They were delayed a year, they were played in the sweltering heat, there were no fans in the stands, they were the most expensive on record, and its organizing body is still hopelessly corrupt. The
2021 2020 Summer Olympics, which ended a week ago, probably shouldn't have happened at all. But happen they did, and I have a handful of thoughts:
We're (Just Barely) Number One: The United States "won" the 2020 Olympics, by earning the most gold medals (39) as well as the most medials overall (113). The United States has won the most number of gold medals in six out of the last seven Olympic Games, and the most medals overall for the seventh summer Games in a row.
However, Team USA only barely edged out China for the most golds; the Chinese team, which had been leading in the gold count until the final weekend of the games, came in second with 38 golds (and 88 medals overall). Rounding out the top five in the gold medal count were host nation Japan, Great Britain, and the Russian Olympic Committee (which I'll say more about in a moment).
Fun fact: the Chronicle claims that, if Houston were its own country, it would have finished 20th in the medal count.
Welcome to the Club: Athletes from Bermuda, the Philippines and Qatar won their countries' first-ever gold medals, while Burkina Faso, San Marino and Turkmenistan won their first medals ever. San Marino is, in fact, the first European microstate ever to win a medal at the summer Games (Liechtenstein has won medals at the Winter Olympics).
Given its small size, San Marino also ended the Olympics with the most medals per-capita: one for every 11 thousand inhabitants (the United States, by comparison, won one medal per 2.9 million people).
On the other end of the medals-per-capita list is India. Even though Indian athletes had their most successful appearance in the Olympics ever, the seven medals they won represented a ratio of one medal per 197 million people.
Cheaters do win, if you're Russia: After Russia's blatant state-sponsored doping scandal, the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency decided to "ban" Russia from the Olympics. Russian athletes could still compete, however, as long as they called themselves the "Russian Olympic Committee," competed under a special flag, and played something other than the Russian national anthem at medal ceremonies:
At the medal ceremony here, the Russian national anthem was replaced by “Piano Concerto No. 1” by Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer. The flag raised was not the Russian flag, but one featuring waves of an Olympic torch … but using the Russian colors of blue, red and white.
No Russian flags are allowed at any venue (or the Opening or Closing Ceremony), but they can be hung about the Olympic Village. So there’s that. Not that it matters. The Russians designed their uniforms to mimic the beloved Trikolor.
“If the flag is not allowed, we ourselves will be the flag,” Rugby captain Alena Tiron told the Russian state news agency RIA Novostu.
In Russia, the Olympics gold medal you.
“We know which country we stand for,” Tiron said.
Everyone does. A country that is adept at embedding spies in the highest level of governments around the globe doesn’t even have to try to be sneaky over here.
These so-called "neutral athletes" - over 330 of them, in all - finished with 20 gold medals (and 71 overall). What a joke.
The head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, had some choice words to say about this charade:
"Unfortunately, we’ve seen this horror film already – where the Russian state-sponsored doping programme walks free and Russia wins while the IOC and WADA leaders attempt to pull the wool over the world’s eyes by claiming Russia is ‘banned.’," said Tygart.
"All can now see this ‘ban’ once again for the farce that it is.
"It is barely a ‘rebrand’ and will do nothing to stop the corruption in Russia and likely will embolden others willing to win by any means.
"It’s a doomed system that allows, as it has here, one nation to make a mockery of the Games by their thirst for medals over values."
Russia is also "banned" from the 2022 Winter Olympics, but Russian athletes will be there, too. Vladimir Putin has to be laughing his ass off.
I would have punched that horse, too: the modern pentathlon is one of the weirdest sports of the Olympics. Okay, so maybe not as weird as artistic swimming or race walking, but a competition consisting of five very disparate disciplines - fencing, swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross-country running - is, well, pretty wacky. According to Wikipedia, this sport is "patterned on events representing the skills needed by cavalry behind enemy lines." Okay, but it's still somewhat ridiculous, especially since cavalry isn't really a thing in warfare anymore.
Anyway, there was controversy during the women's modern pentathlon when a frustrated German coach appeared to strike an uncooperative horse during the show jumping portion of the competition:
The International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM), the sport's governing body, announced Saturday it was giving a black card to Kim Raisner, dismissing her from the remainder of the Games, after reviewing video footage from a Friday event.
The footage "showed Ms Raisner appearing to strike the horse Saint Boy, ridden by Annika Schleu (GER), with her fist," the group said in a statement. That violated UIPM competition rules, they said.
The light punch came after Schleu, who was heading into the show jumping round with a commanding lead, was trying to get Saint Boy to respond to her commands. But the horse was obstinate.
Schleu, who was visibly in tears because she couldn't get her horse to cooperate, scored zero points in the show jumping segment and fell to 31st place by competition's end.
