Tokyo 2020: A unique Olympics which saw sport triumph against the odds

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  • Tokyo Games
    Tokyo Games
  • Simone Biles
    Simone Biles
    American Olympic gymnast

Tokyo was truly an Olympics like no other, played out amid a surging global pandemic and against a backdrop of mostly empty stands.

Inevitably the political consequences of staging the Games – and the economic repercussions of its initial one-year delay – swung the centre of attention away from the athletes.

But what Tokyo may have lacked in atmosphere it made up for with a sporting standard that never slipped, not to mention a potential blueprint for future editions of the Olympic programme.

The Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony
The Tokyo Olympics closed with plenty of lessons to learn (Martin Rickett/PA)

It was the first Summer Games in which the urban sports took centre stage, encapsulated by an all-teenage podium in the women’s skateboarding event, and a first competitive 360 backflip from BMX star Charlotte Worthington.

With breaking already confirmed for the Olympic programme in Paris in 2024, and Los Angeles taking a distinctly relaxed approach to its own schedule, the movement’s future direction is as clear as the burning skies that hung over Ariake Urban Park.

Team GB had an unexpectedly brilliant time in Tokyo, matching the 65-medal haul of London 2012, but, just as importantly, serving up a range of medals that seemed designed to awaken whole new demographics back home.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Day Nine
Charlotte Worthington claimed BMX gold for Britain (Mike Egerton/PA)

From Sky Brown’s scintillating bronze to a history-making weightlifting silver medal for Emily Campbell, Britain achieved podium places in sports in which they had previously scarcely set foot.

Brown was not the only teenager to excel, with the Gadirova sisters, Jennifer and Jessica, contriving with team-mates Amelie Morgan and Alice Kinsella to claim a formbook-wrecking bronze in the women’s team gymnastics.

Of course the old-stagers could also be relied upon to turn on the style, with the record-breaking feats of Jason and Laura Kenny and Charlotte Dujardin, the lung-bursting gold rush of Adam Peaty, and Max Whitlock’s nerveless 90 seconds.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Package
Emily Campbell won an unlikely weightlifting silver (Martin Rickett/PA)

Back home, amped up by TV hype and with medals raining down like confetti, the empty stands and restrictions will hardly have mattered, and in the midst of grinding lockdowns, such escapism must surely qualify as a good thing.

But there were frequent, timely reminders of why the Tokyo Games ought to provide an opportunity for the ever-expanding Olympic movement to step back and draw breath.

Proof that gold really isn’t everything was evident in the heroics of Simone Biles, whose bronze on the beam, having withdrawn from her earlier events citing mental health concerns, must surely rank just as highly as her other record-breaking achievements.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games – Day Eleven
Simone Biles starred on the beam in Tokyo (Mike Egerton/PA)

Likewise, 200 metres glory was not to be for Dina Asher-Smith, but her comeback to win relay silver underscored the ambition of an athlete who simply wanted to compete for the love of the sport.

Hopefully there will never be another Summer Olympics quite like Tokyo.

But, if its legacy is an expansion of the exciting urban programme and a move away from the win-at-all-costs mentality that increasingly blights world sport, then two toilsome weeks in Tokyo could all have proved worthwhile.

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