The Tokyo Olympics, christened with "2020" but held in mid-2021 after being interrupted for a year by the coronavirus, glided to their conclusion in a COVID-emptied stadium Sunday night as an often surreal mixed bag for Japan and for the world.
After a stressful two weeks, the closing ceremony was a rollicking affair that featured everything from light shows to stunt bikes. It tried to create a celebratory and liberating atmosphere for athletes with its theme "Worlds We Share". It shifted to a live stream from Paris, the host of 2024 Summer Games. The strangest Olympic Games ever recorded closed their books.
Held in the middle of a resurging pandemic, rejected by many Japanese and plagued by months of administrative problems, these Games presented logistical and medical obstacles like no other, offered up serious conversations about mental health -- and, when it came to sport, delivered both triumphs and a few surprising shortfalls.
Expectations were mixed from the beginning, and at times, downright apocalyptic. Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, stated that he was worried about these becoming "the Olympic Games without any soul." But, he added, "What we have seen here is completely different."
Bach said to the gathered Olympians, "You were faster, and you went higher," as he closed out the Games. This was made even more remarkable by the numerous challenges you faced because of the pandemic. You give the world the most precious gift: hope, even in these difficult times.
He said that "for the first time since the pandemic started," "the whole world came together."
He exaggerated it a little. Even the use of the word "together", at these Games, was fraught. Spectators were not allowed to see the athletes. However, they did exchange bodily fluids at some venues. It was not about being incompetent, it was about being honest: There were risks that could be minimized, but events had to continue.
Athletes' perseverance became a central story. Mental health claimed bandwidth as never before, and athletes revealed their stories and struggles in vulnerable, sometimes excruciating fashion.
The fourth Olympics of Japan, which took place 57 years after the 1964 Games were reintroduced, was a symbol of a planet trying together in a time when politics, disease, and circumstance had all splintered it.
Sunday's closing ceremony reflected this -- and sometimes, pushed the proceedings towards a sci-fi flavour. The final pomp was given by the athletes as they entered the arena. At one end of the stadium, there was a digital scoreboard that organizers called a "fan matrix", a Zoom-like screen with videos uploaded home by cheering spectators.
Even the parade of Olympians carrying national flags -- thousands, masked or unmasked, congregating before venturing out into the rest of the world -- was affected. Some flags were carried by volunteers into the stadium because rules require athletes to leave the country within a few hours of their events.
Amid such impressive backdrops, athletic excellence burst forth, from China's Yang Qian's first gold medal in the 10-meter air rifle on Jul 24 to the Games' last (Serbia's defeat of Greece in men's polo on Sunday afternoon).
Among the highlights: Allyson Felix taking a U.S.-record 11th medal in track, then stepping away from the Olympic stage. American quintuple gold medalist Caeleb Dressel's astounding performance in the pool. The emergence of surfing,skateboarding and sport climbing as popular, and viable, Olympic sports. Japan is the host country and has won 58 medals, making it its highest ever.