High jump joint gold medallists Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi. From: nypost.com
It has been a privilege to witness the return of three huge tournaments – the Euros, Wimbledon, and the Tokyo Olympics – that Covid-19 stole from the sporting calendar of July 2020. It’s a signal that, while the pandemic seems far from fading, its spread is at least slowing, muzzled by the efficacy of vaccine science. I was lucky enough to attend the last ever “Manic Monday” at Wimbledon which, thanks to mass testing, operated at 75% and later full capacity. For the first time since Norwich City’s glorious triumph over Spurs, on penalties, in the 5th round of the FA Cup on Wednesday 4th March 2020, I enjoyed live sport, in person. It was at once normal, yet totally strange and humbling to live every emotion again with thousands of others. As Ons Jabeur raised her arms aloft to celebrate victory over Iga Swiatek, thus becoming Tunisia’s first ever Grand Slam quarterfinalist, the Court Two crowd stood as one and, without warning, my jaw softened, and I found myself on the verge of blubbering. Later that week, it was in the more alcohol-fuelled but no less novel setting of a London sports bar that I celebrated England’s men defeating Denmark to reach their first major football final since 1966. No matter that the dream run ended on penalties that Sunday. The pain of defeat melted into a shared sense of national pride; a reflection on four weeks of much-needed positivity; and a wellspring of support for the three young penalty-takers – Rashford, Sancho and Saka – who faced such disgusting racial abuse in the aftermath of the final. The England team created a ‘balloon of hope’ which was not so much ‘popped’, to use the words of their cherished manager Gareth Southgate, but launched in unison with a sea of inflatables which represent the diverting power of sport in such difficult times. Wimbledon and the Euros lay the groundwork for the largest, most entertaining, and yet for many, most contentious spectacle of them all: the Tokyo Olympic Games.
From the muted display of the opening ceremony on 23rd July, it was clear that this would be a very different Olympics, grappling with the question of whether it should be held at all. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), in concert with Yoshihide Suga’s government, were adamant after last year’s delay that they must hold the games with whatever protocols are necessary, to ‘prove that humanity has defeated the coronavirus’. But polls suggest that 80% of Japanese opposed holding a likely super-spreader event. Vaccination rates also lag in the country; Japan is bottom among OECD, high-income nations due to geographical supply issues. And now, with 105,000 athletes, officials and associated staff descended on Tokyo for the Games, infection rates are beginning to climb. Amid the stunning drone display that lit up an empty Olympic stadium on that opening night, one could glimpse a rare sight for Japan: the beacons of protestors.
Tokyo has been caught in an unenviable position. All Olympic bids, London included, face their share of opposition from locals subjected to disruption, bureaucratic scandals and budget overruns. Tokyo’s bid in 2012 never gained majority support from its residents and has cost $15.4 billion – double initial estimates – for facilities now closed to the public. But with such investment, and the input of national broadcasters, sponsors and the IOC, cancellation was unconscionable. Whatever you think it says about our misplaced global priorities, the reality is that the Olympics are a made-for-television event. Besides, we shouldn’t forget the impact of a further delay on the dreams of thousands of athletes attempting to peak for this event after a five-year wait since Rio. Most competitors view the chance to win a medal for their country at the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of their career, if not their life. Without that chance, in many nations, future investment in their sport is at risk; the platform they gain to inspire future generations lies beyond reach. I’m not usually a romantic idealist, and maybe it’s selfish: but in this context, I’d suggest that prioritising the Tokyo Games, in whatever suboptimal, Covid-secure setting, has made a positive difference to millions of lives at an opportune global moment.
