Tokyo says goodbye to the Games with grace and sense of relief | Barney Ronay

Japan’s Olympics has been troubled but quietly glorious, reminding us the world can be fun

Farewell then, Tokyo 2020. On a sweltering night at the Olympic Stadium, Japan said goodbye to its troubled, quietly glorious Games with a closing ceremony that was by turns elegant, sombre and hilariously unbound. Not to mention, in the grand Olympic tradition, crammed full of schmaltz and corporate doublespeak.

At 10pm local time the IOC president, Thomas Bach, emerged on to his lighted plinth to declare Tokyo 2020 closed – and to offer up something else too, to lobby for its place in history.

“Dear athletes, over the last 16 days you have amazed us,” Bach told his worldwide TV audience, coming on like an irresistible corporate rain-maker in turquoise tie, light blue suit and crisp white mask, and surrounded with the traditional hand of handsome young people draped in medals.

“You created the magic of these Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020. You were stronger because we all stood together in solidarity.” There is a weary Olympic bingo to these platitudes, these join-the-dots uplifting statements. But for all the usual peace stuff, the unity stuff, there was an added urgency here as Bach used his closing notes to apply the IOC gloss to the way these Games in the time of plague will be remembered.

Tokyo has been a warm, courteous and resourceful host, but also a troubled one. Outside the stadium there were protests in the streets and cries of “No Olympics” as the delegates, wonks and team members left the show at the end. The display of disaffection was orderly but assertive, marking the anger many people have felt at the staging of this global event in a city where the line between contagion and control is already stretched thin.

“You were competing fiercely with each other in pursuit of Olympic gold,” Bach went on. “At the same time you were living together in peace. This is a powerful message of solidarity and peace. For the first time since the pandemic began the entire world came together. Sport returned to centre stage … This gives us hope. This give us faith in the future.” Does it though? As ever these occasions tend to pose other questions.

Questions like, what is the Olympics actually for? Why, exactly, are we doing this? The Olympic Games still likes to style itself as “a movement”, an arm of international relations, a force for fellowship and joy, as opposed to, say, a heavily branded corporate circus. The insistence on these transcendent qualities springs from the burden the Games place on those sleeted to host and fund it. That empty host stadium cost $1.3bn (£0.9bn). There must also be magic dust.

This kind of talk might carry more weight with critics of the Olympic-industrial complex were it not for the fact this celebration of love, so recently in Azerbaijan and Russia, heads next to China for the winter Games. But never mind that for now. Just look at the lights.

“The Olympic Games of Tokyo 2020 are the Olympic Games of hope, unity and peace,” Bach concluded, having maintained, disingenuously, that the reason for staging Tokyo 2020 at such a dangerous time was to fulfil the wishes of the athletes, as opposed to commercial contracts carrying ruinous losses.

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And yet, as every Big Sport executive knows, something in that human spectacle will always keep us coming back for more. Bach had emerged into the Olympic arena two hours earlier as inspirational music swelled and a thrilling blue sheen spread across the tiers of this reconditioned ghost-stadium. The staging was lavish, kitsch and lavishly kitsch, the central area fitted out with an arrangement of plinths and podiums, plus at one end the Olympic flame itself, leaping up out of a kind of squashed dinosaur egg affair.

For much of the two hours that followed this was an elegantly stripped back ceremony, commemorative rather than celebratory. At the start the Japanese flag was carried into the arena very slowly, with a moving sense of formal calm.

The flags of the competing nations followed, Great Britain’s held by Laura Kenny, now the most decorated female British Olympian ever. And steadily the night dissolved into kind of world music mashup, from rhumba to nose flute twirls to jazz funk bass, as the athletes came bouncing into the stadium, clapped on heartily by a row of stewards who, besides dancing like your aunt at Christmas, seemed to be having a genuinely great time.

For a while the stadium resembled a human Fantasia, a whirl of colour and marching music – barks and bings, bagpipes, klaxons, strange gurgling noises. The volunteers passed through, waving at the crowd and drawing their own ovation. It is hard to do justice to the Tokyo 2020 volunteer army, who have been warm and stoical and endlessly patient with this mess of uncooperative humanity, and all this at a Games many Tokyoites didn’t want.

Athletes parade around the stadium for their final duty at the Games.
Athletes parade around the stadium. Photograph: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The nations came and went. Team Russia (Not Russia) waved for the camera.

The oddity of Russia’s presence here in such numbers despite an apparent doping ban – another dismal IOC saga, a tarnishing of the sports it is charged with preserving – was never the fault of the athletes. This was just a bunch of very happy young people having the time of their lives.

And by now the central carpet was crammed with all the flags of the world, glowing examples of physical splendour, of species power. OK, people of the cosmos. We’re ready for our close up now. That lot over there under the lights. That’s what we’re like. At its best Tokyo 2020 has been like this, not just spectacular but also soothing, a reminder that the world can also be a fun place.

As the flame was handed over by video link to Paris 2024, skyline captured in a stunningly beautiful film, it was hard again to avoid that duality.

For all the talk of a new “sustainable” Olympics, the world’s largest industrial sporting event will continue to toy with overspending, waste and dubious regimes. Men will appear on plinths talking about peace and love while the stadium noise drowns out the shouts beyond its walls.

And Tokyo will now breathe again, at the end of 14 days of spectator-free, fiercely marshalled competition, from rhythmic gymnastics to the two-person dinghy, from the fastest humans on Earth to the 87kg clean and jerk. This brilliantly seductive mess of a global sporting beano has now finally said goodbye – with grace and verve, but with a sense, also, of relief.


Barney Ronay at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium

The GuardianTramp

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