As the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ended, I was reminded of the London 2012 games . I remember how excited everyone around me was. And when the opening ceremony celebrated the best of British, it heralded what would be a wonderful Olympics.
The demand for tickets at London 2012 was high. Of the tickets I applied for, I was successful for a swimming event in which Michael Phelps would be swimming. My nephew gave me a ticket for a volleyball match at Earls Court. I also, finally, went inside the Olympic Stadium for the Paralympics a few weeks later.
I remember walking around the Olympic Park with people from all over the world. There was a happy atmosphere and everyone seemed a friend, it was easy to talk to your neighbour in a stadium or to someone else walking around admiring the Park.
In contrast, how sad it must have been in Tokyo. Japan had spent billions of dollars to host the Games. There would be a party but Japanese people would not be invited. There would be no tourists to mix with. (I loved my trip to Japan.) People protested before the event. It seemed ludicrous to proceed with something so frivolous when millions of people around the world were dying of Covid-19.
The controversy didn’t end with local protests. There was talk of the Olympics Committee holding all the cards and forcing Japan to proceed with the Games against their wishes — and all for commercial reasons.
Organisers were afraid that a Covid infection could wreak havoc in the Olympic village and turn the Games into a mishmash of events or events with some star athletes absent because they had to isolate.
All in all, there was a feeling amongst some that the Tokyo 2020 Games should have been cancelled or, if not, would be a disaster. The odds of succeeding were remote.
Despite all that, perhaps the best reason for proceeding with the Games was to allow athletes who had trained for five years, some of it through tremendous hardship, to have the opportunity to be rewarded for their hard work.
With all the fuss before the start of the Games, I had been turned off and wasn’t inclined to watch them. As luck would have it, the Covid Olympics had turned into my Covid Olympics. I tested positive for Covid a few days after the Games started. My ten-day isolation period coincided with the bulk of the Games. Fortunately my symptoms were mild: a three-day fever and a persistent cough. However, sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. And that’s how I started watching the Olympics: streaming live events in the middle of the night on my phone. After that I was hooked. Unable to leave home, I soaked up many events in the morning and afternoon.
Some of the most enjoyable events for me were either new or recently introduced to the Olympics. When I had heard that skateboarding and BMX were in the Games, I wondered why.
However, I got drawn in, first with the BMX racing then the amazing BMX freestyle. The funniest part of the BMX racing was one of the BBC commentators, Shanaze Reade (an ex-Olympic BMX racer), who must have known the male and female British athletes. For the finals, all pretence at being neutral disappeared as she repeatedly screamed, “come on” and “all the way, all the way, all the way!” Her passion was infectious and was just one example of the fabulous commentary (live and in the studio) the BBC provided. It was lovely to see the men’s silver winner, Kye Whyte (the “Prince of Peckham”), lift up the women’s gold winner Beth Shriever, as she collapsed at the finish line. (In a rare mistake, the BBC managed to miss the silver winning race with Kye Whyte – showing instead some minor events!)
The BMX freestyle kept me on the edge of my seat. The riders performed some crazy flips. People were regularly falling down, ending their runs. The British woman, Charlotte Worthington, had to make a choice for her final run: did she go for broke to win the gold or something safer to get any medal at all. She had tried the backflip 360 in her first run but fell. The pressure must have been intense for her final run. She bravely went for broke: she became the first woman to produce a backflip 360 in the Olympics and went on to produce a flawless performance. She did wobble during the landing of the backflip but managed to stay upright. It was a gold-winning performance. The commentators went crazy and so did the other competitors, such was the camaraderie between them.
Equally enjoyable was the skateboarding, where athletes performed some mind-boggling tricks. The commentators were equally passionate, enlightening us with the names of moves most of us had never heard of, such as backside 540s, nose grinds, alley oops, the odd ollie and nollie, fakies, backside tailslides, kickflip eggplants and lead melons to boot. Again, there was genuine friendship and encouragement between the skateboarders.
It was also good to see climbing in the Olympics. Having done some top rope climbing and bouldering, I could appreciate how good these climbers were, hanging on by one or two fingertips sometimes. The speed climbing was insane!
Perhaps the hardest medal was won by Simone Biles on the beam — not a gold but a bronze.
Simone Biles, probably the greatest gymnast in history, had dropped out of the US team in their first event. She went on to drop out of the all-round and most of the individual events.
Some people criticised Biles, presumably because they didn’t know what she was going through. To talk of success or failure when a person’s mental and physical well-being were at stake seemed misplaced. It was a reminder that most of us have no idea what’s required to be as extraordinary as Simone Biles. What’s more, Biles was suffering from the “twisties”, a state in which gymnasts lose their orientation, their sense of where they are in the air. The consequences of this could be fatal.
Simone Biles has four moves named after her. Some of these moves are so difficult and dangerous that no other human being has performed them in competition. Some claim that the world gymnastics authority don’t grade them higher because they don’t want other gymnasts to try these life-threatening moves.
