When the pandemic took hold last year, some of the starkest images were the vast empty stadiums that soon became the backdrop of every major sporting event. At the time, many wondered whether playing without the roar of a crowd was worth the effort, or even justifiable during such a time of global crisis. The Olympics – a year late – has proven, once and for all, that it is.
If anything, the past fortnight has shown how affecting the shared experience of supporting our national athletes can be. Watching on, there would surely be few who have not cheered, pleaded, laughed, cried, yelled and pumped their fists in sheer joy, despair and frustration. All in the name of urging our favoured athletes to run faster, swim harder, jump and throw longer or higher, shoot straighter, paddle faster.
It did not hurt that Australia has won as many gold medals as ever before, but that has been just part of a far greater achievement. As Susie O’Neill, one of the stars of the Sydney Games and a deputy chef de mission with the Australian team, said: “I remember hopping on the charter plane on the way over and athletes saying to me, ‘I can’t believe it is actually happening.’ The feeling was nothing like a team I have ever been on.”
That sentiment has been obvious throughout the Games. The sheer joy of getting the chance, despite the odds, to compete at the highest level during such a difficult time has emanated from all the athletes. It’s almost like the difficulties of lockdowns and travel bans and delays have distilled their desire to compete.
And yet so many of the exceptional moments had nothing to do with athletes standing on a podium. When Age reporter Chip Le Grand asked athletes for their favourite moment of the Games, Harry Garside, who became Australia’s first Olympic boxing medallist since Seoul, spoke of watching Peter Bol’s inspired two laps of the Olympic stadium. He would hardly be alone.
Taliqua Clancy, a Wulli Wulli woman who won silver in beach volleyball, said her most memorable moment was clicking open a video message from Cathy Freeman on the morning of her quarter-final match: “That was honestly the highlight of my whole Olympics.” Clancy said the message from Freeman, who she has never met, was too personal to share, but Freeman was “just the baddest. She is so cool.”
Clancy’s teammate, Mariafe Artacho del Solar, talked about the energy she had felt inside the Australian team headquarters at the Olympic village. “I think just seeing how amazing the Australian team has supported each other; right from the beginning you just felt it in the building … I think we all saw each other’s success and pushed each other, and that was really special.”
There will be critics. As the Games played out in a bubble relatively free of COVID-19, infections rocketed in Tokyo and beyond. The people of Japan could pay a heavy price, not just financially, for playing host to an Olympics that many thought should never happen. The International Olympic Committee should be very grateful to a host country that has, in many respects, saved the Games. A cancelled event would have weighed heavily on the organisation’s future.