The Olympics never cease to provide compelling human drama.
For a few moments, forget about the doping scandals, the astronomical cost of preparing for and staging the Games, the IOC’s kowtowing to repressive regimes, but remember this: For good and for bad, there’s nothing quite like the global sports extravaganza in modern times.
The delayed Tokyo Games gave us an endless supply of incredible stories. There were daily glimpses of the camaraderie between athletes, spontaneous euphoria, tears of joy, genuine appreciation for coaches’ wisdom, encouragement and discipline and gratitude for families, friends and supporters. It was a constant reminder that you can never say thank you too many times.
And now, after 339 medal events in 33 sports have all been finished for several days, the dust has settled. The Olympic flame is no longer flickering in the nation’s capital, but so many memories remain vivid and meaningful.
For all of its abundant resources, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t use a calendar with labeling of dates that makes any sense. For example, the softball and women's soccer tournaments began on July 21, but the “first day” of the Olympics wasn’t until July 23, when the Opening Ceremony was held.
Before I digress any further, here are some of my favorite memories from the Tokyo Olympics, memories that actually began before the official Day One on the Olympic calendar.
Witnessing the collective energy and intense determination that spearheaded the Japan softball team’s journey from the first pitch of its opening game at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium (an 8-1 victory over Australia, starting at 9 a.m. with Japan ace Yukiko Ueno on the pitching slab) to the last out of its championship-winning match against the United States on July 27 at Yokohama Stadium. It was fitting that Ueno and starting center fielder Eri Yamada, holdovers from Japan’s 2008 Olympic gold medal-winning squad in Beijing, played in the opener, bridging the two eras.
Enjoying Tunisian teenager Ahmed Hafnaoui’s incredible performance in the pool on July 25. Not only did the 18-year-old win the men’s 400-meter freestyle final (in 3 minutes, 43.36 seconds, but he did so from Lane 8. It’s rare to see the outside lanes produce the fastest swims, but Hafnaoui was No. 1 on this day at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. “I just put my head in the water and that's it,” the gold medalist said after the race. “I just can't believe it. It's a dream come true.”
Following the online buzz generated by the Japan men’s basketball team’s first Olympic game since the 1976 Montreal Games on July 26 against Group C opponent Spain, the reigning world champion, at Saitama Super Arena. Despite an 88-77 loss, Japan brought immeasurable excitement to its longtime hard-core fans and others who have grown enamored with the sport in recent years. Seeing two NBA players ー Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe ー on the big stage against Spain’s stars (and the Akatsuki Five’s next two opponents, Slovenia and Argentina) was a surreal experience for so many, one that will have a lasting impact on the sport here.
In his post-game comments after scoring 20 points against Spain in his Olympic debut, Hachimura said: "It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to play at the Olympics.”
Hachimura’s dream was muted by the reality of the pandemic: games without spectators. “It would have been nice to play in front of a crowd,” he said, “seeing that we’re in Japan, but I know our fans are watching on TV and we hear them."
Gazing at the mesmerizing action on the court as Japan women's national team point guard Rui Machida exhibited brilliant playmaking and passing skills.
The 162-cm (5-foot-3) floor conductor dished out 15 assists, tying an Olympic women's record, on August 2 against Nigeria, then handed out 18 assists against France four days later. In between, she registered 14 assists against one turnover in the tournament semifinals against Belgium on August 4. It was special to watch Machida lead Japan to a runner-up finish in the tournament against the United States, with the host nation earning its first-ever Olympic basketball medal.
Seeing the incandescent delight on the face of 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya after she won the inaugural women’s street skateboarding final on July 26.
Recognizing that Norwegian Karsten Warholm’s performance in the men’s 400-meter hurdles final (45.94 seconds) was one of the most astonishing athletic feats of the 21st century. He obliterated his own world record by 0.76 seconds on the springy, high-tech track at the New National Stadium on August 3.
Being awed while learning about the pride that Indian journalists experienced in reporting on the nation’s first Olympic track and field medal since 1900. Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra won the gold medal on August 7. Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times provided the engrossing details in one of his dispatches from the big city, highlighting a 3 a.m. visit to a transportation depot near the New National Stadium as the rain poured down:
“There was nowhere to take cover, but the only other reporter waiting offered me a spot to huddle under his umbrella. He was from India. And he was excited. … It was only India’s second individual gold medal in Olympic history, it’s first in track and field. And he got to tell the story.”
This Indian journalist bore witness to something that more than a billion people in his homeland might be interested in reading about. Talk about a target audience!
Detailing in an Olympic Impressions column how swimmer and leukemia survivor Rikako Ikee understands that winning a race isn’t a life-or-death event.
Since Ikee’s return to the pool last summer, she has inspired many people in Japan and overseas. And even though the Japan women’s 4x100-meter freestyle relay squad didn't advance out of its qualifying heat on July 24, Ikee found a way to accentuate the positives about the experience.
“It was fun to take part with this team,” Ikee was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
She added: “Personally it was very pleasing to be able to stand on this stage.”
Observing the special bond that baseball legends Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui share in their very public moment before a global audience during the Opening Ceremony, when the three icons served as torch bearers togethers. Olympic organizers got that part of the plan just right. It was a perfect touch of nostalgia, kindred spirit, a respectful tip of the cap to baseball’s elder statesmen, too. Matsui also helped the 85-year-old Nagashima, who suffered a stroke many years ago, maintain his balance as he walked. That, too, was seamlessly blended into the night’s festivities.
Appreciating the incredible dedication to his craft that gymnast Daiki Hashimoto possesses. Winning the men’s all-around final (the sport’s toughest feat), which he did on July 28, is like climbing Mt. Everest. And once you’re at the top, going back to another summit anytime soon requires great physical stamina and mental sharpness. Similarly, to compete again in a “lesser” event after capturing the top individual honor in the sport requires laser-sharp focus. But there was Hashimoto, showing poise beyond his years, and rising to the occasion with 15.066 points on the horizontal bar on August 3, four days before his 20th birthday. Another event, another gold for Hashimoto, who said he benefited from the Games’ one-year delay. He had more time to train.
“It’s been a productive year for me,” Hashimoto said after collecting his second gold medal. “If I had competed [in the Olympics] last year, I don’t think I would’ve had the same results. I believe I grew a lot in the past year.”
Being reminded that it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. Judoka Shori Hamada made her Olympic debut at age 30 and made the most of the opportunity. In the women’s under-78 kg final on July 29, Hamada seized the moment and won the gold medal, beating France’s Madeleine Malonga by ippon. Twenty years after she began participating in the sport, the surreal aftermath/reflection of what just happened engulfed the new Olympic champion’s emotions.
"I knew I would give it [my] all,” Hamada told reporters. “I remember what I experienced with her before and I used that to my benefit today. Usually she is strong during the first half [of a match], but I was not going to let her get away from me this time."
It had been two years since Malonga beat Hamada in the final at the World Judo Championships at Nippon Budokan, the same venue for the Olympics.
Two years changed everything for Hamada.
Author: Ed Odeven