Tokyo 2020: the roller coaster Olympics

I wrote this sitting on the plane returning from Tokyo. The last two years have been a roller coaster for athletes s they were not sure if no when the Olympics would even take place. Even once it was clear that the Olympics would go forward, my opinion has been like a roller coaster, changing nearly every day as I saw a new aspect of this unique Games.

A pandemic Olympics

In July, as we prepared to leave for Japan, my thoughts were at the extreme. Even if having the Olympic Games is in so many ways necessary and important for me, my job, my sport, and athletes worldwide, I wasn’t sure if the Games should have taken place this year. Even more, to be honest, I didn’t really want to go either. With all of the COVID restrictions and regulations which we heard about, it sounded more like the athletes would go to Tokyo simply to give the IOC something to broadcast in order to secure their income. Performance didn’t seem to be the goal, let alone athlete welfare.

On the other hand the Olympic games is THE sporting event and fighting for an Olympic medal is one of the biggest goals we have. Athletes, coaches and scores of other people worked their asses off for four (and now five) years to focus on one particular day in Tokyo. So I decided to give it a try. And as we got ready to leave for our pre-camp in Miyazaki, my thinking started chang for the first time.

As more and more athletes posted on social media you could see their joy in getting the chance to compete, hear their goals, and posting pictures in their new team gear. You could start to see how much the Olympics meant to athletes from all over the world. That woke me up to the idea that maybe the world needed these games. 

Arriving in Japan

My mood was tempered slightly after that once we lived the reality of what it would take to get to Tokyo: innumerable tests, loads of paperwork, and specialty apps. But that frustration also went away when we arrived in Tokyo and saw a city prepared to greet us. The Olympic logo and scores of volunteers were always nearby. Everybody was polite helped; we didn’t even have to carry our own luggage. It took three hours to clear processing upon arrival. Being patient was not easy, but the volunteers made sure we could relax as much as possible.

The hospitality continued in Miyazaki. Sure, we were secluded in our hotel, separated completely from the other guests, and only allowed to leave in order to visit the training facilities. But we still had everything we needed. If we needed something, we just had to ask. We had a warm welcome and support was everywhere. The local children made posters wishing us luck, and origami presents too. We didn’t get to see much of Japan, but we still got to feel the local culture and people.

Navigating an empty stadium

As I watched the opening ceremony from Miyazaki, I became a sceptic again. The experience felt hollow without spectators. Waving to empty seats made no sense, and you could see the disappointment in the faces of more than a few athletes. That made we wonder, how it would be when we compete there?

Soon after we made our way into Tokyo, and things improved again. Arriving at the village and seeing all the athletes was a good feeling. Because our team was so big we stayed outside of the village at a hotel, but the protocols to enter the village were efficient. A new daily routine, a stick up the nose to test, was added, but otherwise we were focused and feeling the Olympic energy.

As competition got closer, it all began to feel more like a championship. There was even a feeling of normalcy as coaches came together again from around the world at the warm up stadium. I was together with coaches I used to see regularly, but now haven’t seen for two years.

As the Olympics went on we saw great competitions and great fights. The crowd was still missed and even after a great race I though: how much better would this have been if the stadium was sold out..But being back at international competitions was enough. It was nice to stand next to Vésteinn Hafsteinsson, Dale Stevenson, and Paulo Reis again as we shouted, coached, and watched good athletes. 

Olympics are about the people

The Japanese people did everything too to make this that worldful experience it was. And the athletes did to. No one likes the situation the world has found itself in, but it is the people who can help us make the most of it. It is the people—athletes, coaches, and volunteers—that make the Olympics special and this year year made that more clear than ever before.