Leaving Tokyo: The Olympic moments one reporter brings home

Leaving Tokyo: The Olympic moments one reporter brings home

Mike Blake/Reuters

Samuel Mikulak of the United States hugs Artur Dalaloyan of the Russian Olympic Committee after competing on the vault at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. The Russian team went on to win gold, while the Americans took fifth place.

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August 9, 2021

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These last few weeks in Japan, covering the Olympics, I’ve wondered whether and why they’re worth it. Interest in hosting the Games is down, and this will likely be the most expensive Olympics of all time. With viewership plummeting, alongside trust in the International Olympic Committee, the payoff seems lower than ever. 

As I consider the other side of that scale, though, I think about small, isolated interactions – the kind of person-to-person moments I’d rarely seen in a lifetime of watching the Games on TV.

Why We Wrote This

Do we really need the Olympics – especially this year? As our reporter chewed on that question in Tokyo, he kept coming back to the real value of sport: not competition, but what it brings out of its competitors.

I’ve seen a Japanese bus driver speak Castilian Spanish with a group of reporters from Madrid. I’ve listened to flight attendants excitedly wishing good luck to the Ecuadorian athletes sitting nearby. I’ve ridden with a French journalist who offered me a seat in her cab after my bus schedule randomly changed. I’ve seen athletes who, despite social distancing rules, couldn’t resist hugging a competitor, and heard them speak bravely about mental health, in hopes someone out there who needed that message would hear it.

Even if no one is watching, those moments happen. And these, I’ve decided, are the Olympics’ best argument. No matter where the Games take place, they unroll a movable feast of humanity. Unlike any other sporting event, the entire world sits at the table.

Tokyo

My favorite moment in Tokyo happened when I wasn’t watching. 

At the men’s team gymnastics final July 26, Sam Mikulak, the ebullient American veteran, finished his vault, celebrated, and walked back to his seat. On the way he passed and high-fived each member of the rival Russian Olympic Committee squad, except for former world champion Artur Dalaloyan. He, despite showing no great interest, got a hug. 

Mr. Mikulak leaned forward, as though he were hugging his mother. Mr. Dalaloyan leaned back, as though he were hugging a squid – but emerged with grinning eyes. 

Why We Wrote This

Do we really need the Olympics – especially this year? As our reporter chewed on that question in Tokyo, he kept coming back to the real value of sport: not competition, but what it brings out of its competitors.

While this happened, I sat about 100 feet away in the parallel press tribune, having turned back to my computer after Mr. Mikulak’s vault. It wasn’t until later, when the gymnasts’ hug went viral, that I saw what I’d missed. 

How appropriate. 

For me, these three weeks in Tokyo have been a mosaic of small, face-to-face moments – impossible to see from afar, and sometimes even up close. 

I’ve seen a Japanese bus driver speak Castilian Spanish with a group of reporters from Madrid. (“Porque amo España,” he responded when they asked him why he learned the language.) I’ve listened to flight attendants excitedly wishing good luck to the Ecuadorian athletes sitting nearby. I’ve ridden with a French journalist who offered me a seat in her cab after my bus schedule randomly changed. I’ve been chaperoned through an unfamiliar city by thousands of polite volunteers. 


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These moments are just as much a part of the Olympics as medals or the opening ceremony, yet over a lifetime of watching the Games on TV, I’ve missed them. But as with Mr. Mikulak’s hug, neither one fewer set of eyes nor a reluctant Russian can stand in the way. Even if no one is watching, they happen.

The last month, I’ve wondered whether and why the Olympics are worth it. Interest in hosting the Games is down, and Tokyo is likely to decrease it. These are set to be the most expensive Olympics of all time. With viewership plummeting, alongside trust in the International Olympic Committee, the payoff seems lower than ever. 

As I consider the other side of that scale, though, I return to those moments of kindness, isolated but inseparable interactions. These, I’ve decided, are the Olympics’ best argument. No matter where the Games take place, they unroll a movable feast of humanity. Unlike any other sporting event, the entire world sits at the table. 