From the safety of my sofa, I’ve savoured this thrilling Olympic Games. It’s always exciting to rediscover sports like judo or triathlon that I’ve probably not seen since 2016. There’s a shared thrill at watching the greatest athletes achieve impossible feats, not least in CB1 where my housemate and I set up every morning to multitask work with our important armchair commentary duties. Whether it’s trying to understand the unforgiving rules of taekwondo, or biting my nails for a hockey shootout, there’s never a dull moment. We’ve become experts in gymnastics; I love the infectious, cheeky enthusiasm of Britain’s Gadirova twins and, of course, the quiet determination of six-time Olympic medallist Max Whitlock. I’m still recovering from the drama of today’s show jumping finals and, juxtaposing this with the baffling sight of the German horse dancing to a La La Land medley in the dressage, I’ve come away in awe at the versatility of equestrianism. The swimming has been exceptional, with records routinely smashed and a British squad anchored by the powerhouse of Adam Peaty bringing in a record medal haul. But perhaps my favourite moment came yesterday in the athletics where, as on London 2012’s “Super Saturday”, the simultaneous climaxes of multiple disciplines create the greatest memories. In the women’s triple jump, the vivacious Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas nailed a new world record on her last attempt, while in the men’s high jump competition, Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim (with glasses from the future) and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi – tied and faced with a jump off – decided to share gold. They fell into each other’s arms; Tamberi, who broke his ankle just days before the Rio Games and is perhaps Italy’s most charismatic man, brought life to the cavernous arena where his dream had just become reality.
Many journalists and Twitterati have slated the BBC’s coverage of the Games, from its green-screened Japanese pagoda studio (in Salford) to the dual-channel setup that has augured some puzzling editorial decisions. Indeed, the broadcaster has scaled back from its wall-to-wall coverage of London and Rio after the IOC sold most UK television rights to the pay-to-view channel Discovery; they in turn sub-licensed two feeds to the BBC. Sadly, this casts doubt on the future ability of public service broadcasters to compete with pay-to-view networks, but the deal does guarantee some free-to-air coverage of the 2022 Beijing and 2024 Paris Games. And the result is an inevitable sidelining of more niche sports, without British interest, which rely on Olympic coverage for exposure.
The BBC’s priorities have come in for particular criticism by sportswriter Jonathan Liew, who writes in the New Statesman that our Team GB fervour is ‘a logical extension of the empty, mechanical nationalism that seems to have gripped this country over the past decade’. This is a spectacularly bad take from a Guardian columnist who clearly takes his publication’s editorial line that national pride is poisonous. Is it truly noteworthy, let alone disagreeable, that a British broadcaster with two feeds prioritises British medal hopes, especially since the nation – transformed by National Lottery funding – has come to punch above its weight internationally? (For more on this, I highly recommend the three-part iPlayer series Gold Rush: Our Race to Olympic Glory, which charts Team GB’s journey from a nadir at Atlanta 1996 to London 2012.) I appreciate the meticulous curation of coverage by some of our most experienced sporting journalists like Hazel Irvine and Clare Balding. I have never felt that they’ve missed a compelling non-British moment; if anything, the opposite occurred in the gymnastics team event, when Team GB (clearly unexpectedly) won a bronze medal without featuring in the main analysis. In recent days, morning coverage has focused on track and field events with no British interest; if what Liew says is true, Gabby Logan, Denise Lewis and Michael Johnson would be out of a job. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I prefer a choice of two streams over thirty.
Naturally, the quality of broadcasting has not been the sole source of in-games controversy or tragedy. This has ranged from cock-up – the Polish swimming team selecting too many athletes, meaning six were sent home – to the miserable spectre of positive Covid tests for the likes of American world pole vault champion Sam Kendricks. I was glad to see very little of the men’s tennis, after another unsportsmanlike temper tantrum from Novak Djokovic and a gold medal for alleged abuser Alexander Zverev. One of the major talking points of week one was the withdrawal of US gymnastics legend Simone Biles from the team competition and several individual finals for mental health reasons, specifically the “twisties” which – like “yips” in golf or snooker – can require the total re-training of a routine. Of course, in gymnastics, attempting any skill in the air without total conviction on how you’re going to land can be dangerous, if not fatal. Biles has bravely initiated a vital conversation at the nexus of mental health and the pressure of elite sport. Can Olympians cope with the strain they routinely face, and do they feel comfortable to cite mental strain as a reason for a break, like they would a physical ailment? With any luck, the intervention of a certain self-aggrandizing, erstwhile breakfast TV presenter will force more neutrals to engage with this issue, to the benefit of Biles, Naomi Osaka, Adam Peaty and others now speaking out about their mental difficulties. We saw in the example of Jade Jones, defending Olympic taekwondo champion beaten in her second round, how difficult athletes have found coping with the media circus of the Olympics and the isolation required due to Covid-19. Even if it has been heart-warming to view videos of Olympians’ families reacting to their wins from home, it’s undoubtedly deflating for these athletes to perform alone to solitary stadiums.
