Mike Rowbottom

The end of an Olympics is always poignant. Whether it’s been a triumph or a torment, or a mixture of both, there is an emptiness once it’s over.

The baton is always moving on. And the live pictures beamed into the Closing Ceremony here of youthful exuberance from Paris, just three years away now from staging the next summer Games, were stirring.

The artful shots of BMX bikers and break dancers congregating amidst and improvising upon the great landmarks of the city did everything required to set the keynote for the Games to come. 

Surely, surely by Paris we won’t need to be wearing masks?

That of course was the hope for Tokyo when the Games that have just come to a close were postponed last year. It didn’t quite work out that way. But it did work out.

Speaking of the on-off-on Tokyo Summer Olympics that have just finished, long-time International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said: "A miracle of sorts has occurred."

The darkest predictions about the consequences of staging the hugest of international sporting events here during a time of pandemic have not, thankfully, come to pass.

COVID-19 cases within the Olympic framework have certainly occurred – but tens, rather than hundreds of athletes have been affected.

And the performances that have taken place here across the whole range of sports will resonate and shine in the collective memory as brightly as any from other Games in other years.

There were lots of instructions to follow in Tokyo, starting with the food ©ITG
There were lots of instructions to follow in Tokyo, starting with the food ©ITG

If you believe in the signs, Japan is a society verging on neurosis. Instructions are everywhere in Tokyo. For everyday things, such as elevators. A long list about how it is necessary to hold onto the rail, and not to walk or run, and to leave a space of one step between those being carried.

At all the food counters there are cards covered with icons and images depicting every possible shade of allergen that might be present in the food being sold. Dairy. Shrimp, prawn and lobster. Cereals with gluten. Soybeans. Buckwheat. Other Crustacean.

Add in the pandemic and the whole instructional element was ramped up to epic levels. Signs on the media buses forbade conversation. Signs on the tables in the press venues requested: "Please Eat Quietly."

But somehow there was a natural shifting involved, as the theoretical and the actual came to a workable compromise.

The streets outside our little hotel in Kamata were still patched with drying rain. There were further forecasts of a typhoon. The sky, so glaring for days on end, now carried deep grey cloud. Was this the typhoon coming?

A police car went by with flashing blue light, issuing instructions via a loudspeaker. After a while, it came back down the street the other way, presumably having used the roundabout outside Kamata station. More blue light. More tannoy.

When it had driven on, I asked the young woman in the yellow volunteer smock by our bus stop what they had been saying.

"I’m sorry, I didn’t notice," she said with a smile.

"So not very important then?"

"No," she added with another bigger smile. "Not very important."

A word of warning on the media bus as the impact of COVID-19 on the Games is laid bare ©ITG
A word of warning on the media bus as the impact of COVID-19 on the Games is laid bare ©ITG

For all the towering sports performances, what I have always most appreciated at the Olympics in different parts of the world have been the brief but telling glimpses into a different culture, the little personal interactions with people from a very different place.

And so when I think of the Beijing 2008 Games, I think of Kinpin, the contact for our part of the media village, and how he led me through a succession of electronics shops trying to get me an ever better price for a new laptop charger to replace the one that had been purloined by a person unknown in the main press centre. By the time he had finished, I virtually made a profit on the transaction.

And when I think of the Atlanta 1996 Games, I think of the driver on the old-style yellow school bus who picked up me and a group of fellow stragglers, marooned and abandoned at the rowing venue, and announced: "I’m going to take you people where you want to go."

And when I think of the Tokyo 2020 Games, I will recall the lady who came in to make our breakfasts each morning, instructing me on how to fill tiny rolls, rolls so tiny they were almost canapes, with tuna and then rushing off to find me a plastic bag in which to put them.

And the lady by our bus stop at the Main Transport Hub, whose excellent English had been learned in Malta, where she had randomly gone on holiday one year because she thought it looked nice.

And the young man by the same bus stop who would always ask me if I would be having many beers when I went back to my hotel and laughed when I would hold up one finger and then pretend I had to quell other fingers that kept popping up on each hand.

When I think of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, I will think of the lines of people who queued every night  in order to take pictures involving the Olympic Rings set up in a little park alongside the National Stadium.

Them and us, the Tokyo public was locked out of its own party during the 2020 Olympics ©ITG
Them and us, the Tokyo public was locked out of its own party during the 2020 Olympics ©ITG

Night after night, we filed into the stadium they were not allowed to enter. Some of those gathered in the park took pictures of us through the mesh fencing that kept them out of their own national stadium. Occasionally someone would jump up onto the fencing as if trying to smash their way through, and laughing friends would take pictures.

From the empty concourses of the stadium, you could look out across the city and watch the lights coming on, and see people working late in their offices, many of them clearly watching the Games on their television sets. It was as if someone had taken over their house for a party. A party that turned out to be an absolute blast.

My and my pal at the Main Transport Hub A1 stop - a naturally funny lad ©ITG
My and my pal at the Main Transport Hub A1 stop - a naturally funny lad ©ITG

I will remember leaving the skateboarding venue after the men’s street competition and seeing a family waving at our bus. I waved back, seeing a little boy suddenly waving back like mad after being waved at. He would probably have loved to watch the skateboarding. But he couldn’t.

"Will the Olympics come back, come back soon?" my friend at the bus stop asked.

The summer Olympics won’t. But the World Athletics Championships can – and they surely must, as soon as is practicable.

Eugene have had their version postponed until next year, Budapest will host in 2023 and 2025 looks as if it will be Africa’s first turn to host, especially if this month’s World Athletics Under-20 Championships in Nairobi go well.

But this beautiful new National Stadium in Tokyo must be host again soon to the world’s best athletes – athletes performing wonders on warm nights, for the patient, deserving people of Tokyo.