Tokyo’s social distancing guidelines have discouraged routine acts of sportsmanship, like handshakes and high-fives. But over the last few weeks, athletes haven’t been able to help themselves. When Simone Biles returned from a mental health hiatus to compete in the balance beam final, each of her competitors approached her with congratulations. When 15-year-old skateboarder Okamoto Misugu fell on her final run, missing a medal and tearing up, the other finalists gathered around, picked her up, and carried her on their shoulders. 

Watching Katie Ledecky dominate the 1,500-meter freestyle and Andre De Grasse dash to the 200-meter gold has been fun. But the value in sport isn’t in the competition. It’s what competition brings out of its competitors. This year, it’s brought solidarity on mental health, with potential benefits for the wider world of sports. It brought out resiliency from Olympians who adjusted their training to reach the postponed Games, and then their expectations as they entered empty arenas. It brought candor and kindness from athletes who approached their limits, endured, and then applauded others who did the same. 

On my last day covering track and field, I spent almost 12 hours in the Olympic Stadium, baking in the kiln of a humid Tokyo summer. By the last event – the men’s 200-meter final – I was tired and grimy, having sweat through two shirts, two masks, and three applications of deodorant. 

I wanted to collapse in bed.

But I stayed and watched U.S. teammates Kenneth Bednarek and Noah Lyles place second and third, and then walk laps around the stadium draped in American flags. At one point, Mr. Lyles knelt and prayed. 

My bus was coming, so I didn’t stay to chat with Mr. Lyles in the athlete-reporter mixed zone. The next day, though, I read what he had to say. 

David J. Phillip/AP

Noah Lyles, of the United States, reacts after his third-place finish in the final of the men’s 200 meters at the Summer Olympics, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo.

The last year hasn’t been what he wanted. There were times when his sport was no longer fun and he wanted to quit. One of the top sprinters in the world, Mr. Lyles at one point aimed to win three gold medals in Tokyo. He left with one bronze. 

But before leaving, he told reporters about his struggles with mental health, and the difficulty he had coping at the Games. Speaking through tears, and even after a media official tried to end the interview, Mr. Lyles asked reporters to tell his story in case it would help anyone watching.

I thought about that request at Sunday’s closing ceremony – held in the rainless evening of an otherwise stormy Sunday. As the Olympic cauldron burned nearby, athletes entered the stadium one last time. A Swedish man dressed in all yellow ran along the grass with a flag tied to his back. Some Australian athletes, sitting on teammates’ shoulders, hoisted an inflatable kangaroo. A DJ spun turntables as a brass band played “Ode to Joy.” The feast was over; this was the after-party. Soon, everyone invited would go home, and take something with them. 

Mr. Lyles’ home is the same as mine, just a few miles apart in northern Virginia. Though we traveled different paths to Tokyo, we both had to find value in an unusual, restrained, sometimes ad hoc Olympics. His way was to run – fast – and tell his story on a world stage; mine was to listen. And, sometimes, to share.

On Friday an employee at my hotel, who had just called a taxi for me, stepped into the lobby to talk. We’d chatted every few days throughout my trip, since she spoke perfect English and my Japanese barely exceeds “arigato.”

She asked me what it was like finishing my 14-day quarantine and walking around the city – and admitted she was a bit jealous. As cases rose in Tokyo, she started limiting her time almost exclusively to home and work. It was hard, she said, watching so many people from outside Japan attend an Olympics the Japanese people couldn’t. 

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So I thanked her, and told her how much the hospitality meant to a young reporter who knew these Games were a gift. She thanked me back, as I told her how Naomi Osaka climbed the steps to light the Olympic cauldron and how Hashimoto Daiki electrified a tiny crowd at the men’s team gymnastics final. I showed her some of the pictures I’d taken on my phone of Sunisa Lee, Novak Djokovic, and a host of drones that assembled a rotating globe at the opening ceremony.

She couldn’t watch any of it herself, but she was happy someone had the chance.

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Mark Sappenfield
Editor

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