Tokyo Olympics: Five memories of a one-of-a-kind Games

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Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi (left) celebrates after Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim offers to share the gold medal in the men's high jump final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi (left) celebrates after Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim offers to share the gold medal in the men's high jump final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

Reporting from Tokyo

TOKYO — Whenever an Olympic Games comes along, organisers would always promise to be a unique and unforgettable experience for all. 

Without a doubt, this Olympics will be remembered as one of the most unique and unforgettable Games in its 125-year history - although the Tokyo organisers certainly did not wish for it to be remembered this way.

For it was the first Games to be postponed due to a pandemic; the first Games where fans were barred from attending; and the first Games where athletes were forced to pull out for being tested positive for a virus. The cloud of COVID-19 hung heavy amid the sporting fiesta, as Japan's capital could only watch from afar while it battled a rising number of daily new cases.

Yet, there were glorious sparks of brilliance and grace that lit up the Tokyo Games, transcending it above the strain it endured in hosting the event. Whether its off-field legacy would eventually overshadow its sporting achievements remains to be seen, but here are five indelible memories of the Games worth keeping:

Olympic spirit shines through despite online nastiness

Sometimes, sports fans get so caught up in the "win at all costs" mentality prevalent in professional sports that they bring that mentality to the Olympics, an event which in essence celebrates the amateur sportsman's indomitable spirit. 

Witness all the nasty insults hurled at losing athletes on social media, and you'll get a sense of how little these so-called fans understand the Olympic philosophy.

But every Olympic edition would throw up a few instances of genuine sporting gestures that would reignite one's hope for humanity, and the Tokyo Games were no different. 

The best example must surely be Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim's offer to share his gold with rival and good friend Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy, instead of going into a tie-breaker to settle who's first. 

Barshim's subtle nod and Tamberi's joyous celebration will be remembered as a highlight of these Games, and lest you think gold medals are often shared at the Olympics, this is the first time it has happened since 1912.

There were many other heartwarming instances peppered throughout the Olympics, of winners consoling those whom they had beaten; of rivals sharing warm embraces after intense battles minutes ago; and of distraught losers still finding the graciousness to extend congratulatory handshakes to those who defeated them.

Even when a runner tripped and caught another, causing both to fall and lose their chances of glory, there were no recriminations. "Sorry," said Nijel Amos. "It's okay," said Isaiah Jewett. And they helped each other up and jogged together to the finish line of their men's 800m heat.

These are memories worth recalling whenever we lose sight of the value of sports, and get miserable over defeats and failures. The Olympics may be intensely competitive, but at its heart is a celebration of ordinary humans pushing their limits, and thankfully most athletes still understand such sporting spirit. Fans should too. 

Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Simone Biles competes in the women's balance beam final at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Elsa/Getty Images)

Simone Biles' pullouts make an important statement

It is extraordinary that this Olympics will be remembered most for an athlete pulling out of most of her competitions, yet US gymnastics star Simone Biles sparked a global conversation on mental wellbeing when she withdrew from multiple medalling events, of which she was tipped to win before the Games began.

In doing so, she made a powerful statement: that every athlete should have the right to say "stop", and not be beholden to decisions by coaches, officials, fans or sponsors. Together with tennis star Naomi Osaka, Biles showed bravery in acknowledging her mental frailty in spite of her reputation as a dominant competitor. This must be applauded, and not admonished because she could not win gold medals for her country.

The only grey area was her assertion that she hopes she can be a role model for young women with her actions. That jarred, because there is also value in persistence and pushing oneself to the limit. 

Everyone's mental strength is constituted differently, and for Biles to say that her actions should be emulated, she may have unwittingly underestimated the occasions when competitive spirit can overcome all barriers, including mental challenges.

It would have been more effective had she kept quiet and let her actions speak for themselves, letting young women understand that, "Yes, be persistent, but know that you have an option to stop too."

Nonetheless, Biles' actions were a step in the right direction in athletes' wellbeing, and could mark a significant change in treatment of top sportspeople around the world. And when she returned and landed a bronze for her one and only event, it was a courageous conclusion to a harrowing week when she had to confront her mental demons amid constant media chatter. 

Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz competes in the women's 55kg competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz competes in the women's 55kg competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

Hidilyn Diaz hopes to inspire with first gold for Philippines

Here's another athlete who wants to be a role model. Philippines weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz has long been encouraging young Filipinas to follow in her footsteps in chasing their sporting dreams.

In Tokyo, the 30-year-old achieved her ultimate sporting dream, winning the gold medal after a tense women's 55kg final duel with China's Liao Qiuyun. It was the Philippines' first-ever Olympic gold, ending the nation's long 97-year wait since they first joined the Summer Games in 1924. 

As she was overcome with surges of emotions following her monumental achievement, words also tumbled out of a teary Diaz at the mixed zone, as she continued to exhort her countrymen to rise up from their humble backgrounds and make a difference to their communities.

