Life & Art

Triumph of tenacity

12 August, 2021

Athletes and organisers made the best of extraordinarily difficult circumstances to deliver an outstanding performance at the Tokyo 2020 (2021) Olympics. They demonstrated why the games are important and offer some valuable lessons for hosting future events.

By Duncan Levine

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (postponed by a year until 2021 and which wrapped up on 8 August), is one for the record books. This was not just for the usual reasons, like sporting prowess (plenty of Olympics and World Records were broken, as is usual for any games), nor for the number of new sports added (such as surfing, climbing, and skateboarding), but most significantly for having been held under the extraordinary restrictions and measures necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite the most trying of circumstances, the organisers can justifiably claim that Tokyo 2020 was another outstanding delivery of the greatest show on earth, whose significance extends well beyond mere sports contests to inspiring the youth, fostering international relations, and supporting a vast economic supply chain. Everyone involved in the games should be applauded for their determination and perseverance in showing what can be done, even during a global health crisis. Their experience will serve as a useful reference not only for future Olympic Games but also other large-scale sports events, concerts, and trade shows.

For almost a year and a half athletes endured on-and-off lockdowns, sub-standard training facilities and regimes (sometimes in their own living rooms, garages, or back yards), and multiple other obstacles and annoyances in their efforts to prepare for the games. Understandably, this proved too much for some, who opted not to participate. Others made it all the way to Tokyo, only to be sent home before they were able to compete after testing positive for Covid-19. Nevertheless, large teams from 205 countries and territories competed in 339 medal events across multiple sporting disciplines and venues. And despite all the obstacles, they performed superbly. Over 20 Olympic or World records were broken. Host Japan’s athletes, for example, put in their best ever Olympic performance, winning 27 gold, 14 silver and 17 bronze medals, placing them third in overall medal count, after the United States and China, while Taiwan’s Olympic team also put in its own best ever performance, coming away with two gold, four silver and six bronze medals.

As for the organisers, even in ordinary times, the logistical challenge of making arrangements for over 200 teams across 42 venues is staggering, not to mention the transport, accommodation and catering requirements that go with it. It is difficult to imagine the extra effort that was required to do this during a pandemic. While having to stay permanently inside the Olympic bubble, being deprived of contact with fellow athletes and the lack of spectators must have taken a toll on athletes, spare a thought for the thousands of support staff and volunteers landed with the thankless task of administering Covid-19 tests (numbering over half a million over the course of the games) and politely enforcing compulsory masking and all the other protocols put in place to minimise the spread of infection. The games could not have proceeded so smoothly were it not for their tireless diligence and patience.

Although not the first sporting event to do so, this was also the first Olympic Games to be held largely without spectators. While this was no doubt disappointing for competitors as well as sports fans, it is always the case that a lot more people watch the games on TV than in person (and nowadays also on other digital platforms), pandemic notwithstanding. This year, hundreds of millions of viewers watched the games on TV or the IOC’s digital platforms on other devices. When so much of the news these days is dark and dismal, the non-stop coverage of the games provided a welcome relief from the daily deluge and drudgery.

Detractors will cite the enormous bill to be paid by Japanese taxpayers and the spike in Covid-19 cases over the course of the pandemic as justification for their opposition to the games. The sky-rocketing costs of hosting the games is indeed a valid objection that is already very much occupying the minds of senior officials in the International Olympic Committee (IOC, the organisation responsible for organising the games). But the charge that the games were responsible for a surge in Covid-19 cases in Japan is not easy to prove. While some 350 Covid-19 cases were discovered among athletes and support staff over the course of the games, there was no evidence that they spread the disease outside the bubble. The more likely reason for a spike in cases in Japan at large was the fact that more people were venturing out at the time. True, many were gathering outside venues to take pictures or crowding onto bridges to get a (distant) view of some events, but people were bound to venture out at some point anyway since they were already tiring of the Covid-19 restrictions. If they had not ventured out during the Olympics, some other activity would have prompted them to. The fact remains that the exhaustive efforts to keep the Olympic bubble intact were largely successful. This will serve as an important reference for organisers of future events, sporting, as well as other kinds.

