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Despite everything, Tokyo 2020 shone

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

By Jim Withers

Maybe holding the Olympics during a pandemic wasn’t such a bad idea, after all.

Before the curtain came down on Tokyo 2020, I would have agreed with Bob Costas, the always-sagacious sportscaster, that the Games should have been delayed another year.

But, despite all the challenges posed by the coronavirus, the resulting lack of spectators and a suffocating heat wave, these Survivor Games somehow turned out to be as thrilling and inspiring as previous Olympics, at least from a TV perspective.

We’ve got the athletes to thank for that, plus the largely reluctant host nation, which is reeling from yet another wave of COVID-19.

Not everyone, of course, shares my passion for sports – in particular the five-ring, quadrennial smorgasbord of running, jumping, rowing, cycling, etc., that is the Olympic Games. In fact, some folks get downright ornery whenever the Olympics roll around. Even before the opening ceremonies you can count on them to ask, “Is it over yet?” They’ll follow this by reminding you yet again that they don’t give a rat’s ass about how Lower Slobbovia is doing in women’s tiddlywinks. (Translation: They don’t like weird games played by people from far-away places with strange-sounding names.)

Fine. I appreciate a good rant as much as the next guy. À chacun son goût. To each his own. It’s probably a good thing that we’re not all wired the same way, with the same interests, enthusiasms and points of view. If my father was disappointed in my not sharing his obsession with all things automotive, I’m glad that he never let on. (He would have loved that movie Ford v Ferrari.)

Cooking, woodworking, painting, piano playing, fishing – who knows where the particular passions come from that help define who we are? I just know that, as a little kid, something drove me to spend hours in the school library reading about Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang, the Melbourne Olympics, etc. (A love of sports spawned a love of history and reading.) It’s a cruel irony, though, that the gods completely overlooked me when they were handing out athletic skills. Except maybe for an all-too-brief period of half-decent long-distance running, I’ve always sucked at sports. On the football team, I was a drawback. As a goalie, I was about as effective as a screen door on a submarine. On the golf course, I inevitably end up doing an exciting impersonation of a Rototiller. And if I were ever chosen to be part of some unfortunate swim relay team, I’d make a great anchor (as in glug, glug).

No matter. Like Chauncey the gardener in Being There, I also like to watch. In fact, if couch-potatoing were an Olympic sport, Canada could have, thanks to me, added another gold to its impressive medal haul.

I might not be a karate aficionado, nor be familiar with all the finer points of fencing, but I nevertheless like to at least sample a bit of just about everything on the Olympic menu – winter and summer – including stuff I’d never look at any other time. Give me track, give me field, and helpings of swimming and rowing and gymnastics, plus a dollop of diving. And, what the hell, toss in some women’s beach volleyball, too.

Unlike with the intramural pro stuff (NHL, MLB, NFL, NBA), there’s something for everyone. At the Olympics, unlike in the World Series, say, the “world” isn’t limited to only teams from the U.S. and Toronto. The Olympics are for everybody – rich and poor, large and small. (Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, in the photo, captured her country's first-ever Olympic gold medal after growing up in poverty, having to use homemade weights at the start, and receiving death threats after being accused of plotting against dictator Rodrigo Duterte. San Marino, meanwhile, didn’t just win its first-ever Olympic medal; it actually captured three. Not bad for a little enclave with only 34,000 inhabitants.)

While I still follow my favourite teams – Go Canadiens! Go Alouettes! Go Canaries! Go Packers! – I must admit that my ardour for pro sports has faded over the decades. Getting old will do that. You naturally become more jaded and harder to impress. Boyhood sports heroes like Glenn Hall, George Armstrong, Russ Jackson, Al Kaline and Sandy Koufax seem far removed from the multimillionaire mercenaries of today (hello, Aaron Rodgers). Not only have I changed, but so have the times. Clearly, being part of a team now takes a back seat to blatant self-interest. Where have you gone, Jean Béliveau? A septuagenarian sports fan turns his lonely eyes to you.

The terms “sports hero” and “role model” have become pretty much obsolete in the world of pro sports, so it was refreshing to see that they were alive and well and competing at Tokyo 2020.

Christine Sinclair, the 38-year-old captain of Canada’s gold-medal-winning soccer team, is the embodiment of all that’s great about sport. Not only has she scored more goals in international competition than any other soccer player – male or female – but her tireless drive to be the best she can be at what she does, and her ability to lead by example, have inspired a generation of young girls, not to mention geezers like me. It’s easy to forget how far women’s sport has come in the past few decades, and I can’t think of anyone who has contributed more to that cause than Sinclair.

