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IOC President Calls Tokyo Games: Most Challenging Olympic Journey

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Tokyo Olympic Games are over. In the closing ceremony yesterday, Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, referred to it as, quote, "this most challenging Olympic journey." Here's NPR's Tom Goldman from Tokyo.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The face masks winners wore on the medal stands forced us to guess their emotions. Happy was a pretty good bet. The mostly empty stands forced us to imagine the roars. This was never an ordinary Olympics - although, in one major way, it was.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: In terms of the competitions and the athletes, frankly, this is just like any other Olympics.

GOLDMAN: In Tokyo, historian David Wallechinsky was at his 19th Olympics.

WALLECHINSKY: Competition has been great. The athletes are completely focused. If it weren't for the empty stadiums, you wouldn't know the difference.

(CROSSTALK, CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: What's been notable in action like this broadcast on NBC is, after the intensity, a very real sense of camaraderie. High fives, fist bumps, hugs shared by competitors. It was frequent and seemed sincere, beyond the common displays of sportsmanship. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said last week these expressions grew out of the uncertainty and isolation many athletes dealt with during the Olympic's one-year pandemic postponement. The athletes' togetherness, he said, gave the Tokyo Games a great soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS BACH: They did not have the regular contact in competitions, in World Cups or world championships or regional championships, you name it, and were longing for being together again.

GOLDMAN: The camaraderie was fleeting, however. COVID protocols required athletes to leave Japan within two days of finishing their events. Twenty-nine athletes at the games tested positive for a coronavirus, a tiny percentage of the 11,000 who were here and proof, the IOC and organizers said, that a so-called Olympic bubble worked. But the highest number of positive cases among those connected to the games, contractors who went in and out of the bubble, potentially adding to a surge in Tokyo that last Thursday reached a record daily high of more than 5,000. The IOC and Japanese government steadfastly maintain the Olympics had nothing to do with the surge. Dr. Kenji Shibuya disagrees. He's currently helping run a large coronavirus vaccination program north of Tokyo.

KENJI SHIBUYA: The Olympics is the world's largest sporting event and has built in the sentiment of celebration, excitement.

GOLDMAN: And too many people have taken part in the celebration together, he says. Some bars and restaurants have been crowded with mask-less customers. Shibuya says he's scared because too many people in Tokyo are behaving as usual. He believes the Japanese government hasn't helped the situation by sending inconsistent messages to Tokyo residents - stay home and safely watch the games on TV, but celebrate them, too.

SHIBUYA: People are very confused.

GOLDMAN: Japan and Tokyo didn't have to get to this point, Shibuya says. Had the government been more proactive with testing and vaccines, the games could have had spectators and a whole different feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDMAN: As the Olympics left Tokyo amidst pomp and a stripped-down closing ceremony, IOC President Bach praised athletes and organizers and explained, we did it together. One wonders whether his private reaction was relief. They made it. Athletes starred. Tokyo was left with memories, many good, but also, critics say, huge cost overruns, debt and a rapidly worsening COVID problem. Less than six months away, the next Olympics.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE'S "BECAUSE I HEAR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.