Amid the current global crisis, there were valid concerns that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games would be marked and remembered as a lifeless event that had the potential to intensify the Covid pandemic in Japan. All of us involved in the Olympic Movement worked in the months ahead of the Games with the spectre of this extraordinary situation looming large over what is unquestionably the greatest show on earth.
In normal times, the Olympic Games are the most challenging global event to arrange and organise. The stakeholders involved, the complex ecosystem, and the multi-sport format make the enormity of the task at hand hard to fathom for those observing from afar. However, the tireless effort in the build-up and the past 17 days in Tokyo is evidence of how, as a values-based, purpose-driven organisation, the International Olympic Committee remains critically important – and can have a transformative impact on both global society and all of those engaged with the Olympic Movement.
What transpired and was displayed through the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games was eloquently described in a recent SportsPro podcast by marketing guru Terrence Burns as “grace under pressure”. This is underpinned by what Oxford scholar Ed Brooks describes (in Mark Carney’s excellent recently published book Values(s) Building A Better World for All) as the three familiar virtues of moral leadership. Humility, which points to our intellectual limits and the sometimes radical uncertainty of the world that we live in today. Humanity, which aspires to a feeling of solidarity of those that are on the periphery. And hope, which raises our ambition and optimism for the future. What is evidently clear is that this Olympic Games, despite its challenges and the criticism it faced, was ultimately a celebration of the human spirit and resilience in the face of adversity.
We must also take note of how these values cascaded down to the performances we saw from the collective of global athletes in Tokyo. Writing in The Times at the weekend, sports journalist Matt Dickinson describes the Olympics like a grand human opera with all of life represented – and what we witnessed in the grand theatre was an exhilarating spectacle of human endeavour. The bond between athletes was palpable and we saw an awe-inspiring display of sportsmanship, respect and transnational friendship.
It is true that some commentators have debated the decision to award Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi a joint Gold in the Men’s High Jump but this was truly one of the world’s most beautiful sporting moments. Tamberi had been told prior to the Rio 2016 Olympics Games that there was a risk that he would never compete again and over the past 5 years he has experienced additional injuries and setbacks. But as we watched him emotionally brandish the plaster that had encased his leg in the aftermath of the career-threatening injury, on it written “Road to Tokyo” with the date crossed out and replaced by 2021, we realised the significance and importance of the joint award.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games also provided a platform for athletes to openly and honestly communicate the pressures that they have experienced to reach and compete at an Olympics Games. Over the past 18 months, all of us have had to deal with the burden of living in a global pandemic and the challenges that this has brought to our careers and mental equilibrium. However, to hear athletes speak about this with candour and realise that they can use the platform of global sport to discuss real issues in alignment with the values they garner from the competition is both imperative and refreshing. This narrative was illustrated as the zeitgeist none more so than Simone Biles, the gymnastics superstar who took the decision not to compete mid-competition but who then educated the world on the “twisties” and the impact it has on mental health and performance.
We should also take note of the new sports that were introduced to enhance the reach and engagement of the Olympic Games and Olympic Movement. Skateboarding, sport-climbing, surfing were welcome additions and the performances of athletes in these disciplines opened up the Olympics to a future generation of younger fans. There were naysayers and those that had concerns that the event would be devalued, but what we witnessed was a more relaxed, laid back attitude that brought a sense of cultural awareness recognised by the more traditional sports associated with the Games.
The IOC had the foresight through “Olympic Agenda 2020” to go where the new audiences are and the success could be seen through the sports experience and the values shown by those that competed. The athletes encouraged each other, helped their rivals to get up if they fell, celebrated together and congratulated the eventual winner. The Olympic Spirt was abundantly evident and the Olympic brand through these new sports will maintain its strength, attractiveness, relevance and vitality.
The mixed events were also a significant success at Tokyo 2020 and, in a society aware as never before of the need to end gender inequality, the opportunity to watch men and women compete for the same medals and ecstatically hug each other at the end of an event, or emotionally console each other if the victory spoils went to their competitors, was uplifting and invigorating. The new sports and the mixed events were tested and tried at the Youth Olympic Games, and Tokyo 2020 was evidence that the IOC is fully aware of the imperative need to change from the inside so they are not changed from the outside.
All in all, this was an Olympic Games that was described by some as having the potential of being the “ghost games”. Instead, we were entertained and inspired and it has become a symbol of triumph against all odds. The people of Japan, Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, athletes of the world, coaches and their families, IOC, NOCs, International Federations, TOP Partners and Rights Holding Broadcasters and countless other key stakeholders collectively and collaboratively displayed grace under pressure and showed why the world needs the Olympic Movement to encourage us all to look ahead with optimism and focus on being faster, higher, stronger – together. A heartfelt arigato, Tokyo 2020 and to all those that made it happen.