While it might not rank up there with Paul Henderson’s winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series as a where-were-you? moment, the highlight of Tokyo 2020 for me was Sinclair and teammates finally winning gold. How gratifying it was to see all those years of dedication and adversity finally rewarded. Thanks to lingering memories of their bitter loss to the U.S. in the London Olympics in 2012, victory over their archrivals in the semis was especially sweet. Nine years earlier, even Sinclair’s hat trick wasn’t enough to overcome poor officiating, but that was then.

Goaltender Stephanie Labbé, who played a crucial role in her team’s success, is also a class act. Labbé summed up beautifully what the Olympics are all about when she was asked by an interviewer what goes through her mind when she looks at her gold medal:

“I think about the incredibly challenging past year or two that everyone in this world has faced. And for me, I think about the really hard times, the dark days, where I struggled to get out of bed, when I struggled to find motivation to keep going. I think about when the Olympics were postponed, how that made me feel, how challenging that was, the weight of it, all of this hard work, all of the sacrifice, days when I continued to push, to be able to be in this moment, and to stand here with this gold medal and feel this emotion.”

Even as a mere spectator, I’m a sucker for the raw emotion – tears of joy and tears of heartbreak – that is part of every Olympics. How could you not feel for the Swedes, losing to Canada in a penalty shootout (maybe the cruellest thing in sports)? Or for Simone Biles? The superstar gymnast had to cope with pressure and scrutiny that would cause most mortals to fold up like a cheap Mar-a-Lago lawn chair.

Like millions of my compatriots, I was thrilled by Andre De Grasse rocketing down the straightaway to gold in the 200 metres, Damian Warner decimating his opponents in the decathlon and Maggie Mac Neil collecting a matching set (gold, silver, bronze) with her exploits in the pool. They and their teammates didn’t just impress with their athletic feats, but also by projecting the kind of good-guy image – humble, decent, family-oriented – that we’d like to think is typically Canadian. In other words, we like them because they make us look good.

I don’t know for sure, but I doubt that George Burns’s famous quip about sincerity being the key to success – “If you can fake that you’ve got it made” – applies to any of these-now household names. They seem to be the real deal to me, as do so many of those other Olympians – Canadian and others – who train year after year in obscurity, overcoming injuries, hoping to gain maybe 10 fleeting minutes in the global spotlight, on the biggest sporting stage, even though they know they’ll probably never get close to climbing on the podium. (Hey, 46th in the world in ANYTHING is still a major achievement.)

Ontario wrestler Erica Wiebe, who failed to repeat her gold-medal performance from Rio five years ago, was understandably near tears when a TV interviewer asked her why she puts herself through “all this.”

“I’m so inspired by the pursuit of excellence,” she said. “For me, that is what embodies the Olympic Games. I knew I would want to come back here, to feel that emotion, that feeling when I step on that mat under the bright lights. And if I can inspire the next generation of young women to be unapologetic about who they are and what they want, that’s all I can ask.”

The Olympics aren’t all fun and games. In fact, there’s much to criticize. Living in Montréal, I’m reminded of the mother of all Olympic boondoggles every time I lay eyes on the Olympic Stadium (a.k.a. the Big Owe). Bribery and other forms of corruption are widespread, and doping – especially the state-sponsored Russian variety – continue undermine the credibility of competition (especially weightlifting). And then there’s the IOC’s questionable decision to allow a country with such an appalling human-rights record as China to host the Winter Games next February.

Like pretty much like every other human enterprise, including American democracy and the Catholic Church, the Olympics are far from perfect. They can often reflect the ugliness that’s occurring throughout the world. Think Munich 1972.

But every once in a while, there are hopeful signs. I think of the first Saudi woman to compete in judo at the Olympics, who faced an Israeli opponent even though judokas from other Muslim countries refused to do so. Not only that, but after the match, the Israeli and the Saudi shook hands and raised their arms together. The world could use more of that.

The Land of the Rising Sun rose to the occasion. Tokyo 2020 made the best of a bad situation, which is only fitting because that’s what we’ve all been trying to do for a year and a half, with no end in sight. Tokyo 2020 not only reminded us that we’re all in this together, but it provided, for many of us at least, a much-needed diversion.

Breakdancing will be part of Paris 2024. Inspired as I am by what I’ve watched the past couple of weeks, I’m not tempted to start working on my moves.

A brisk walk in the park will do just fine.

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