Tokyo extinguished its Olympic flame on Sunday in a ceremony that echoed the restraint of games held without spectators and transformed by the global pandemic, dazzling sport and deeply personal upheaval.
After postponing the Tokyo 2020 Games for a year, organizers said the event would serve as a symbol of the pandemic’s global triumph. But with strict pandemic countermeasures and as COVID-19 variants made a comeback around the world, the Olympics did not achieve the triumph and financial windfall that Japan wanted.
The ceremony, though dull, gave athletes a glimpse into everyday Tokyo life as the Olympic stadium was transformed into a park with grass, buskers and BMX racers.
The stage was designed for visitors to “experience Tokyo,” organizers said, a poignant reminder of the games’ many restrictions.
It was a duly strange end to an unprecedented event. Japan is now grappling with a bill of $ 15 billion, double what it initially expected, and no tourism boom.
The president of the International Olympic Committee thanked the Japanese people and recognized the difficulty of organizing the games during the pandemic.
“For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the whole world has come together,” said Thomas Bach. “No one has ever put on a postponed game before.”
Public anger over the pandemic response and a slow vaccine launch have seriously damaged the reputation of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Opinion polls have shown that most Japanese people oppose holding the games during the pandemic.
Still, organizers appear to have prevented the Tokyo Games from turning into a COVID-19 super-spreader event, notable given that some 50,000 people have gathered amid the pandemic.
As a sign of the measures, the winners accepted their prizes on platters, putting the medals around their necks, although social distancing protocols such as hug prevention were largely ignored throughout the games.
While the bubble – the collection of venues and hotels to which Olympic visitors were largely confined – seemed to hold, elsewhere some things collapsed. Fueled by the Delta variant of the virus, daily infections reached more than 5,000 for the first time in Tokyo, threatening to overwhelm its hospitals.
Japan’s medal record also helped take some of the stinging away for the organizers. The United States finished first with 39 gold medals, one more than their Chinese rivals at 38 and Japan at 27.
The games also highlighted the Olympic Games’ effort for more diversity.
For the first time, a victory ceremony was held for the women’s and men’s marathon events. The Kenyan anthem twice filled the 68,000-seat stadium for gold medalists Peres Jepchirchir and Eliud Kipchoge. And when they did, the games themselves provided a lot of drama.
In a moment more reminiscent of the Cold War, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya refused to board a return flight after being taken to the airport against her will. She has since applied for refugee status in Poland.
American superstar gymnast Simone Biles shocked the world when she withdrew from five of her six events, including abruptly dropping out of the women’s team final after attempting a single jump, citing concerns for her mental health and physical.
His candid admission, combined with earlier comments from Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, has focused on athletes’ mental health issues.
In athletics, Italy provided a different kind of shock with their incredible run. Their victories included a stunning gold in the men’s sprint relay, bringing their gold total in track and field to five.
In swimming, an American team without Michael Phelps, 23 times Olympic gold medalist, still finished the game at the top of the medal table.
Ending five years of intense preparations for the athletes, some of them lay down on the grass placed in the stadium. Some seemed to relax as they watched a flurry of fireworks light up the Tokyo sky.
For the first time, the closing ceremony featured live celebrations from the next host city as Parisians greeted the handing over of the Olympic flag.
In a pre-recorded video, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet performed the French national anthem on his saxophone – in weightlessness – from the International Space Station as a symbol of the universality of the Olympics, and jets released blue, white fumes and red – the colors of the French flag – in the sky over the capital.
French President Emmanuel Macron was filmed on the top floor of the Eiffel Tower reciting the new Olympic slogan “higher, faster, stronger, together”.
The evening ended at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo with a final burst of fireworks and the word “Arigato” – Japanese word for thank you – lighting up the night sky.