So how was it for you? Whether you loved or hated them, you have to admit these Olympic Games were a crazy proposition. With 206 competing teams, they were bigger and more diverse than the United Nations and – with an estimated bill of at least £12bn, 111% over budget – the Japanese could have bought 300 new 300-bed hospitals, or 1,200 elementary schools, with what they cost to put on.
The Games always have been, and always will be, like this. Which is why, when the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin first suggested reviving the ancient Olympics in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1892, a lot of the people in the audience thought he was joking.
Even after De Coubertin badgered the Greeks into pressing ahead with the first Games at Athens in 1896, they kept trying to back out of it. None of the venues would be ready, the costs were too high, the scale was too big, the whole project was too ambitious. And it still feels that way now, 125 years later, when Coubertin’s original concept has changed into something else altogether. The sports historian David Goldblatt accurately describes the modern Olympics as a “secular commercialised celebration of universal humanity”. They are the closest we come to a global get-together, so big, now, that the tent even includes room for the people who want to be outside it. The Games have designated spaces for all the protesters who want them abolished.
There are a few more of those now, in Japan in particular. These Olympics have set some unwanted records. In the second week daily cases of Covid reached a new high nationwide. More than a third of them were in Tokyo, where the figures have almost tripled in the last fortnight. Only 350 or so of those were directly linked to the Olympics but that doesn’t count the secondary effects, such as the mixed messages sent by a government that was telling people to stay at home and obey social distancing even while it was holding a two-day national holiday to celebrate the start of the party.
A party that cost more than $6bn of public money, but which the public themselves could not attend. You would be angry too, wouldn’t you? That was the saddest part about it, all the parents and children waiting outside the Olympic fences trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside, the people queuing up to take pictures through the metal netting between them and the Olympic Stadium. It made for some surreal moments, too. On the first weekend the only section of Tsurigasaki beach that wasn’t busy was the stretch set aside for the people who had tickets to watch the Olympic surfing.
All those empty stands meant these Olympics lived side-by-side with the promise of the ones they could have been. The decision not to let in any spectators, even at reduced capacity, was all the more puzzling because cinemas and concert halls were still open for business around the city. It was a consequence of the push-me pull-you political fight between the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government.
The IOC will roll on regardless of the damage to its reputation, just like it always does. The Beijing Winter Olympics starts in six months and will bring its own, entirely new, set of challenges. The Japanese government, on the other hand, may pay for it at the next general election.
So what did the Japanese get in return for it all? A record number of medals and countless hours of content, which they, like everyone else, devoured eagerly. Most days, the Olympic coverage reached more than 85 million Japanese, which is more than two-thirds of the population. The sport was spectacular, of course, and a welcome distraction for weary worn-down people right around the world. You can pick your own favourites, whether it was one of the three gold medals Elaine Thompson-Herah won in the sprints, the five Caeleb Dressel won in the Olympic pool, the one Momiji Nishiya took in the women’s street skateboarding, or any of the 330 other gold medals awarded in the last fortnight.
What it all added up to, whether it was, or ever could be, anything more than sport, is another question again. The IOC president, Thomas Bach, insisted the Games had given “hope and confidence not just to the Olympic movement but to the entire world”. Some were not so sure. “It’s special,” said Fiji’s rugby sevens captain Jerry Tuwai after his team had won, “but a gold medal can’t replace a human life.” Tuwai’s teammate Asaeli Tuivuaka spoke movingly about what he had been through in the last few months, too. Tuivuaka lost his father during the pandemic, and has a one‑year-old boy whom he hasn’t seen in five months because he has been in lockdown with the rest of the team. “I didn’t even get to kiss him goodbye when I left …”
That gets at what turned out to be, for me, the theme of these Olympics. It was there right from the start, when Adam Peaty won Great Britain’s very first gold medal. Peaty spoke about how he had had to balance training in lockdown with becoming a father for the first time. “This last year it felt almost like we were under siege,” he said. “There were some days when I woke up and said: ‘This is hard, this is really hard,’ there were so many challenges, and some fucking breakdowns as well.”
It was there when Tom Dean won gold in the 200m freestyle, too, and spoke about how he had been so sick with Covid that he wasn’t sure he would ever make it to Tokyo.
It was in the words of the Czech beach volleyball player Marketa Slukova, who was forced out of the competition when she tested positive for Covid two days before her opening game. “We cried, then we swore, then we cried again.”
It was in Tom Daley’s gratitude after he had won his bronze in the 10m platform diving. “I made it to an Olympic Games after 18 months of uncertainty and every single Olympian that is here should be extremely proud of the fact that they made it here.”
And it was, in a different way, there again in Simone Biles’s decision to step back from the Olympic competition. It was there in all the stories about people training in garages, roads and back gardens. You could even find it among the weary protestors outside the Olympic stadium, chanting: “No more Games!”
There is something undeniably silly and self-indulgent in worrying about who’s won what in the middle of the global pandemic, when so much of the local population were so dead‑set against the Olympics. Peaty said it himself: “Athletes have to be selfish.” But then one of the defining moments of these Games was when Mutaz Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi chose to share the gold medal in the high jump. And listening to all those competitors, from all those countries, share their own stories about how they – and the people around them – have struggled in the 18 months, you felt a kind of kinship with, and between, them.
It was the same message delivered in dozens of different languages: this is hard, but we are persisting. And it carried with it a sense of the pandemic as a problem shared between eight billion people. It felt, then, like these Games were closer than ever to reaching that kind of universality the IOC aspires to achieve.