Member Insights Tokyo 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Member Insights: Looking back at the Tokyo Olympics one year on

July 22, 2022

As Japan prepares to mark the one year anniversary of the landmark Tokyo Olympic Games at the weekend, Olympic Games adviser and commentator, Michael Pirrie looks at the legacies of the historic Games on world sport and impact of the recent death of former Prime Minister and Olympic supporter, Shinzo Abe.

A year ago the curtains were about to rise amid much controversy and conjecture on the Tokyo Olympic Games, the biggest and most contentious international sporting event of modern times. 

Fears were escalating the mega event posed an unacceptable health risk, and would trigger an unstoppable wave of covid infections and deaths across the host city and beyond.

Fears were rising that the costs and impacts from the Games could not be justified in a global pandemic.

Rather than uniting the world, it was feared the Olympics would further divide international and domestic communities.

Instead, the Tokyo Games was an unprecedented planning triumph, delivered with minimal spread of the virus against almost all expectations and expert opinion. 

Just getting to the Games for example was an unparalleled international transport planning operation.  

This involved the coordinated arrivals and departures of thousands of athletes from across the globe with immoveable competition schedules and deadlines, many boarders and light paths closed and airlines grounded.

This forced the Fijian men’s rugby team to hitch a ride on a seafood cargo plane to successfully defend the nation’s first gold medal from the Rio Games. 

Tokyo Olympic officials, volunteers and residents will attend special events at the Olympic stadium this weekend to mark the first anniversary of the Games.

The return of crowds to Japan’s Olympic stadium highlights how far Tokyo and other major cities have come in fighting Covid since the games, even with dangerous new variants beginning to sweep the globe.

While crowds were locked out of Tokyo Games venues, the return of spectators for the anniversary on the weekend may be subdued, like the Opening Ceremony 12 months ago.

This follows the recent shock assassination of Japan’s longest serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Abe was a key figure and force in bringing the Games back to Japan.

His performance as the iconic Nintendo video games character Super Mario helped to rally national and international support for the Games.

Abe also worked closely with the IOC to maintain whole-of-government resourcing during extensive preparations for the pandemic delayed Games.

“The atmosphere will be somewhat subdued because of the circumstances surrounding Shinzo Abe’s death,” a Japanese resident told iSport.

“There is sadness that Shinzo Abe won’t be there to be part of the celebrations for the Tokyo Games, which is regarded as one his greatest legacies and achievements,” according to the resident. 

While other Games legacies will take longer to unpack due to Tokyo’s unique circumstances, the Abe government’s commitment to the Games in the face of almost overwhelming domestic and international opposition as the pandemic worsened remains a cornerstone for Tokyo’s success.

It is also a key lesson for future Games committees and governments.  

The enormous scale of  planning and impact of the Tokyo Games on world sport has become more apparent over  the past 12 months.

Tokyo was a lightning rod over how, where and whether the world’s most popular and highest revenue generating events could be staged safely in a global emergency.

The Games divided Japan and the international community and became a turning point in world sport.

Tokyo was the Games of the century, implemented with seemingly minimum harm in the most difficult conditions for sport in 100 years.

Tokyo also was the most relatable Games and may have touched the world more than any other sporting event. 

There were new legacies beyond traditional budget overruns (inevitable this time due to pandemic delays), new venues, infrastructure and environmental upgrades from previous Games.

Tokyo 2020 heralded a new way, a new blueprint and new role for sport in pandemic and turbulent times.

This was writ large from the moment Japan’s baseball legend, Sadaharu Oh, lifted the Olympic flame in the final stages of a torch relay of perseverance many thought might never reach the cauldron’s steps.

I had listened previously to Oh tell audiences that baseball helped to rebuild Japanese society after the Second World War. 

Athletes would provide perspective to a world in crisis at Tokyo and at sporting events since.

These include Canada’s teenage tennis star, Leylah Fernandez, at the US Open following Tokyo.

Putting aside her disappointment after losing the women’s final, Fernandez acknowledged the profound loss of the city 20years after the attacks on the twin towers, which changed the world. Like Covid.

“I know on this day, its especially hard for New York and everyone around the United States,” she said, standing courtside in solidarity with victims’ relatives.

Twenty year anniversary tributes to “Let’s Roll” hero Todd Beamer – who led passengers in a desperate effort to regain control of the third hijacked airliner – highlighted the influence of sport in his life before his bravery on the hijacked jet. 

Beamer’s character and values, according to his father, were formed at Wheaton Christian High School while ‘walking the soccer field…walking the baseball field…walking the basketball court…’

Athletes set new benchmarks in human achievement in locked down venues in Tokyo that viewers in an isolated and disconnected Covid world could relate to.

Staged for the first time in an unfolding global emergency, the Games highlighted the positive role of sports in times of crisis.

Tokyo cut through the disillusionment surrounding the pandemic and corruption in mega events, reminding audiences of why they fell in love with the Games many years ago.

The Tokyo Games pushed sport into new directions beyond medals and entertainment.

Simone Biles addressed mental health while others showed the return of the Taliban could not kill the spirit of Afghani athletes who opposed its reign of terror.

The Games in Tokyo reflected the diversity and uncertainty of sport and life in turbulent times – everything from the hardening political climate in China and Russia to climate change and crushing marathon and outdoor sport temperatures.

The search for a so-called new normal continued in Tokyo, demonstrating that sport is far from normal. 

The athletes broadened the appeal and relevance of the Olympic Games in Tokyo and highlighted the power of sport to bring together for communities across the globe in times of deep crisis.

This may be the defining legacy of Tokyo 

Member Insights Tokyo 2020 Tokyo Olympics