August 8, 2021

An Olympics like no other

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The Tokyo 20202021 Olympic Games was always gonna be different.  Having been delayed from 2020 due to the global pandemic, it was finally held over the last 2 weeks in spite of the pandemic still being in place.  In fact, many countries around the world - Japan included - were experiencing a resurgence of Covid-19 cases at the moment.  Yet both Japan and the International Olympic Committee have invested way too much to call this thing off, and I think many of the athletes would probably not want to wait any longer.  So we had the opening ceremonies on July 23rd, and I dutifully made sure I got home on time for the broadcast.

Based on the portion that Tokyo showcased at the end of the Rio 2016 closing ceremonies, I had very high hopes for the Tokyo show. That segment showed a lot of energy, creativity, and infused elements of popular Japanese culture known the world over - including popular anime characters. After all, who could forget former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (安倍晋三) dressed up as Super Mario?

Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in the opening ceremonies this time around. Having watched the grand spectacle that was Beijing 2008, the showcasing of British cultural soft power at London 2012, the proud history and mutlicultural story at Rio 2016, the Tokyo 2020 show was, quiet honestly, boring.

I get that there would be a segment on the challenges and struggles with Covid. The athletes would have had to overcome many, many obstacles just to be able to participate this time around. I found it an interesting choice that Misia was asked to sing Kimigayo (君が代), although with the feed I was watching, the way her voice echoed within the empty stadium rather marred her performance. I didn't care for the segment on traditional Japanese craftsmen, as there wasn't anything special (to me) about that, but I did appreciate that the Olympic rings were made with wood from trees which were planted by international athletes of the 1964 Tokyo Games.

While the drone display was technologically impressive, I think the one segment of the show that just about EVERYONE loved was the pictograms. The trio consisting of Gamarjobat and GABEZ were truly amazing, cycling through all 50 sports in less than 4½ minutes - OK, with a few of them having been pre-recorded. They only managed to mess up on one event when the badminton racket was dropped.

I can see that they're trying to showcase something modern yet traditionally Japanese but I didn't understand the pairing of Shibaraku (しばらく) with Hiromi hitting the keyboard. Traditional work songs turned into tap dancing... HUH? They also tried to add contemporary pop culture into the event by using anime and video game music during the part when the athletes enter the stadium. That's all well and good but without any accompanying visual elements, that is easily lost on the global audience. There just wasn't much that seemed to showcase the creativity that should have gone into this effort to deliver a stunning result.

A lot of attention is always focused on the final delivery of the Olympic flame, and this year the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron was given to Osaka Naomi (大阪直美). The choice made sense on many levels, but not surprisingly there were many dissenting voices among the locals - including some of my friends.

Two things I did like about this Olympic games were the equality and sustainability aspects. Each country chose both a female and a male flag bearer, and they mostly carried the flag jointly. Japan is way ahead of most countries on recycling, and many of the volunteers' and performers' costumes were made from recycled materials. Finally, all the medals at these games were made from recycled materials - mostly electronic equipment which had been donated. Oh and we mustn't forget about the recyclable beds in the Olympic Village...

Besides enjoying the events and cheering for specific, world-renowned athletes, this time I spent a lot of energy following the progress of athletes from both Hong Kong and Taiwan (yes, Taiwan... NOT "Chinese Taipei"). Athletes from both IOCs ended up having a year in terms of placings and the number of medals. Taiwan ended with 12 medals in all - 2 golds, 4 silvers, and 6 bronzes - including medals in sports they previously had little success in. I gotta say that watching Pan Cheng-tsung (潘政琮) win that 7-way playoff for a bronze medal against the likes of Rory McIlroy, Colin Morikawa, and Matsuyama Hideki was just thrilling and breathtaking. All my Taiwanese friends have been cheering the athletes and getting more and more excited as performance exceeded everyone's expectations.

The story was similar in Hong Kong. After a 25-year drought, Hong Kong once again had an Olympic gold medalist, and with another 2 silvers and 3 bronzes, this was also the best showing at an Olympic Games. People got really excited about the local athletes, and many would gather at shopping malls to watch the competition live on big screens. After a lot of misery over the last 25 months or so, the people found something to cheer about.

One change I have noticed this time around was the attitude that many people around me had towards athletes representing us. While we continue to hope for a collection of medals in the name of national pride, there seems to be less vocal criticism when our athletes come up short. There are more voices supporting of athletes, cheering for them to strive to achieve their personal best, even if that best isn't good enough to medal. After all, medaling isn't everything. It's about Faster, Higher, Stronger - Together.

There are, of course, memorable and inspirational stories at each and every Olympic Games, but one which is among the best must be when Mutaz Barshim asked an official whether there could be TWO gold medals for Men's High Jump. He could have done what many have done before him and continued with a "jump-off" against his friend Gianmarco Tamberi until only one winner stands at the top step of the podium. He chose to think out of the box, and ended up making Olympic history in a different way, together with his friend.

Tonight's closing ceremonies were, like the opening ceremonies two weeks ago, boring and disappointing. It is clear that these were planned by old men still living in a bygone age, the same guys who lost the plot for the entire country back in the 1990s. They're still trying to showcase traditional culture, and too much of it. They could have put more effort into adapting/modernizing it to give us a fresh, new look. The segment on traditional dances is a case in point, as there was only one small segment on interpretive dance before going back to 5 different traditional styles - although some athletes in the stadium seemed to enjoy trying their hand at Tokyo ondo (音頭). And when they're trying to put on something more modern and updated, they got the guys from Tokyo Ska Paradise, which was something I didn't quite get... and I'm not sure how many in the global audience did, either...

One part of traditional Japanese culture that many around the world are familiar with is taiko (太鼓). They should have opened with that at the opening ceremonies to get the energy level up at the start of it all. I don't understand why they chose to feature it at the closing.

For me the best part of these closing ceremonies was, ironically, the segment on Paris 2024. I was thoroughly impressed with the short show that the French put on - even though it was largely pre-recorded as they weren't really able to bring performers to Tokyo.

We started with a very nice version of La Marseillaise performed by members of the Orchestre National de France at different points in the city of Paris. The final notes were performed by Thomas Pesquet up in the International Space Station, with the saxophone he brought into space on his previous mission.

We then had Estelle Majal riding her BMX on the rooftops of famous Parisien landmarks - Musée d'Orsay, Grand Palais, Palais Garnier and the like. There was also a little bit of breaking in the Place de la Concorde, as it would be one of the new sports introduced in 2024. The whole thing was upbeat and energetic, and with the earlier performance of the national anthem, constitute a successful blend of the traditional and the modern. This was a real breath of fresh air!

For all of my gripes about the ceremonies, we must applaud the host Olympic Committee for getting this done in such a difficult time. The volunteers did an amazing job, and they rightly deserved the tribute paid to them during the closing ceremonies. I now look forward to the Paralympic Games coming up, and remind ourselves that those athletes deserve as much recognition as the ones we have just seen perform their best over the last two weeks.

P.S. What's with the fashion fail from the Italian team?! They got Armani to give them a giant tricolor Pacman/pizza on their bellies. Who approved that design?!

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