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Games like no other: Tokyo 2020 ends as torch goes to Paris for 2024

The Tokyo Olympics were like none other: postponed for a year because of the pandemic, athletes competing without fans in the stands, and protests because of rising COVID-19 cases. After 16 days of play, the torch was finally extinguished on Sunday. New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Motoko Rich joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The final medals were presented and the Olympic torch was extinguished as the Tokyo Olympic Games officially ended after 16 days of competition and a year-long delay. Today's closing ceremonies, like the games themselves, were held in front of empty stands and a sparse crowd of athletes and volunteers.

    In Paris, thousands turned out to welcome the Olympic games to France, which will host the 2024 summer games.

    New York Times Tokyo Bureau Chief Motoko Rich joined me to talk about this year's unprecedented Olympics.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Motoko, we checked in with you right after the Olympics started and we were predicting kind of a strange Olympics without fans and well, I guess it was because when you look at track and field events and you look at all these other events in large arenas, you expect the roar of the crowd influencing points, jazzing up the athletes. It wasn't there.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Yeah, it was pretty crazy. I was at the athletics last event, which was a four by four relay, which was incredibly exciting. Allyson Felix won her 11th medal, surpassing Carl Lewis as the most decorated track and field Olympian, American Olympian of all time, something like that, as they're kind of racing around the track, you expect the crowds to be going wild and there's nothing of the sort. So there was that sort of bittersweet feeling. Every time we were in one of the venues, you could feel how empty they were. And you can hear sounds that you probably wouldn't have heard before. I watched table tennis and you can hear every grunt and wheeze and the ball hitting the table. And I don't know if it had been a big crowd, if I would have been able to hear that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Everyone's concern was that this would be the global super spreader event. So in some ways, the IOC, the city of Tokyo, can walk away from this saying, yeah, it got worse, but it didn't get as bad as everybody was kind of worried about.

  • Motoko Rich:

    I mean, it's a little bit of a kind of a two-pronged story inside the bubble. It is fair to say that they did seem to manage it fairly well. I mean, all told, there are probably like 436 cases inside the bubble. But at the same time, the daily cases in Tokyo more than tripled. Most people say that you can't draw a direct line between the Olympics, obviously, given how low the case rate was inside the bubble. But there is a question of whether Tokyoites were watching the fact that these Olympics were going on and saying, OK, well, we can go out and party, too.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've watched probably more hours because you've been getting paid to to keep track of all this. But what stood out to you over the past couple of weeks?

  • Motoko Rich:

    Well, obviously, a big storyline here was about Simone Biles. I mean, that was a shock. Nobody was expecting that. Naomi Osaka was also knocked out of competition. So it just sort of felt these really huge stars were suddenly out of the games. And so I think that really kind of consumed the first week of the games. At least for me, little tiny moments even in the marathon at the very end, the silver and the bronze medal at the silver medalist, their friends. And you could see him kind of gesturing for his friend, you know, come on, we're going to make it to the finish line. It was also the first time since 1900 that an Indian track and field athlete won a medal and he actually won gold with the javelin. And there were those moments.

    But I think we can't forget that there were also other moments, like, for example, politics intruded very clearly into the games when the Belarusian sprinter, her country tried to force her to go home after she criticized the coaches. And of course, underlying all of this, everybody's looking forward or anticipating what might happen in Beijing. It's only six months away and there's a lot of questioning about what will happen, whether the IOC, how are they going to manage the protests and the condemnation. This is a country that has been condemned as committing genocide. So you have on the one hand, you know, there's joy and sportsmanship. On the other hand, you have this very real sense of politics that's not necessarily being addressed head on.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do the Japanese fans, how do the Japanese citizens feel now that this whirlwind has gone through?

  • Motoko Rich:

    You know, as many as 80% of the Japanese public said they really didn't want the games to happen this year because of the pandemic, that was before they started. And as it always happens, there is always somebody who's against the Olympics before they start. And once the games get started and people are watching on television, they get very excited about that. And that happened here just as anywhere else. I mean, Japan had a pretty good medal haul and they won golds in some of the new sports like skateboarding. So I think that kind of lifted everybody's spirits. That being said, I think there's going to be some serious reckoning about the cost and sacrifices that were made, and it's not just about Tokyo, it's about any potential host city is going to be looking at the Tokyo Games and thinking, do I really want to do that?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Motoko Rich of The New York Times joining us from Japan. Thanks so much.

  • Motoko Rich:

    Thanks for having me.

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