THE XXXII Olympic Summer Games are over. The empty seats in the stadium will remain vacant, waiting for the silent scourge of Covid-19 to quit Tokyo.
Never in its long history since 1896, have the Olympics been faced with so many challenges as it has this time. First of all, is there a need for a stadium? The ancient Greeks invented them, the Romans perfected them, but do so many events need to take place in one contained location?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must consider the wisdom of holding events simultaneously. Certainly, the javelin throwers seemed irked at having to wait until the long-distance runners had crossed the track before they could continue with their own run-up.
Secondly, the introduction of new sports. Over the years, newer events have been introduced to assuage the public’s appetite. This year, the IOC broadened the menu to include karate, baseball/softball, surfing, sports climbing and skateboard. Weekend distractions and playground games have been elevated to Olympian heights. A 12-year-old Japanese girl won the silver in skateboarding. The bronze medal winner — an ageing 13-year-old — spoke in a lingo only her generation would understand: “It’s insane to be here. I’m so happy to be on the podium with these guys. They’re so amazing. Everyone ripped.”
Our two finalists achieved Olympian status without state support.
Fourteen-year-old Quan Hongchan, a senior by comparison, gained a gold in the women’s individual platform diving at 10 metres. To achieve that, she had been in training from the age of seven.
One wonders what was going through the mind of the heptathlon winner Nafi Thiam. Twice their age, she had to succeed in seven disparate exhausting skills — 100m hurdles, 200m, 800m, high jump, shot put, long jump, and javelin throw. At the end of all of them, she received the same medal as the skateboarders did — a plated disk made of recycled electronics discarded by upwardly mobile Japanese.
The IOC is considering dropping wrestling and weightlifting from its programme. Sad news for our neo-champion weightlifter Talha Talib. Like Talib, our javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem might have gained a bronze, had he not made the avoidable and penal mistake of stepping over the white line. His portly manager overstepped the mark in his own way. From the stands, he waved the Pakistan flag — upside down — and then, after Nadeem’s failed last attempt, he compounded that gaffe by turning his back on him.
Our two Pakistani finalists — Talha Talib and Arshad Nadeem — have achieved Olympian status without adequate training, state support or supervised supplements. They are living indictments of our warped national psyche. That our government functionaries should not even blush is cruel evidence that they have no heart. It might have pumped shaming blood into their cheeks.
Other distinctions that the IOC will have to address are of gender and orientation. Testosterone tests no longer matter. For the first time, a transgender and non-binary footballer from Canada (Quinn), a gay male diver from the UK (Daley), and a lesbian triple jumper from Venezuela (Rojas) were among the gold medalists.
The 406-strong Chinese contingent competed in 30 sports, securing 38 gold medals, one less than the US. In their nation’s eyes, these gold medals were not enough. The 32 silver and 18 bronze gained were tantamount to failure. What are silver and bronze worth when one loses the gold?
Before the Olympic opening ceremony, its director had been fired for an indiscreet joke he made 23 years earlier. Perhaps the organiser of the closing ceremony should perform hara kiri for bringing Japanese culture into disrepute. The ceremony was an embarrassing shamble of confusing choreography and karaoke pop music. Only the brief montage from Paris heralding the next Olympiad XXXIII saved the show. In its brilliant finale, a French astronaut played the closing bars of La Marseillaise from a capsule in space, with earth as a backdrop. Our globe became the sixth Olympic ring.
In keeping with tradition, the last medals to be awarded were given at the closing ceremony for the testing marathon. On the podium stood a Kenyan who won the gold, a Dutchman who took the silver and a Belgian who secured bronze. All were black, as were two of the three women’s marathon medallists. As one observer commented, a hundred years ago such a line-up would have been deemed a slave auction.
The predominance of black athletes in the Olympics introduces the unspoken question: are the Olympics between nations or races between races? The Chinese sent an all-Sino contingent. The Russians fielded an all-Caucasian team. The others were a blur between country and colour, between naturalised citizens and native-born nationalists.
According to its charter, the Olympic movement must apply “political neutrality”. It is time the IOC remembered that and barred national flags.
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, August 12th, 2021