This brings up another weird aspect of the modern pentathlon: unlike other equestrian events at the Olympics, the horses do not "belong" to the riders. Rather, horses are randomly assigned to competitors twenty minutes before the show jumping competition, giving athletes a very short time to "bond" with the animals. This would appear to create an element of luck that is completely outside the competitor's control: if somebody ends up with a wayward horse that refuses to jump, then their dreams of winning a medal are sunk through no fault of their own. This apparently happened to several competitors - not just Schleu - during the women's modern pentathlon.
The agency that oversees this weird-ass sport is reviewing the event and considering changes for 2024. Perhaps they should consider doing away with horses entirely, and replace show jumping with a skill relevant to a 21st century soldier, like rock climbing or mountain biking.
(Full disclosure: I'm not the world's biggest fan of horses. They've always creeped me out, for some reason.)
NBC's coverage still sucked: I've written about this so many times since 1996 that I really don't have anything new to say about it. So I'll hand off to The Guardian, which describes the coverage of the Tokyo Olympics as "televisual vomit:"
Viewers have been able to see everything at any given moment (provided you have the Peacock streaming service) while understanding fundamentally nothing about what’s going on. NBC has never met a night of swimming finals that didn’t need to be spliced up with bizarre human interest segments on Caeleb Dressel’s first ride through the Florida wetlands on an airboat, or a routine on the double bars that couldn’t be improved by a quick jump to an ad break and some random highlights of Denmark and Indonesia in the badminton. We all want to know who the athletes are, of course, if only at a superficial level; and since the whole Olympics is so overwhelming, with so much going on at once, some measure of discombobulation from the host broadcaster is always understandable. But when we switch on the Olympics, I think it’s fair to say that most of us want to witness elite athletes perform spectacular feats with their bodies, not hear a series of driving stories about how they handle their daily commute.
NBC’s programming choices have been consistently bizarre, even more so when you consider that whole chunks of the schedule in Tokyo – for swimming above all, but also in the athletics – were specifically rejigged to cater to the American TV audience, and at several points it’s been unclear to all but the most obsessive Olympics watchers whether what’s on TV at night in the US is live or a replay. On Sunday morning, the women’s triple-jump world record had just been broken, a thrilling men’s high jump had ended in shared gold and the starting gun for the men’s 100m – the biggest race at the Olympics – had just been fired. NBC was showing a replay of the equestrian eventing final. The point, of course, is to funnel viewers to watch the repeat in primetime. Which may have worked at Tokyo 1964 when you could avoid the result for 12 hours. But which viewer with even a passing interest in sport for Tokyo 2020 won’t already have seen the result on the internet or used a VPN to watch it on the BBC or CBC?
Time, The Los Angeles Times and TechDirt are similarly critical of the coverage, while Vulture suggests that the oftentimes-confusing array of coverage - NBC presented coverage of the Games across its broadcast network, multiple cable channels, and its Peacock streaming platform - was simply a case of viewers getting what they've always wanted:
Some of the complaining about figuring out “how” to watch the Olympics on the NBC platforms is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.” After all, for years the rap on NBC’s coverage was that the network offered almost nothing but prepackaged, and often pretaped, extended highlights shows. Audiences would have to wait until prime time to see events which finished up hours earlier; sports fans who wanted deep coverage of less high-profile events were often out of luck. The fact that NBC now pretty much lets anyone with a cable login watch every event live, in real time, is a massive improvement over the status quo of a decade or two ago. And it’s certainly a lot better than it was back in the 20th century, when NBC — and previous Olympics hosts CBS and ABC — treated the Olympics as a prime-time soap opera, serving up only the story lines it felt would appeal to a broad audience (thank you, Roone Arledge). NBC still does this with its main coverage, of course, but audiences now have more choice than ever before.
The Tokyo Games ended up having the lowest viewership of any Olympics NBC has broadcast since they first picked up the Games in 1988. NBC, of course, had a litany of excuses ready to explain away their poor ratings - Coronavirus, the time difference, difficulties encountered by the athletes they overhyped the most (Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka) - and tried to put a positive spin on its viewership:
NBC says its coverage of the Games boosted everything from podcasts to broadcast programs such as the Today show and NBC Nightly News.
But the days when the Olympics were appointment television for most TV viewers seem to be ending. The pressing question for NBC — which has spent billions for rights to air the Games until at least 2032 — is how to handle a media world where the hours of coverage are increasing while audience numbers are heading in the opposite direction.
I dunno, maybe try to make your coverage (and the ability of viewers to navigate it) suck less? Maybe present the Olympics as an actual sporting event, rather than a primetime reality TV show? Maybe fire Mark Lazarus, who is apparently the guy most responsible for this claptrap? I'm not holding my breath.
All Jazeera reviews the highs and lows of the just-completed Games, while the Daily Beast explores some of Tokyo's weirder moments and ESPN waxes sentimental on what the games are all about. And if the Tokyo Games left you yearning for more, don't fret: the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are only six months away!