Olympics set off in new direction after surprise success Tokyo 2020

This was the year when the Olympic Games almost never happened but eventually put on a show with new sports like surfing and skating at the forefront of its youth revolution, writes Lawrence Ostlere

Friday 31 December 2021 15:56
<p>Sky Brown in action during the women’s park final</p>

Sky Brown in action during the women’s park final

The build-up to Tokyo 2020 was overshadowed by whether it should go ahead at all, but such was its success that the Games may have changed the Olympics as we know it.

It all played out 12 months late, without fans and against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Only weeks before the opening ceremony there was still doubt over whether the Games would be on, be postponed or be cancelled altogether. The run-up was also steeped in controversy and scandal with a series of embarrassing resignations among organisers.

The ceremony itself was snubbed by most global politicians and, down the street from the Olympic Stadium, protesters could be heard chanting against the staging of the Games. It all set up expectation for Tokyo 2020 to be a major disappointment.

But they say to always under-promise and over-deliver, and on a purely sporting level these Olympic and Paralympic Games delivered much more than could have been anticipated. Covid-19 cases inside the Olympic bubble were kept to a minimum, allowing the action to flourish. It was often gripping and well worth the five-year wait.

From a British perspective it was another summer of success, winning 22 golds and 65 medals in total to finish fourth in the table behind superpowers USA and China, and the hosts Japan. Familiar faces like Jason and Laura Kenny, Tom Daley, Adam Peaty, Max Whitlock and Dame Sarah Storey added to their legacies, while new names like Tom Pidcock, Beth Shriever and Sky Brown began their own Olympic stories.

A sports mega-event like the Olympic Games is always boosted by the success of its host nation and Japan starred throughout, notably in the gymnastics hall where the 20-year-old Daiki Hashimoto won a magical all-around gold, one of the Olympics’ blue-riband events. But it was also in brand new sports where Japan flourished, and where the Games itself made waves, in a symbol of changing times.

Surfing, skateboarding and BMX freestyle all proved popular additions and could now be here to stay. The International Olympic Committee has spent the past decade coveting a younger audience after being shocked by data from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 which revealed a sharp increase in the average age of the Olympics’ global TV viewers, and it may now have found some solutions in its efforts to attract the next generation. Athletes like Briton’s 13-year-old Sky Brown were exactly the kind of new-age stars the IOC was looking for: young, fearless, with international appeal; entertainers perfect for the digital world, with talent that could be packaged up and spread in bite-sized clips.

Tokyo was just the start. Breakdancing or “breaking” is coming to Paris in 2024, having been trialled at the Youth Games. E-sports will not be far away either, and the sight of teenagers playing computer games is more likely to grace Los Angeles 2028 than squash, for example, given the demographics, despite continued appeals by the World Squash Federation.

IOC president Thomas Bach hailed Tokyo as a success with specific reference to digital engagement. “These Olympic Games were more youthful, more urban, more gender-balanced, bringing in new audiences and communities, and created new Olympians,” he said. “Our IOC & Tokyo 2020 social posts have generated more than 4.7 billion engagements in 2021 and a majority of them during the past 14 days.”

The new direction has plenty of critics, not least from within the Olympic machine itself. When breakdancing’s inclusion was put to IOC member Sebastian Coe by The Independent earlier this year, he rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s in there,” he said flatly. Just wait until E-sports arrive. But there is a steadfast determination to see through this Olympic revolution, which the IOC sees as essential for securing the future of the Games. Tokyo’s greatest legacy may be a new order which is here to stay.

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