Tokyo 2020: The silence and the screams

  • With no spectators, who make the quadrennial event feel like no other sporting event in the world, some of the great performances across a fortnight had to make do with shrieks of delight or tears of joy or dismay from the athletes themselves.
Empty stands are seen at the Tokyo Stadium as athletes compete in the swimming portion of the men's modern pentathlon at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP)
Empty stands are seen at the Tokyo Stadium as athletes compete in the swimming portion of the men's modern pentathlon at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP)
Updated on Aug 08, 2021 10:55 PM IST
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By N Ananthanarayanan, New Delhi

The second Tokyo Olympics could well come to be known as the Silent Games in the future. With no spectators, who make the quadrennial event feel like no other sporting event in the world, some of the great performances across a fortnight had to make do with shrieks of delight or tears of joy or dismay from the athletes themselves.

How do you play an Olympic basketball game without a crowd countdown? It was the case at Tokyo 2020, the Games the hosts neither wanted to stage nor could let go of. The US dream team with its NBA stalwarts, led by Kevin Durant, sealed a thrilling victory in a closely fought game, supported only by its own athletes. (Full Tokyo 2020 Coverage)

The silence was no less disheartening for India in the nation’s greatest moment of sporting pride on Saturday night. Their first medal from track and field had taken a century to come, and Neeraj Chopra had delivered not just a medal, but gold, no less. But his glittering moment was shrouded in silence as he took a victory lap around the track at the Olympic Stadium--which can seat 68,000 people with only a handful of fellow competitors and Indian coaches in the stands to cheer him on.

TOKYO OLYMPICS CLOSING CEREMONY - HIGHLIGHTS

Having the finest wrestlers, table tennis and baseball players and judokas perform to empty stands in a land where all these sports have a huge tradition and enjoy massive popularity added to the silent, subdued theme.

There was gratitude that Japan eventually—commercial compulsions apart—hosted the Games, which the athletes acknowledged everywhere.

With no crowd to sway to their cause, teammates and coaches sometimes provided competing athletes with that extra energy of something primal and deeply felt. For proof, you can't do better but to watch (or rewatch) the wild celebrations of Australian swimmer Ariarne Titmus's coach after she upstaged the great Katie Ledecky in the 400m freestyle.

With no crowd to play the role of arbiters for their performances and ignite rivalries, the athletes reached out to each other, in triumph and despair. Or in shared success, like what Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and the effervescent Italian Gianmarco Tamberi did to share the gold in the high jump instead of deciding it on a jump-off after they were tied at the end of their normal series of jumps. Tamberi, in fact, spent the entire evening of his competition passionately cheering other athletes (including Barshim), from whatever nationality, in a range of different sports. When Italy's Lamont Jacob won an improbable 100m sprint, Tamberi was there on the track to hug him.

The Indian women’s hockey team, gutted after their loss in the bronze medal playoff felt the warmth of their victors as Great Britain players came over to console them.

This was also the Olympics where athletes had to put their medals around their own necks; but here too, the athletes stepped up. In team or relay events, they put the medals on each other to bring some semblance of normality to the ceremonies.

At other times, Tokyo 2020 had the feel and warmth of a local meet. India hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, awash with exhilaration after sealing a bronze that ended a 41-year wait for the country, could well have been sitting on a wall after a game in the alley, the way he sat on the goal after beating Germany.

“A goalkeeper’s is a lonely job. Most of the time I’m alone in the goal and he is my best buddy. Whenever I’m frustrated, I talk to my goal first. When we concede, I say buddy that’s not the way. When the ball hits the goalpost, I tell it that’s the way, please save it,” Sreejesh said after the win that got India their first hockey medal in 41 years.

The roar of the crowd was missing, the victorious screams of the athletes was not.

There was the scream of relief, joy and letting off pent-up emotions.

Mirabai Chanu started it, after winning silver in weightlifting on Day 1 of medal events. PV Sindhu let off an almighty scream after shaking off the dejection of the semi-final loss the previous day to win bronze. Lovlina Borgohain too shrieked in triumph and relief in the near-empty boxing arena after her quarterfinal victory assured bronze.

But the scream that defines Tokyo 2020 came from Norway's Karsten Warholm, after he won the men's 400m Hurdles in what is, arguably, the greatest race run in the Olympics, and after he became the first man to run the race in under 46 seconds.

It was the scream of being on top of the world, echoing through a massive, empty stadium.

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Friday, October 22, 2021