Abrahamson: Doubters, critics, skeptics -- the Games are a wrap, and from the athletes, thanks

Posted at 6:43 AM, Aug 08, 2021

TOKYO — The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games drew Sunday to an end, an Olympics that began as a bet countering controversy and considerable fear — could they come off — and closed with the bet won. The Games happened. And for 16 days, just as it should be, the athletes of the world commanded center stage.

History, of course, will ultimately record the many legacies of the Tokyo 2020 Games. But amid Sunday night’s closing ceremony, the stadium field transformed into an “imaginary park in Tokyo,” a day-long sideways rain having stopped at dusk, the sky above pocked by gentle clouds, the mood was buoyant, the dominant emotion not relief but gratitude: these Games — postponed for a year — did, indeed, take place. And, from the athletes, appreciation.

“I want to share thanks,” said the legendary Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, who defended the men’s marathon title he had won in Rio in 2016, winning Sunday morning in 2:08.38 in the heat and humidity, “to the people of Japan and the Olympic organization for an incredible job in making these Olympics happen.”

Eliud Kipchoge poses for the Men's Marathon Final during the Closing Ceremony
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 08: Silver medalist Abdi Nageeye of Team Netherlands, gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge of Team Kenya and bronze medalist Bashir Abdi of Team Belgium pose during the medal ceremony for the Men's Marathon Final during the Closing Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 08, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

In March 2020, the International Olympic Committee opted to postpone these Games until the summer of 2021. For a year, debate raged. Vocal critics in Japan and the world asked, should the Games go on? 

A flurry of pre-Games polls this year asserted that the Japanese purportedly had turned against Tokyo 2020.

Nothing proved farther from the truth. 

Under the scorching sun, for hours at a time, the relentless kindness of the thousands of Japanese volunteers will remain a lasting memory. It was so hot one day at the skateboard venue that International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz’s plastic accreditation badge literally melted.

With temperatures typically in the high 90s even in the shade, hundreds if not thousands of Japanese nonetheless lined up each day to take selfies on the five rings outside National Stadium, kept out because the government decreed no fans in the stands. The television numbers showed enormous enthusiasm, the IOC reporting in the Games’ second week that a projected 111.1 million Japanese, about 88% of the country, had watched some part of the competition.

They, and the athletes, gave these Games — without the roar of fans in the seats — their essential emotional core, the counterpoint to the naysayers who predicted Tokyo 2020 would turn to armageddon: 

“After we had to accept the decision by the Japanese authorities to have no spectators,” IOC president Thomas Bach said at a late-Games news conference, “I must admit that we all — and I, personally, as well, of course — were concerned that these Olympic Games could become the Games without soul.

“But, fortunately, what we have seen here is totally different. Because the athletes gave these Olympic Games a great Olympic soul.”

For instance: In the men’s high jump, Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi, best of friends, deciding to share the gold medal. On the very same evening, across the track, in the men’s 800, American Isaiah Jewett and Botswana’s Nijel Amos tangling, falling, then helping each other up, shaking hands and finishing together.


SEE MORE: Barshim, Tamberi forgo jump-off to share gold in high jump

For many Americans, these Tokyo Games will be long remembered as the Games of Simone Biles and the many conversations about athlete mental health. As Biles said in an interview after winning a bronze medal on the beam, “I am going back home in one piece, which I was a little bit nervous about. It’s not how I wanted it to go, but I think we’ve opened bigger doors and bigger conversations.”

Were there rough edges to these Games? There always are at any Olympics. For instance, who punches a horse? The swing that a German coach took in modern pentathlon may well have put that sport’s place in the Olympic program in jeopardy.

Did politics intrude? It always does, in particular, here the Belorussian sprinter who ended up speaking out and ultimately seeking asylum in Poland.