Sunisa Lee, also on the US team, said before the Games, “Simone is so good that the rest of us can only hope to finish second to her in the all-around. What else can you do? She does all sorts of crazy things no one else can do.” Lee went on to win gold in the all-round after Biles pulled out.
The only way Simone Biles would have competed was if she was completely confident of completing her moves without harming herself. It seemed insensitive to criticise her when so much was at stake. (I was amused that some of these critics were themselves criticised, perhaps unfairly, along the lines of “People who can barely touch their toes or whose main source of exercise is reaching for the TV remote had no right to criticise Simone Biles.”)
After all that she was going through, Biles decided to participate in one more event: the beam — the most most heart-stopping of events in which gymnasts perform unbelievable feats on a 10cm beam without falling off. The bravery to do this of all events was unbelievable. The pressure on her could not have been understood by most of us. And yet she came out and performed well enough for the bronze medal, the same medal she received in Rio 2016.
By coming out and winning the bronze, Simone Biles showed once again what a remarkable person she is. Read more about her here: Simone Biles and the Weight of Perfection.
I was intrigued by the mixed 4x100m swimming medley. In this race, each team has two men and two women. Each team decides who does which stroke. So, for example, you could have a man racing a woman in the freestyle. It puzzled me that the tactics weren’t discussed on TV. The only reference to tactics was GB’s Adam Peaty thanking his technical team who had been “up all night doing calculations”.
Thinking about the tactics, I concluded that the woman would race in the stroke where the difference between the best women’s time and best men’s time was the smallest. It would seem, then, that all teams would calculate the optimal mix and field the same sex in each stroke. This is not what happened. In the final leg, the freestyle, the US fielded a man and the other teams fielded a woman. Given that the US were one of the favourites (they finished fifth), I wonder if this was a tactical mistake. Perhaps, the US thought that the fastest swimmer on earth, Caeleb Dressel, had to swim the freestyle. Whatever their calculation, by the time he jumped into the pool, he was about eight seconds behind the British. The British did break the world record — so it’s possible they were never going to be beaten. The breaststroke is the slowest stroke and that could have also made the difference: the US fielded a woman and the UK had the fastest breaststroke swimmer in history: Adam Peaty.
The men’s Keirin cycle final was also a masterclass in tactical awareness. In this short race, the riders warm up, led by a steward. After a couple of laps, the steward peels off and the race begins. In this instance, the reigning champion, Jason Kenny, had a gap between himself and the second rider (Aussie Matthew Glaetzer) when the race proper started. Kenny grabbed the moment. This put Glaetzer in a quandary: if he chased Kenny, he would create a slipstream for the riders behind him, almost certainly ruining his medal chances because of the energy he would use at the front of the pack. If Glatzer had a chance of gold, he almost certainly would have chased Kenny. However, he probably knew at the start that the best he could achieve was a bronze. As it happens, it was left to the gold sprint winner, Dutchman Harrie Lavreysen, to take on the chase from fourth position.
All this hesitation cost the chasing group: Kenny was riding off into the sunset. The race was effectively over before the other cyclists knew what was going on. Kenny easily won — in Japan, the home of the Keirin. Lavreysen, having led the fightback, was beaten on the line into third place by Malaysian Mohd Azizulhasni Awang, who had started third (and had also declined to lead the chase).
After finishing, Kenny stuck out his tongue knowing he’d performed a smash and grab. The consolation was that all three medallists seemed genuinely happy to have got the medals they got. Jason Kenny is now the most successful British Olympiad of all time. On the podium, his fellow medallists realised the scale of his achievement and lifted Kenny onto their shoulders.
There were many heartwarming moments during the Games. It was uplifting to see three swimmers embrace South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker when she realised that not only had she won gold in the 200m breaststroke but she had also broken an eight-year-old world record.
Persistence was rewarded when Tom Daley finally got his first gold for diving. He kept us smiling by knitting (with clingfilm on his iced arms) whilst watching other events.
The most heartwarming event for me was the men’s high jump. Two athletes (Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi), having battled for hours, found themselves joint leaders. They discussed their options with the steward, who suggested a jump-off. Barshim asked, “Can we have two golds?” The steward nodded, adding, “if you can agree to share it”. Barshim looked at Tamberi, his friend and rival, and they almost didn’t needn’t to exchange words. A second later, Tamberi jumped onto Barshim and they were hugging intensely. Tamberi ran off, dropping to the floor, wriggling around uncontrollably, unable to believe what had happened.
Tamberi, who had missed Rio 2016 because of a broken ankle had brought the plaster of Paris with him for inspiration. On it was written “Tokyo 2020”. The “2020” had been crossed out and replaced by “2021”. Barshim had himself overcome a career-ending injury to get to the games. They both knew that they both deserved the gold.
Barshim said that they had talked about sharing the gold — briefly — and “Today, it happened.” He added, “He’s one of my best friends. Not only on the track but outside of the track. We’re always together almost. True spirit, sportsmen spirit, coming here and delivering this message.”
It was a beautiful way to make history and a fitting finale: the first joint Olympic podium in the athletics since 1912.