Opinion | Every single one of these Tokyo Olympics athletes is exceptional. A bow of respect to them and Japan for pulling the Games off

TOKYO—It began in the pool on a Sunday morning at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre when Penny Oleksiak touched the wall after the fastest 100-metre relay split of her career. First medal of these Olympics, a silver, for Canada. Everybody knows Penny.

It ended on a Sunday morning at the Izu Velodrome, Kelsey Mitchell outpacing all rivals in the women’s track cycling sprint. Last medal of these Olympics, a gold, for Canada. And probably you could count the people who’d ever heard of Mitchell, outside the sport, on the fingers of one hand.

Between first and last, over the course of precisely two weeks, Canadian athletes racked up 24 podium finishes — two dozen medals in all hues, the most hardware ever amassed in a non-boycotted summer Games. Tying the record for gold (seven) set in Barcelona 29 years ago.

From basketballer Miranda Ayim and rugby co-captain Nathan Hirayama carrying the flag at the opening ceremony to decathlon champion Damian Warner carrying the flag at the closing ceremony, it’s been a whirlwind fortnight.

These have been the strangest Games ever, deferred by a year and staged against the hand-wringing anxieties — confines, really — of a global pandemic that has killed four million globally and is currently lashing Japan. Although you wouldn’t know it from bustling Tokyo where nothing is closed, with offices, stores and restaurants open. Debate will likely continue to rage over whether they should have been held at all. But give Tokyo 2020 this much: They pulled it off.

A bow of respect to Japan.

Maybe not a sweeping victory — kanshou. More of a narrow victory —shinshou.

If my kanji translation is wrong, somebody will correct me.

Fifty-eight medals for the host nation — 27 of them gold, from their first ever female boxing champion to debut karate and inaugural skateboarding champions to beloved samurai baseball champions — looks splendid on Japan.

Although their athletes shouldn’t have apologized so profoundly and so tearfully when they came up just short. Over and over Japanese athletes cried in mixed zones and on podiums — sorrysorrysorry — as if they’d let their nation down with a silver or a bronze.

Gold medallist and flag-bearer Damian Warner led about 120 Canadian athletes into the stadium at the Tokyo Olympics.

  • Canadian athletes enjoy the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.

“I wanted to return my gratitude to the concerned people and volunteers who are running the Olympics during this difficult time,” Kenichiro Fumita told reporters between sobs after winning silver in Greco-Roman wrestling. “I ended up with this shameful result. I’m truly sorry.”

That’s just heartbreakingly wrong.

Upwards of 11,000 athletes competed in Tokyo in 33 sports; only 339 medals were awarded. Just think of all the tens of thousands who didn’t even make the cut in national and regional qualifying stages. Every single one of these Games participants is exceptional, and to have done it with training disrupted by a plague and peak performance timelines redrafted and too hastily rehabbed injuries. They take your breath away.

I’m thinking now especially of Canadians Caeli McKay and Meaghan Benfeito who were sitting silver in the 10-metre synchro diving competition until a final highly difficult dive, executed poorly, dropped them to fourth, 0.54 behind Mexico. Three weeks previously, 22-year-old McKay had torn the ligaments in her foot and couldn’t walk. When the duo came into the mixed zone, Benfeito was carrying McKay on her back.

I’m thinking of reigning world champion pole vaulter Sam Kendricks from the U.S., who tested positive for COVID upon his arrival in Tokyo — and that was it for his Games.

I’m thinking of Fiji rugby sevens captain Jerry Tuwai, with a gold medal around his neck, telling journalists how he almost bailed during the six months of separation from his wife and kids, training in Australia, isolated by COVID travel restrictions.

“I nearly jumped camp because I missed them.”

Coach Gareth Baber convinced him to stay and hold the squad together, so “we can continue the journey to Tokyo.”

The tiny Pacific Island has been devastated by the pandemic. They’ve had more than 25,000 cases, from a population of just 900,000.

I’m thinking of 18-year-old Christine Mboma of Namibia who was among the female athletes declared ineligible to run races of 400 metres to a mile because of a natural genetic condition that raises their testosterone level. So Mboma switched to the 200-metre event and copped silver, proudly draping herself in her national flag. Afterwards, retired Polish sprinter Marcin Urbaś demanded Mboma take a sex-reaffirming test to confirm she “definitely is a woman.”

Goodwill doesn’t always come with the territory.

Ninety-three out of 205 countries (including the Refugee Olympic Team) will celebrate a homecoming athlete in possession of a medal, including a first-ever gold — weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz — for the Philippines. Pride and joy spread around the planet.

These were the Games we didn’t know we needed. Because it’s been a hell of a year, hell of an 18 months, and everyone is on their last nerve. Masks-no-masks. Vaccines-no-vaccines. Surges one through four. Lockdowns and unzips. Indoors and outdoors. Rolling infection rates and virus variants.

Yet for two weeks, even within the snarl of restrictions and maddening protocols, the athletes brought it with class and fortitude and a blinkered focus. We who watched were enthralled. That is the Brigadoon of the Olympics. Strip away the manufactured idealism, the jingoistic jangle — which was quite muted in Tokyo, largely because of vacant venues — and what’s left is the intrinsic beauty of sports.

It wasn’t quite a shared experience, where everyone enjoyed the grace notes and the clanging notes and the agonizing notes at the same time, because the Olympic symphony played at varying rpms across 24 time zones — for viewers — and on a bewildering array of platforms: live, taped, streaming. On social media — Instagram, YouTube, WeChat, Snapchat, TikTok — straight from the athletes to you and back again.

Many participants, however, admitted they’d quit social media entirely or temporarily because of the vicious abuse they’d received. “Even though I don’t want to see them, they came into my view on their own,’’ a tearful Mai Murakami, Japanese gymnast, told reporters. “I feel so disappointed and sad.”

South Korean archer An San collected her third gold medal, yet was slammed by thousands of online trolls criticizing her boyish short haircut. She was accused of being — wait for it — a feminist in a country, South Korea, where the term is often associated with man-hating. “Are you sure An San isn’t a feminist,” one Instagram grump wrote. “She meets all the requirements to be one.”

Online abuse of competitors has become such a global issue that the International Olympic Committee now provides a telephone counselling service for athletes.

Some Olympians will join the pantheon of sporting luminaries. Oleksiak, with her Canada-high seven medals, is already there. So is sprinter divine Andre De Grasse, six-for-six in his events, Rio through Tokyo, and golden here in the 200. So is flag-bearer Warner.

But others, even gold-glittered, will slip out of memory soon enough. Olympic fame is fleeting for many, unlike their megastar counterparts in pro sports. Who will recall at all the multiple fourth-place finishers in Tokyo — that most cruel of fates; they don’t even appear on the running tally board. Canadian women ran a valiant 4×400 relay on Saturday night but lost bronze by six-tenths of a second to Jamaica.

Here’s to them, all the brilliant also-rans and the victorious.

Most of all though to Japan, for a Games singularly unique but unforgettable.

Arigato from the world. And sayonara.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno


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