Diaz's golden triumph on her fourth Olympic attempt should prove a potent inspiration for Filipinos, many of whom are weary from battling the coronavirus for much of the past 18 months. Even though her own Olympic preparations had been severely disrupted by COVID-19 - being stuck in Malaysia, she was forced to train in makeshift gyms in a rural town - she has somehow willed herself to do the seemingly impossible. 

"I’ve never lifted 127kg before, ever," she told Yahoo News Singapore of her Olympic-record clean-and-jerk lift that won her the gold over Liao. "But somehow I did it tonight."

Singapore paddler Yu Meng Yu celebrates a point as she competes against France's Yuan Jia Nan in the women's team competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Jung Yeon-je / AFP)
Singapore paddler Yu Meng Yu celebrates a point as she competes against France's Yuan Jia Nan in the women's team competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

Yu Mengyu finds spark in final Olympics

Yu Mengyu had always flown under the radar, being in the shadows of her more illustrious teammates in the Singapore women's national table tennis squad such as Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu. Reticent and soft-spoken, she seemed content to be in the background, focusing just on playing her sport.

But at the Tokyo Olympics, in what she would later reveal to be her final Games outing, the 31-year-old seemed refreshed and rejuvenated, as if the fact that her Olympic career was coming to an end had lifted some invisible weight off her shoulders. 

On the court, she was fearless and constantly on the front foot, confounding her opponents with her newfound confidence. Off the court during post-match interviews, she was relaxed and eloquent, never snapping back at tough questions, even offering smiles beneath her face mask.

This new positive attitude propelled the world No.47 to her best-ever showing at the Olympics, coming in fourth in the women's singles competition and beating world No.8 Cheng I-ching along the way. In a way, it proved how much her inherent talents have been hampered by numerous debilitating injuries throughout her career; every time she was poised for a breakthrough, she was laid low by another painful setback.

Yu said that, in leaving everything out on the court, she has no regrets of her injury-blighted career. There were some bright spots among Team Singapore athletes - such as fencer Kiria Tikanah Abdul Rahman, marathon swimmer Chantal Liew, and sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low - but for finding that extra spark to put a satisfactory finishing touch to her Olympic career, Yu gets my pick as the outstanding Singaporean athlete of the Tokyo Games.

Empty stands in the men's preliminary beach volleyball match between Brazil and the United States at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Empty stands in the men's preliminary beach volleyball match between Brazil and the United States at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (PHOTO: Yuri Cortez/AFP via Getty Images)

Games without fans doesn't mean poor Games

More than any other recent Olympics, the Tokyo Games needed a superhero. Someone who could win golds and set world records, capture the attention and imagination of the global audience, and make up for the lack of fans in the stands.

That superhero never came. No otherworldly record beaters like Usain Bolt came along to make our jaws drop. No gold-winning machines a la Michael Phelps arrived to make us wonder at their mastery at their sports. 

Sure, there were exceptional winners such as Caeleb Dressel (five swimming golds), Emma McKeon (seven swimming medals), Karsten Warholm (400m hurdles winner and record breaker) and Elaine Thompson-Herah (doing the women's 100m and 200m double). 

But none of them had transcendent qualities such as Bolt's effortless swagger or Phelps' wholesome grin. They just won, and then went away without leaving much iconic memories.

And with pre-Games stars such as Biles, Osaka and Novak Djokovic not able to win golds, it could really have made the lack of fans at the Games extra damaging, as the lack of buzz amid the near-empty arenas was echoed all over the huge Tokyo metropolis. 

But a "quiet" Games does not necessarily mean a poor Games. Not when the officials and volunteers did their utmost to ensure such a large-scale sports event can be run smoothly.

You have to admire the volunteers' continuous politeness amid the punishingly hot weather throughout the Games - never losing their patience at the frequent whining from us journalists, always ready to lend a hand should we or the athletes encounter problems.

Their friendliness rubbed off on the athletes, most of whom behaved impeccably at the Games. And nowhere was this clearer in the newest sports in the Olympic programme - surfing, sports climbing, skateboarding and karate - where the competitors were cheering on their rivals, even consoling those who erred or fumbled. 

And an Olympic Games that displayed the finest of sportsmanship and camaraderie among athletes does not deserve to be labelled a poor Games. It is through no fault of the athletes that they had to compete without fans, yet they have risen above the numerous COVID-19 restrictions and lack of atmosphere to continue being excellent.

For that, the one-of-a-kind Tokyo Olympics deserves to be remembered for the positive things, rather than its unfortunate circumstances. Let's hope the Paris 2024 could see a return of the all-important fans, so that the athletes can finally have their audience back.

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Other Olympic stories:

Tokyo Olympics: It's time Singapore gives its Olympians extra push for success

Tokyo Olympics: Joseph Schooling needs major rethink to change his narrative

Tokyo Olympics: US, China no longer have air of invincibility – and that's good

Tokyo Olympics: One astonishing lift, and Hidilyn Diaz makes golden history

Tokyo Olympics: Naomi Osaka breaks media silence, even smiles

Tokyo Olympics: Debutant jitters? Not these unflappable Singaporean upstarts

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