The question as to whether or not the games are worthwhile deserves a deeper examination. Armchair critics of the games usually overlook the fact that they are so much more than a two-week-long spectacle held every four years. The significance and benefits of the games go well beyond just sport. Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Games, held that it was not the winning but the taking part that mattered most. In this sense, the games are not just the ultimate showcase of years of exhaustive training by the world’s best athletes. They also highlight the best of human values in action that demonstrate not just physical prowess but also manifest the results of arduous work and perseverance. This has important social and educational benefits. Every champion inspires thousands of kids, regardless of their ability, to engage in healthy, physical activity, which is a vital component of both physical and mental health. Moreover, team sports encourage cooperation and solidarity, traits that are essential for both the workplace and social cohesion.

This year’s games witnessed numerous memorable moments of human virtues in action, in the true spirit of the Olympics. To name just a few: After several rounds without a clear winner, high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy chose to share the gold medal rather than engage in a humiliating “jump-off” contest.

When Olympic gymnast Simone Biles won a bronze medal in the balance beam event after withdrawing from several others after experiencing the so-called ‘twisties’, she won not only well-deserved praise for her perseverance but also did the world a favour by drawing attention to the enormous level of physical suffering and mental stress professional athletes have to endure to reach the pinnacle of their disciplines.

In the skateboarding contest, one of the game’s most touching moments was when a group of young teenage contestants from several different nations ran to embrace one of their tearful competitors after she crashed spectacularly off her board and out of the competition. The rest of the skateboarding contests were more reminiscent of a kids’ outing to a theme park than an Olympic event, given the sheer joy and exuberance of the youthful participants every time they took to their boards.

Traditionalists may scoff at the decision to include skateboarding and surfing for the first time in this year’s Olympic line-up. But this conveniently disregards the fact that Olympic sports are added and removed quite regularly. Moreover, and more importantly, there is a good argument that these types of sports will inspire and draw in a new generation of talent and enthusiasts. Children will have seen 12-year-old skateboarder Kokona Hiraki take the silver medal in the women’s park final and Sky Brown, who had just turned 13, take bronze.

Taiwanese kids would have seen Lee Yang (李洋) and Wang Chi-lin (王齊麟) win gold in the men’s badminton doubles, Tai Tzu-ying (戴資穎) take silver in women’s singles (after narrowly losing to her Chinese opponent), Kuo Hsing-chun (郭婞淳), win a gold medal for weightlifting, Yang Yung-wei (楊勇緯) take silver in the men's 60-kg Judo, Tang Chih-chun (湯智鈞), Wei Chun-heng (魏均珩), and Deng Yu-cheng (鄧宇成) win silver in men’s archery and Lee Chih-kai (李智凱) win a silver medal in the men's pommel horse event.


My own personal favourite local Olympic story is the winning of a bronze medal in the men’s golf stroke play by Pan Cheng-tsung (潘政琮). Ranked outside the top 200 in the world, this Miaoli native from a humble background managed the unlikely feat of coming in tie-third, together with six other players. First, he carded an 8-under par final round, something that would have set an Olympic record had another player (Rory Sabbatini) not carded a 10-under round on the same day. Then, in a seven-way play-off, he first survived four play-off holes which eliminated all but one other player. And to crown it all, on the final hole, he beat world No. 1 (Colin Morikawa) to take the medal.

There are few more inspiring examples of the underdog making good than this. Just showing that it is possible to win at the highest international level will inspire confidence in young people to try out new sports and, hopefully, a new enthusiasm for sport among people of all ages.

Then, we should not overlook the enormous economic benefits of sport. Every Olympic (and other) sport supports an extensive economic value chain, from suppliers of materials and makers of sportswear and equipment to sports facility operators, coaches, and other support staff. All of these activities generate economic activity and support millions of jobs across the world.

We would be impoverished both spiritually and in real dollar terms without the Olympics. But that does not mean that things should revert to the status quo ante as soon as this pandemic is over. Rather, these games should be seen as a valuable reference for organisers of future games that could help to make them better and more sustainable.

The first lesson is that it is possible to run large events during a pandemic with the right protocols in place. It surely helped that the games were held in a country like Japan where meticulous attention to detail, strict hygiene standards, and a strong tendency to follow rules are a way of life. Other countries might have had a tougher time of implementing such a rigorous testing and quarantine regime so effectively and pulling off the games with so few Covid-19 cases. However, now that it has been done, Japan will be able to share with the world how to hold large events in contained environments while minimising the risks to the general public. This will be valuable not only because we do not know how long this pandemic will drag on for but as a reference for the next pandemic, which experts say is all but certain to occur, as well as for other large-scale events. Japan has shown us that the show can and must go on, despite the challenges of a global health crisis.

