Tokyo Olympics fully arrives as athletics light up hollow Olympic Stadium

On day one of the action at the Olympic Stadium, Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega won gold in the 10,000m, but there were no fans in attendance

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Olympic Stadium, Tokyo
Friday 30 July 2021 16:31
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From 25 men and 25 laps to one man and his last. Ethiopian Selemon Barega’s sharp burst at the death of Friday evening’s 10,000m race took him from a concealed cluster of rivals to the outright winner of Tokyo 2020’s first gold medal achieved in its Olympic stadium.

He was cloaked into the penultimate lap by Joshua Cheptegei, the world record holder at this and 5,000m distance, and the precocious Jacob Kiplimo. The breakaway brought with it chasers, but he held firm, especially so from the Ugandan pair in the straight to ensure they had to make do with silver and bronze, respectively.

There’s something special about that first gold achieved on a brick-red Olympic track. Naomi Osaka’s lighting of the flame opened the games but the Ethiopian’s outstretched arms as he crossed for victory followed by the familiar runner’s use of their flag as the most soul-warming of pashminas lit a fire in us all. Thanks for your time, swimming. Great job, cyclists. 3X3 basketball, sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met. Stand down - athletics has got it from here.

Say “Olympics” and most of us think athletics. That’s no slight on the countless others who have already had their turn. Their stories are no less inspiring, sacrifice no less commendable, medals no less shiny. But Olympic track and field, the undeniable pinnacle of its component disciplines, just hits different.

Partly that’s down to the recency bias of playing out in the final week of a games. Coming in late and taking all the glory, elbowing out the special moments in the days before and settling deep into the grey matter. So deep that, at times, it plays tricks on us. How many of you Olympic casuals need to remind yourselves that 2012’s Super Saturday, when Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford triumphed, was a full eight days before the end of the games? A midpoint that still feels like the ultimate finale.

Because of that, Olympic stadiums carry a special grandeur, even this completely empty one sticking out in the thriving Shinjuku City district. The Japanese locals flocked to its outer limits with no intention of breaking through, just to get as close to the action as possible for the “I was (almost) there” anecdotes these occasions brings us to pass down to future generations.

The Japanese public were broadly against these Olympics in the midst of a pandemic. And as the current coronavirus situation worsens around the bubbled confines of play dotted throughout this city, these 16 days will reflect badly on an IOC who refuse to acknowledge they have brought further concern rather than the hope and optimism they talk up.

Yet as two lines swelled outside the arena - one for photos with the Olympic rings, the other up against the metal fences trying to catch sight of an athlete (all they saw were journalists) - an Olympic truism revealed itself. By the time the athletics are underway, even the cynical are wondering what treats await in the final week.

It was the same in London 2012: predicted to be a shambles, ending with all of us convincing ourselves everything was brilliant and never going to get worse. Similarly in Rio 2016, the disorganised mess gave way to the optimism that Brazil was awakening into a new world before it quickly settled back into the old one.

It goes without saying – and yet probably should be said – that Friday’s action in this colosseum felt hollow. Just as it has been over the last eight days, teammates and coaching staff tried to concoct an atmosphere themselves. But the bulging corners of this venue designed to swirl the cheers of 48,000 instead bounced around before losing enthusiasm.

Night temperatures were 30C and 73 per cent humidity. It's always the most preferable time of day, though those numbers show just how gruelling the day sessions can be.

The 4x400 mixed relay at the Olympic Stadium

Speed was still impacted, but it did not mean there was any less on what took place. The biggest cheer of the night came from the German mixed-relay team who were confirmed in the 4x400 final as one of the two fastest outside the top three as the times hit the big screen for the last of the two heats.

That event was perhaps the most empty: a combination of breathless pace and intriguing match-ups that would have had all chattering about tactics and out of their seats. With teams made up of two men and two women, those in charge lived or died by the order chosen.

Great Britain’s choice of Zoey Clark and Emily Diamond holding the middle while Cameron Chalmers and Lee Thompson kicked things off and brought it home, respectively, was the most common strategy. Nigeria, however, decided male sprinter Nathaniel Samson Oghenewebga would take the penultimate leg, blitzing the otherwise all women field before handing over to Patience Okon-George, who is no slouch. She valiantly held a diminishing lead to the cusp of the final bend, only for the seven men to chase her down and cross the finish line ahead of her.

They would have also crescendoed perfectly into the conclusion of the medal race. This was not a quick 10,000m by any stretch, but as ever, all the technical jousting in the middle gave way to the kind of excitement any couch-to-couch enthusiast could enjoy.

The bell for the last round seemed to ring like a starter pistol for Barega, who kicked like he was off from a sprinter’s block to break away from the main race-within-a-race faction. He was momentarily overtaken by Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed, before reasserting himself at the front and holding the lead until the end.

Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega celebrate as he crosses the finish line in the 10,000m

His final 800 of 53.94 seconds looked every bit as impressive as it was - the fastest kilometre of an Olympics 10k race in history. The celebration, too, spoke of uncapped elation: continuing on for almost 100m more before posing just to the left of the javelin V on the centre turf, holding each one long enough for the cameras to get over to him.

With that, he searched for his representatives in the crowd before, finally, succumbing to his efforts and pausing to catch his breath. Not long after, the silence returned and we were reminded once more that no one was here to enjoy any of that, and how much greater it would have been if they were.

Fans were still congregating on the outer perimeter at 10pm, drawn to the light of the stadium amid the deep black Tokyo night. They will be back tomorrow, and the day after that, right the way through to the closing ceremony a week on Sunday. All searching for their own part of history while the athletes do the same out of sight.

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