After The Flame, The Fire Still Burns
Re-entry into a non-Olympic world always takes me a few days. I’ve had the privilege of working on the ground at eight Olympic Games, and coming home, whether from Sydney, Australia or Torino, Italy, always brought a mixture of melancholy and exhaustion, exhilaration and gloom. But between the innovations of digital streaming and multiple television platforms, I haven’t been to a Games since London in 2012, staying stateside to analyze and critique, write and pontificate, making meaning out of the world’s most global sporting event, and the athletes from the some 200-plus national delegations who compete.
But watching the flame extinguished last Sunday? That brought about downright heartache.
The Tokyo Olympic Games took place against all odds, seemingly without an ounce of common sense. My doubts about Tokyo 2020 went beyond whether or not they would happen: I worried about whether they should happen. But after Naomi Osaka lit that cauldron, that beautiful cherry blossom cauldron, as the crowning moment of a subdued yet striking Opening Ceremony that was soaked in the stark realities of a world consumed by a pandemic and yet also showed us how sport can keep us connected, I was all in.
The Olympics filled 17 days with stories of triumph and tragedy, thrilling achievements and utterly brutal losses. We saw gymnastics legend Simone Biles, predicted to bring home five more gold medals from Tokyo, take a seat after a dreadful vault at the start of the women’s team competition, lost in the air, it seemed, despite being a human known to defy gravity. We saw American champion Michael Norman unable to talk about his fourth-place finish in the 400-meters, overcome with the emotions that accompany unanticipated defeat. We saw the U.S. Women’s National Team fall to Canada on the soccer pitch, only to return to battle for a bronze medal that they didn’t know they wanted.
When we needed a little uplift? We had friends and rivals in the high jump choosing to share a gold rather than compete in a jump off, and training partners competing for different nations, but from the same birthplace, will each other over the finish line for silver and bronze in the men’s marathon.
And then there was the downright amazing. Bobby Finke’s gold-medal distance swims almost overshadowed Caeleb Dressel’s haul of five, while the legend who is Katie Ledecky, she who conquered the 800 and 1500-meters as expected, looked like she might swallow the pool whole as the anchor in the 4 x 200-meter relay, failing to catch China but holding always-feared Australia to a bronze. Suni Lee, Jade Carey, and MyKayla Skinner reminded us just how deep that U.S. gymnastics crew is, while Allyson Felix’s 11th medal, a gold that came with the thrashing the women’s 4 x 400 team handed to the world, lets her stand alone as the most decorated U.S. track athlete in history.
And amidst all of this? Perhaps the greatest COVID-19 containment experiment we have yet seen, with sports again telling us so much of what we need to know as we continue to do battle against the Delta variant and whatever will follow it. Despite skyrocketing outbreaks, travel restrictions, lockdowns, and the reality that this would be an Olympic Games without spectators because, quite honestly, no one knew how to make that happen safely, the Olympics do not appear to have been the super spreader event we all worried it might be. As numbers continued to climb in Japan and elsewhere, the Olympic bubble operated with high vaccination rates, widespread and consistent testing, and mandatory mask mandates, all of which appears to have kept COVID-19 cases to a minimum – just 404 positive tests among the some 600,000 taken during the Games.
With the Beijing Olympic Winter Games just a mere six months away, Tokyo 2020, postponed to 2021, has perhaps shown us how we can, as its theme promised, move forward. Perhaps sport is, as IOC president Thomas Bach said of these Games, the “light at the end of the dark tunnel.”
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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