That said, many are now questioning the wisdom and indeed the need for such large-scale events. Even assuming that we eventually get through this pandemic, it is an open question if people should or want to gather in such enormous crowds again for any reason. It is indeed possible that we may have already reached peak crowd.

The famed Woodstock music festival in 1969 apparently attracted a crowd of 400,000. A Rolling Stones concert on the beach of Rio De Janeiro in 2006 was reportedly attended by 1.5 million revellers. Attendance at sports events is of course limited by the size of the stadium hosting them. Tokyo’s Olympic stadium has a capacity of over 60,000 but the largest stadiums today cram in 100,000 plus people. The Euro 2020 football final (held in London’s Wembley Stadium in July 2021) scaled down its crowd to around three quarters of capacity, or about 67,000, because of Covid-19. Nevertheless, UK public health data showed an increase in positive Covid-19 cases among young men during the championships, which they attributed to fans meeting to watch matches, both in stadiums, fan parks and pubs.

But even if the exact numbers of cases attributed to Euro 2020 are disputed (being outdoors makes it more difficult to pass on the virus), there are other good reasons, besides disease prevention, why it may not be such a good idea to cram so many people into venues at any time. Safety is one. A hundred people were crushed to death and hundreds of others were injured in 1989 at the Hillsborough Stadium in the UK during a football match. In 2015, over 2,000 people were crushed during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. These incidents would not have occurred if venue crowds had been limited.

Music and football fans will no doubt argue, with justification, that you need large crowds to create “atmosphere”, but do you really need 100,000 people to do this? I for one would be much happier to be in a smaller stadium that seats around 10,000 people with a clear view of the game, than to be stuck in the cheap seats of a 100,000-capacity stadium where you need binoculars to see any of the action clearly.

And if it were to be agreed that events could be scaled down, this would also address one of the main cost issues of the games. The official budget for the Tokyo Olympics was set at US$7.5 billion in 2013. By late 2019 it had ballooned to US$12.6 billion, and Japan’s own auditors now expect the true cost to be north of US$20 billion (not even counting the investments and unrealised profits of the hospitality industry and every other business hoping to claw back some revenue lost during the pandemic). This would make the games the most expensive ever and put Japan in the unhappy majority of host cities over the past 30 years which have had to foot the bill (mostly for infrastructure but also other cost overruns) associated with hosting the games.

According to a University of Oxford study, every Olympics since 1960 has overspent, by an average of 172% in real terms (although the IOC disputes their findings). The costs have already limited the number applicants to host future Games. Only two candidates applied to host the 2024 Games. The IOC panicked and awarded one, the 2024 games, to Paris and the 2028 games to the other candidate, Los Angeles. Both of these and future host cities would be wise to and justified in focusing on quality rather than quantity. Instead of building vast new stadiums and other infrastructure that will sit largely empty and unused after the games, it would be far more cost-effective to upgrade existing facilities and be content with smaller crowds. The same would be true for transport and hospitality capacity. The residents of Paris and LA would also surely be less stressed out and annoyed if crowds attending the games were smaller. Meanwhile, hotels and restaurants in these cities would no doubt make up for the loss of crowd volumes by charging premiums for rooms and meals.

Some of the lessons from Tokyo 2020 (2021) will also be useful for other large event organisers, such as international trade shows. Taiwan’s own external trade organisation (TAITRA) would do well to study Japan’s best practices as a reference for organising Taiwan’s large trade shows, such as Computex. Besides the pandemic-specific protocols, another valuable lesson from Tokyo is that bigger is not always better. Taiwan probably does not need to build bigger venues and instead of trying to attract ever more vendors and participants, could instead focus on upgrading existing facilities and focus on quality rather than quantity. The closing of borders and disruptions to international travel have made hybrid (partially live and partially virtual events) a reality. Efforts could therefore be focused on perfecting the hybrid model to make it more appealing and attracting a more targeted group of participants for the live portion of the event.

Japan has shown the world that hard work and perseverance can overcome the difficulties posed by a global pandemic and demonstrated that is possible to host successful events, although on a smaller scale. In so doing it has provided a valuable reference for the current phase of the pandemic as well as the post-pandemic world. Organisers of large events would do well to study and learn from their example.

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