Yet even with the disappointment of Olympic defeat or injury, there is often an inspirational tale behind the victor. In Jones’ case, she was beaten by Kimia Alizadeh of the Olympic Refugee Team: a former Iranian athlete and Rio bronze medallist who defected last year in protest at the treatment of Iranian women and has since claimed asylum in Germany. The story of Filipino gold medallist weightlifter Hildyn Diaz is also remarkable: in 2019, she was accused of being in a plot to unseat incumbent president Rodrigo Duterte, and prior to the Olympics spent seven months away from home in Malaysia, ostensibly due to Covid-19. However, on receipt of her Olympic glory, Diaz has been awarded $660,000 (33 million pesos) and a new house by the government. I suppose that’s forgiveness! The Olympic Games are crammed with stories of athletes whose single-minded pursuit of greatness has pulled them through despair, destitution, childbirth – look at Allyson Felix, Helen Glover, or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – and injury to contest greatness again and again.
And there’s much more to come. We’ve only scratched the surface of cycling, athletics, wrestling, karate and modern pentathlon – the most wonderfully silly of sports. Beyond Sunday’s closing ceremony I relish the Paralympics from 24th August. It is heartening to witness the expansion in exposure and popularity of these Games since the turn of the century; in Gold Rush, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson recalls how Paralympic sport has progressed from her day, in Atlanta 1996, when ‘I could literally name the crowd’. Since London 2012, Paralympic athletes have gained the investment and recognition they deserve – Ellie Simmonds, David Weir and Jonny Peacock have become household names – and, Grey-Thompson comments, people ‘talk about lap times, they talk about achievements, rather than saying “Isn’t it lovely? Aren’t they brave and marvellous?”’ These Games are simply more sport; more winning; and more Olympic moments.
Lindsay Crouse wrote in the New Yorker that she was going to watch the Olympics because ‘I’m tired of being cynical about everything.’ Obviously, amid a public health emergency and ever more extreme weather – to which the carbon footprint of an Olympic Games contributes significantly – it is impossible to extricate sport from politics and society, no matter our intentions. And will the citizens of Paris, Los Angeles, or Brisbane be any more enthusiastic than Tokyo for the extravagant splurge of their upcoming Games? The IOC certainly seems too focused on business-as-usual, announcing the 2032 Games just before Tokyo rather than pausing, after the 18 months we’ve just had, to consider any modifications that might be made to the format in a post-pandemic, more climate-conscious world. It may transpire that Tokyo’s Games were successful by the skin of their teeth, at the behest of a calamitous third wave across Japan. How will that reflect the perception, by athletes, officials and viewers alike, of the Olympic movement and spirit? Faster, Higher, Stronger – but Together? Future events might start to comprise an IOC decoy – “Look over here!” – while the rest of the world burns.
But rather than end on that thought, I implore you to embody the spirit of Crouse, just for this fortnight. She continues: ‘We don’t have many ways left in our culture to be collectively inspired. After more than a year of lockdown, tragedy and uncertainty, watching athletes achieve their dreams despite all the challenges felt like one.’ Think of the Fijian rugby sevens teams, who came to Tokyo on a cargo plane and will return heroes, bringing glory to a nation of 800,000 ravaged by Covid. Or American 18-year-old Sunisa Lee, stepping up to nail her floor routine in the absence of teammate Simone Biles. Or Tom Daley, the unfulfilled boy wonder, finally reaching the golden pinnacle in his fourth Olympics. Let’s focus on the athletes striving for greatness, rather than the organisations and the politics and the systems through which they are forced to operate. Let the Games continue – and come on, Team GB!