What’s been the image of the Games for you so far? Is it Adam Peaty, smacking the water with an explosive mix of adrenaline and relief after taking the breaststroke gold that is his by right? Bethany Shriever, moments after winning her BMX final, struggling to sit upright on the track because she can’t feel her legs? Or perhaps it’s Tom Daley, leaping into the arms of his synchro partner, Matty Lee – an Olympic champion at last, 13 years after we watched the cute-kid version of himself debut in Beijing?
Memorable moments all and yet the sight that’s going to stay with me, from this first week at least, is that of taekwondo world champion Bianca Walkden face down on the sparring mat. Walkden’s just been through the battle of her life against South Korean Lee Da-bin. She’s come within a hair’s breadth of disqualification, seen two video replay decisions go against her and then, having clawed her way back into the lead, her opponent has kicked her in the head at the very last second and stolen her spot in the final.
Walkden lies still, eyes open, not hurt, just finished. It is not always easy to connect with the world’s greatest athletes, especially when they are performing in a distant time zone and they have achieved a variety of impossible things before you have even had your breakfast. But I see this woman half-spilling out of the octagon and I can read her thoughts. She’s wondering why she should bother to pick herself up, whether there’s any point. She might have been reigning world champion for the past six years, but right now she’s not sure who she is at all.
That picture summed up the feel of these pandemic Olympics just as powerfully as the opening ceremony’s blend of ethereal angst and minimalist restraint. London ’48 gave us the “Austerity Games”; Melbourne ’56 were the “Friendly Games”; these are the Existential Games, the What-Are-We-Even-All-Doing-Here? Games.
They’re the Games we aren’t expected to care about, the Games that perhaps shouldn’t be happening. And they are offering a very different perspective on sport to the jingoistic one that Brits have become used to over the past decade.
Not that Team GB isn’t winning medals, of course. Magic Monday triggered the hoped-for gold rush, and while Britain doesn’t rule the waves on the rowing lake any more, it established a new sovereignty in the pool. But, for once, that doesn’t seem the be-all. Because after the 16 months we’ve all just lived through, it’s only natural to find oneself watching with an increased empathy and admiration for every competitor, wherever they finish.
In the pre-Covid age of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles, we focused our amazement on the superhuman abilities of these 21st-century athletes. But now we’re in a world where nothing is normal, where illusions have been stripped away. Some of the defining stories from these Games will not be those of crowning triumph, but of surprise withdrawals and defeats – of Dina Asher-Smith, of Naomi Osaka, of Biles herself. It can be just as inspiring, in these circumstances, to watch someone finish third, fourth or nowhere.
Even silver medals, traditionally the worst colour to win, have gleamed unusually bright in Tokyo. Before they took gold in the triathlon mixed relay, Alex Yee and Georgia Taylor-Brown were both delighted with their second places in the men’s and women’s events respectively, having each overcome unexpected obstacles – a spectacular false start for Yee, a flat tyre for Taylor-Brown. Shortly after Taylor-Brown crossed the line, having overhauled three rivals in the final run, the cameras caught her cheerfully explaining her unexpected appearance to winner Flora Duffy.
It has been a peculiar privilege of these crowd-free Games to witness some absorbingly intimate moments between teammates and rivals. Vacant arenas, stand-less grounds and empty streets might be anathema to our TV screens, but they’re not that unusual to the Olympians who, after all, spend most of their time training in front of no one at all. And while the stadiums and swimming pool may be empty, they have not been quiet. They have resounded with the cheers and screams of room-mates urging each other on.
Stripped of their pageantry and paraphernalia, these have truly been the athletes’ Games. After the French judoka Clarisse Agbégnénou defeated her long-time Slovenian rival Tina Trstenjak, the latter having beaten Agbégnénou to gold in 2016, the pair embraced like best friends who had been separated since the start of lockdown. When Colombian Mariana Pajón lost her Olympic crown to Shriever, we saw her shattered by the side of the track; minutes later, she was camera-bombing Shriever’s interview with the Beeb.
The pandemic has offered us a timely and important perspective on sport. And not, perhaps, the same one that the International Olympic Committee is keen to offer, where billions of dollars are invested in a pop-up circus in a virus-ravaged city in the name of world peace. But one in which sport can be vastly entertaining and utterly inspiring – and ultimately unimportant. Where it matters most of all to the people who do it, not the people who pay for it.
What we see in our sportspeople are the same struggles and frustrations and heartbreak we’ve all been facing. What we find at these Games is sympathy, as we all strive towards the best that we can do, for now.
Walkden, by the way, picked herself off the mat. She came back and took bronze in her final match. “I just hope that the kids watching me can realise it’s not about the colour,” she said. “It’s about giving your heart and soul and then being able to come out with your head held high.”
Emma John’s most recent book is Self-Contained: Scenes from a Single Life