TOKYO, JAPAN, July 31-August 08 — Just days before the Opening Ceremony for the Games of the XXXII Olympiad, doubt remained.
Analysts at well-known publications still speculated that the now misnamed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would yet have the plug pulled at the last second. That’s how shaky the massive undertaking seemed from the start of the pandemic until the moment the cauldron was lit in the Japanese capital’s National Stadium by tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Numbers-jockeys that we are, no way could we estimate how many electrons were spewed on articles about the fate of the Games over the last year and a half. Yet it actually happened, athletes and organizers and volunteers and countless others came together to create an Olympics for the ages.
True, the pandemic delayed the event for a year and put its mark on nearly every aspect of the competition, from the stands being empty of fans to the athletes wearing masks as they draped their medals around their own necks.
Much of the pre-Games controversy centered on the unpopularity of the Olympics among the Japanese public, which according to various polls was 50–80% opposed to its being held this year.
The Japanese government, though, had little choice but to follow the IOC’s insistence that the Games go on, even as it faced what has been estimated as a $15 billion-plus loss from the event, with some analysts saying the cost was closer to $30B.
Yet for the most part, anti-Olympic sentiment disappeared from Tokyo during the Games. Instead, crowds lined up by the hundreds to take pictures with the Olympic rings just outside the stadium entrance and applauded as buses of athletes came to the venues. Away from their TV sets, that was all the Olympics they could get.
The athletes did not disappoint: 3 World Records and 12 Olympic Records fell in the often-sweltering heat and humidity as contest after contest saw champions truly worthy of the Olympic pantheon emerge from battle to claim their laurels.
Amid all the glory — and the muted pomp of the first socially distanced Games — came criticism that Team USA fell short on the track. Statistically that was true (see chart), in that Americans captured only 26 medals, the lowest count since ‘08. And only 7 gold: that despite the addition of a U.S.-friendly event to the competition, the mixed-sex 4×4. Compare those numbers to Rio 5 years ago, where the U.S. won 32 total (13 of them gold), or the more recent World Championships in Doha, 29 medals (14 gold).
The failure of the U.S. men’s 4×1 to qualify for the final (a first without a drop or DQ) put more fuel on the fire of criticism, as well as the fact that no U.S. man won a gold in an individual track event (another first).
Some speculated that the possible cause was that back in May, USATF canceled the team camp it had arranged in Chiba, citing concerns over athlete safety. Instead, competitors were flown over just 4 days before their first competition. For an event so many time zones away, was that enough lead time for world-class athletes to acclimate to the heat and humidity as well as the body clock issues?
Perhaps not for the many who appeared to be flat on the field of competition, lacking the zip they had shown at the Trials. While realistically speaking, Olympics always are a mixed bag for Team USA, some athletes emerging as heroes while others are disappointed, this year the scales might have shifted a bit.
Another factor that can’t be discounted is the ongoing internationalization of the sport. Old-timers may long for the days when track & field was primarily the playground of the Americans and Europeans, with just a sprinkling of stars from the rest of the world. As coaching expertise and talent development has spread across all 6 populated continents, it’s clear those days are gone for good.
Is there any Olympic sport that is more international than ours? The first 15 podiums of the track & field competition featured gold medalists from 15 different nations. In the end, 23 different nations made it to the top step, 43 captured medals, and 71 finished in the top 8. The pond is bigger than ever, and while the U.S. is still the big fish, in relative terms it’s not quite as big as it has been.
Out-of-this-world performances are an Olympic hallmark, but in the first major championships with new carbon-fiber plated spikes widely available, the exemplary performances came under closer scrutiny than ever. We all saw multiple athletes dip under the old WRs in both 400 hurdle races. In the men’s 1500, the Olympic Record fell in the semis, then 6 more men went under that in the final. In the women’s 400, it took a sub-50 to make the final, an unprecedented stat.
The effect of the shoes is real, though it’s difficult to quantify, as studies indicate not all athletes benefit identically.
Also to be considered is the nature of the track itself. Tokyo’s, like all recent global championship surfaces, was designed with the latest technology for speed (see “Last Lap”). The Mondo creation put vulcanized rubber on top of a lower layer that included air pockets designed for immediate kinetic response.
Sydney McLaughlin was a fan: “Some tracks absorb your motion and your force. This one regenerates it and gives it back to you.”
However, not all athletes were thrilled with it; javelin throwers complained that the thin surface did not hold up to the force of them blocking with their final step; photos showed them competing on a torn-up surface.
In all other events, athletes raved about the facilities, though not so much about the relief from the heat. Many of them competed in air-conditioned comfort in Doha. In Tokyo, there were too many instances of athletes suffering from heat problems with no water available during the long track events, some of them begging for water after they finished.
Luckily, fears that the Games would be a “super-spreader” event for COVID didn’t bear out. Out of 42,711 foreigners who entered the country, only 151 tested positive, just 0.0035%. All were quarantined.
That did not absolve organizers of blame in the eyes of some critics, as the fast-moving Delta variant came to Japan. The Tokyo area hit record numbers of cases in the days following the event; the overall count quadrupled during the Games. Some attributed that to Japanese gathering together to watch and celebrate their own Olympians, who pulled in a record 58 medals in all sports. Yet all that might still have happened had another nation hosted the Games.
However we slice, dice and over-analyze the numbers surrounding the Games, the truth is that the most tangible artifacts of the competition will be the indelible images that have been burned into our memories:
•An ecstatic Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi choosing to share the gold in the high jump, the first tie in Olympic athletics in more than a century.
•A drained Sifan Hassan falling to the track after capturing 2 golds and a bronze in over 15M (24.5K) of track racing.
•A giddy Valarie Allman dancing with joy after winning gold in the discus, having demolished the field with her first toss.
•A disbelieving Rai Benjamin kneeling on the track, looking at the 400H results, having destroyed the World Record only to take silver.
•And, of course, a relieved and exhausted Allyson Felix, winning medals 10 and 11 to become the most decorated female track Olympian of all time.
These and so many more moments are what we have left of this second Tokyo Olympics. Despite the delay of a year and the stress and agony of a devastating pandemic, the sport of track & field overcame all doubts and entertained, entranced and inspired once again.
It was indeed, as World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon said, “a stunning demonstration of fantastic athletics.”
|Click Here For A Listing Of Medalists With Links To Reports On Each Event|
U.S. Dominates By-Nation Medal Chart
|* = includes mixed relay medal|