Just 950. Not 68,000. 950. Only 950 in attendance at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. As a result of Japan being in the fifth wave of the coronavirus and social distancing, this amazing event which usually captures the attention of the world was overshadowed by the pandemic.
When I consider the determination of the athletes in maintaining fitness programs during a pandemic as well as having to maintain their personal focus and determination, fitting training schedules around various restrictions according to their respective countries and their courage in attending the Olympic Games in Tokyo, I know that the Olympic Games of 2020 are truly like no other. Let’s not forget that it’s 2021 - the games had to be delayed as a result of COVID taking the world by storm.
The Olympic Games in any normal period usually holds the attention of the world. Not only that, but events are also generally well attended as people travel from all over the world to view the best from each country competing for medals. As a result, the host country can usually expect a boost to their economy as visitors pour in from every corner of the world. This year though, the events had no spectators as a result of pandemic restrictions.
Athletes are accustomed to not only the pressure of competing, but also of doing so in front of a crowd. But let’s be honest, a crowd does not always exert pressure on the athletes in a negative sense as in the case of a country performing on home turf and being able to enjoy the roar of enthusiasm from their fans in the stadium. However, for other teams who are not on their home turf, the experience is obviously not the same. In any case, there is no doubt that stands full of spectators add a different dimension to the tension and focus that athletes need in order to give their best performance. Remove the spectators from the stand and the sports barely ressemble a competition apart from the judges tables and other opponents sporting the flags of their respective countries.
Add into this the pandemic and the fifth wave of the Coronavirus in Japan. Even though so many restrictions were being adhered to, many athletes had to withdraw from events as a result of testing positive for COVID-19 whilst in Japan. I can only imagine the disappointment of these unfortunate athletes as their dreams diminished into the reality of their hotel rooms. So with various competitors removed from races and tournaments, opportunities arose for less known competitors to replace them and give their all for a long sought-after medal.
And if that wasn’t enough to make Tokyo 2021 like no other, Tokyo had also been experiencing a heat wave with temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) plus 90% humidity. Some competitors fainted either before or during events as a result of the heat and some actually threw up upon finishing an event. The only group who did not suffer in the heat were the swimmers.
As a result, the world's best athletes who are accustomed to making sacrifices, training hard and overcoming personal challenges, had to face additional challenges in competing; no spectators, the fifth wave of the Coronavirus and a heat wave.
Couple these external factors with the internal pressure that many athletes were facing and we truly had an Olympics like no other. Take the case of Simone Biles, for example. She is a decorated gymnast who is confident on each piece of apparatus. She has won gold medals in previous Olympics. She has been doing gymnastics for over 15 years and has extensive experience in international competitions. However, in performing gymnastics accurately, gymnasts need 100% concentration to execute intricate moves that are often so fast that we at home do not capture them unless they are replayed at a slower speed by the TV cameras. In order to perform well, gymnasts need to be completely focused and if they are not, the result could be disastrous. So as a result of not having the needed concentration and focus, Simone Biles made the decision - when the eyes of the world were upon her - to withdraw from all events except for the beam - at Tokyo 2021. Simone took the bronze medal for her performance on the beam and her withdrawal from the other events paved the way for her teammate Sunisa Lee to step up and take gold for Women’s All-Around artistic gymnastics. Sunisa Lee is of Hmong descent and was born in St Paul, Minnesota, on 9th March 2003 to parents who had immigrated from Laos. The Hmong people are an ethnic group living mainly in southern China, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar and are classified as a subgroup of the Miao people. The Twin Cities are home to the largest Hmong population, with over 64,000 residents. Sunisa was the first from the Hmong people to win a medal at the Olympic Games and desires to be an encouragement to others in her ethnic group.
As with the case of Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee, for various reasons long time favourite winners were absent and their absences made way for others (who the world has never focussed on) to take centre stage. Let’s look at the case of Michael Phelps who decided to retire from competitive swimming after the 2016 Olympics in Rio. From 2001 - 2016, Michael Phelps dominated men’s swimming races competing in 100m & 200m butterfly, 100m & 200m freestyle and relays. His retirement from competitive swimming paved the way for Caeleb Dressel (also from the USA) to take gold in the 100m freestyle (as well as setting a new Olympic record of 47.02 seconds), Tom Dean from Great Britain to take gold in the 200m freestyle and Kristof Milak from Hungary to take gold in the 200m butterfly.
The medal table at the end of the games shows that the USA won 113 medals, the most of any country. This total comprises 39 gold, 41 silver and 33 bronze medals. China was in second place and won 88 medals in total; 38 gold, 32 silver and 18 bronze medals. Japan was in third place and won 58 medals in total; 27 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze. Other favourites within the top ten were Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia.
Each time the Olympic Games are held, disciplined athletes give their best in the hope of a medal and fulfilling a dream. Each Olympic Games is the combined effort of hundreds of thousands of hours of training and unlimited sacrifices and each winner is worthy of their medal. However, with the additional challenges this year of the coronavirus, the lack of spectators and the heat, Tokyo 2021 medal winners truly did overcome more challenges than normal and these courageous athletes deserve our respect for their discipline and focus during such unusual circumstances.
Citius, Altius, Fortius - Communiter! (‘Faster, higher, stronger - together’) This is the Olympic motto which was proposed by Pierre de Coubertin and used for the first time in 1924 at the Olympic Games in Paris. However, perhaps it is the Olympic Creed which was more pertinent to the athletes participating in Tokyo 2020 and succinctly sums up the experience of many athletes:
‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’