Were there disappointments? The U.S. women’s soccer team, 2019 World Cup champions, winners here not of gold but of bronze. The U.S. men’s 4x1 relay team, out in the prelims. The U.S. rowing program — no medals. first time since 1908. Tennis star Novak Djokovic of Serbia, winner this year of three Grand Slams, ousted, no medals, temper tantrum.


SEE MORE: Novak Djokovic misses out on singles medal at Tokyo Olympics

Did these Games mint new stars? Swimmers Caeleb Dressel of the United States, five golds, and Australia’s Emma McKeon, seven overall medals. U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee, winner of the women’s all-around. American wrestler Gable Steveson, master of the late-match heroics. 

And more:

Norway’s Karsten Warholm and American Rai Benjamin, who came 1-2 in the best men’s 400-meter hurdles race, ever. U.S. track stars Sydney McLaughlin and Athing Mu. The incredible Allyson Felix, who won two more medals to raise her total over five Games to 11. Jessica Springsteen, winner (with two others) of silver in equestrian team jumping. What, no look-in TV watch party in Colts Neck, New Jersey?

China’s 14-year-old Quan Hongchan, the Perfect 10 diver. Cuban heavyweight Mijain Lopez, 38, a preposterous fourth straight gold in Greco-Roman wrestling. Artem Dolgopyat (artistic) and Linoy Ashram (rhythmic) — gymnasts, gold, both, Israel. 

The first-ever gold for India in track and field, in men’s javelin, for Neeraj Chopra. A first gold, ever, for the Philippines, in women’s weightlifting, Hidilyn Diaz. A first medal, ever, for the landlocked European microstate San Marino, population 34,000, a bronze in women’s trap shooting for Alessandra Perilli — San Marino the smallest country ever to win an Olympic medal.


SEE MORE: U.S. shooter Kayle Browning takes silver as San Marino takes first-ever medal

There was the enduring excellence of the U.S. men’s and women’s in basketball. The American women becoming the first women’s team in that sport to threepeat. The nine medals from U.S. wrestlers. The breakthrough gold of the American women’s volleyball team — and now some wonderful bar talk. Karch Kiraly, better player or coach?

Did the IOC win in reaching its desired demographic, teens and young adults? Gold and silver went to 13-year-olds in skateboarding. A 16-year-old took bronze. In Paris in three years, bring on breakdancing. Surfing, a hit here, in three years will be in — Tahiti. 

The skeptic’s view of the Tokyo Olympics might go like this: imagine how it could have been.


Amid a worldwide pandemic, despite the doubters and critics, these Games got pulled off. Fears of a superspreader event linked to the Games seem, so far, lacking scientific evidence. Thousands of athletes and more from — including the Refugee Team — 206 delegations gathered together, a miracle of organization and faith.

Except it wasn’t a miracle. It was a testament to resolve, belief and Japanese can-do.

It happened. 

So, as the last of the many thousands of coronavirus-related tests get collected, the better way to look at these Games, far better, is like this — look at how it was. 

SEE MORE: Team USA enters Closing Ceremony in Tokyo

Falling to the grass Sunday night in the stadium infield “park,” U.S. women’s volleyball players Haleigh Washington and Justine Wong-Orantes, now gold medalists forever, cried tears of joy.

On Facebook, Ous Mellouli, the USC grad from Tunisia who is a three-time medalist from prior Games, 20th here in the men's open-water event, wrote, “The Olympics in Japan was a beautiful celebration of human performance. Thank you Tokyo 2020 for making it happen in these tough Covid times.”

Said javelin thrower Kara Winger, the U.S. flag-bearer at the closing ceremony, at her fourth Olympics, of these Games: “It really just felt like a celebration of togetherness.”

The athletes always say they want to be center stage. Here, they were. Indisputably. It’s what the Olympics, at their core, have always supposed to be about. And maybe, just maybe, that will be the enduring lesson — the key reminder — that these Tokyo 2020 Olympics will have delivered as they closed on a Sunday night in August in 2021.

Under clear skies.