrian rider Andrew Hoy who won a silver from team eventing and a bronze from the individual.
Upsets and shocks
As is often the case at major international sports events, there were upsets galore.
In the pool, Tunisian tennager Ahmed Hafnaoui caused a seismic shock as he won gold in the men’s 400m freestyle, upsetting the much-fancied Australian Jack McLoughlin and American Kieran Smith.
The US men’s basketball team were stunned as they were beaten at an Olympics for the first time since 2004 as France outshone a Kevin Durant led side littered with NBA stars in a 83-76 win. One could argue it was the kick up the backside that team USA needed as they ultimately went on to win gold in the final.
In tennis, world number one and Wimbledon women’s champion Ashleigh Barty was dumped out in the first round as she lost to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka then followed when she lost to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in the third round.
In the men’s draw, Novak Djokovic, fresh from his latest Wimbledon success, was looking to add Olympic gold in his pursuit for the perfect Grand Slam in 2021. However, he fell in the bronze medal men’s singles match against Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta meaning he left the tournament empty-handed.
Minnows’ day in the sun
There were a number of firsts at the Games where underdog nations and athletes rose to the occasion that epitomised the spirit and glory of sports perfectly.
Flora Duffy’s gold medal triumph in the women’s triathlon meant Bermuda won their first ever medal and became the smallest nation to ever win one in the process.
Just two days later, however, Alessandra Perilli won a bronze for San Marino in the trap shooting, meaning it was not only the first time the country had won an Olympic medal but it then adopted the mantle of smallest nation to triumph, usurping Duffy’s previous efforts.
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz made history when she became the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold, the 30-year-old triumphing in the women’s 55kg class and becoming an instant national heroine in the process. The victory was just reward for Diaz who trained for almost 18 months in exile in Malaysia because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Iranian Kimia Alizadeh also came close to securing a first ever medal for the IOC Refugee Team, shocking Great Britain’s Jade Jones who was searching for her third straight Olympic gold in taekwondo, on the way.
Win for LGBTQ+
The Games was very much regarded as a triumph for the LGBTQ+ movement with rights campaigners hailing it as the Rainbow Olympics and lauding its message of positive inclusivity.
“I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion,” said 27-year-old Great British diver Tom Daley after winning gold in the men’s synchronized 10m platform with teammate Matty Lee.
Following his victory, Daley spoke to the press about his husband and son while sitting between athletes from Russia and China, both countries where same-sex marriage is illegal.
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand became the first transgender Olympian as she contested the women’s +87kg weightlifting category.
Seemingly overwhelmed by the occasion, Hubbard’s participation was brief but was hailed by trans activists as a historic occasion for a marginalised community. Conversely, it drew harsh criticism and prompted a firestorm of debate about transgender participation in women’s sport.
The intensely private Hubbard announced her retirement from the sport immediately afterwards, saying she was now ready to step away from the spotlight. “I’m not sure that a role model is something I could ever aspire to be - instead I hope that just by being I can provide some sense of encouragement,” she said.
Aussie boxer Harry Garside certainly provided some colour in the ring. The 24-year-old, who won a bronze in the men’s lightweight division, had proudly shown off his painted fingernails after his quarter-final bout, stating each one represented a different colour of the rainbow.
A certified plumber and a sucker for ballet, Garside had said he initially wanted to wear a dress to the Opening Ceremony parade but declined as “I didn’t want to offend anyone”.
“There’s a lot of people out there who feel like they have to be something because they’re a male or a female,” Garside said. “I’m all about just being different.”
It was reported there were a total of at least 172 LGBTQ+ athletes at the Games, more than three times the number confirmed in Rio in 2016.
Shining a light on mental health
Three of the most high-profile figures at the Games were amongst several athletes who highlighted their struggles with mental health issues.
US gymnastics star Simone Biles decided to stand down from competition for five or her six finals events, citing her struggles with mental health as the reason. Unsurprisingly, it drew praise from certain quarters and scorn from others.
“My mental and physical health is above all medals that I could ever win,” said the 24-year-old, who has a career total of four golds and seven Olympic medals in all.
British swimmer Adam Peaty announced he was taking time off after the Games after feeling “a huge amount of pressure” for a prolonged period of time.
“It isn’t a normal job,” tweeted Peaty, who won two golds and a silver in Tokyo and became the first British swimmer to defend an Olympic title.
“There is a huge amount of pressure. Money does not buy happiness.
“I’m taking a break because I’ve been going extremely hard for as long as I can remember. I’ve averaged 2 weeks off a year for the last 7 years.”
US swim sensation Caeleb Dressel, who won five gold medals in Tokyo, aired similar sentiments when describing the immense pressure put upon competing athletes.
“Every morning I’d wake up the first words out of my mouth weren’t ‘oh I’m so excited’, sometimes it was ‘this is going to suck today’,” he said.
“The Olympics are different, I’ll admit that now and stop lying to myself. There’s so much pressure in one moment. Your whole life boils down to a moment that can take 20 or 40 seconds - how crazy is that?”
No sporting event is ever complete without at least some form of controversy and Tokyo 2020 was no exception.
Russia had been barred from competing after being implicated for running a state-sponsored doping program designed to boost its medal haul at international sporting events.
However, they just re-branded as the “Russian Olympic Committee” (ROC), adopted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as their national anthem and subsequently sent 335 athletes to compete. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, you could say.
China and controversy seem to be synonomous during the past few years and it was no different at the Games.
Their tempestuous relationship with Taiwan is well documented. Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin won Taiwan’s first ever Olympic gold medal in badminton - a victory made sweeter as the male duo’s opponents were from China. “I am Lee Yang. I am a proud Kinmen (islander). I am a proud Taiwanese,” Yang posted on Facebook, much to the chagrin of Beijing.
Taiwan’s record 12-medal-haul has prompted a patriotic surge and seen calls for the country to drop the “Chinese Taipei” title it has used for 40-years in preference of just “Taiwan”. After all, “Chinese Taipei” appears on no recognised maps outside of the halls of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party.
Residents of Hong Kong witnessed booing the Chinese national anthem also antagonised the leading elite on the mainland and stoked furthermore a hugely contentious and divisive relationship that has been indiscriminantly controlled by force from Beijing in the past year.
However, whenever there is any ill feeling there is always a good story right around the corner. Last but not least is a tale that epitomises everything that sport should be about – serious competition but played in good, fair spirit with respect for one’s opponent.
Opponents and friends Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar were tied after their final efforts in the men’s high jump.
Offered the chance of a one-time jump-off with winner taking all, Barshim asked: “Can we have two golds?”
The answer was yes and the two shared top spot and Olympic gold on the podium.
Then, all of a sudden, the end was upon us. The Closing Ceremony was done with an elegance and grace that seemingly only the Japanese can attain. It was restrained, subtle, almost sombre at times, but very much a celebration of the most unusual major sports event ever witnessed.
As the notes of Suite Bergamasque, Isao Tomita’s take on Debussy’s Clair de Lune No.3, evaporated into an electronic shimmer, so did the occasion of Tokyo 2020, staged in 2021, officially end.
Ultimately, the Tokyo 2020 Games comes away with its head held high, deserving of a medal itself in more ways than one. Tokyoites deserve praise for how they managed the precarious occasion with grace despite reservations of hosting a global event in a city where the contagion and control efforts had already been stretched to breaking point.
The Games served as a symbol of triumph and hope in the face of the debilitating global pandemic that has wrought so much disruption and suffering. It emphasised how integral a part of our lives sport is by connecting athletes and viewers across the world and suggested that hopefully one day soon we will all be able to truly unite again.