It’s Thursday 29th July, 2021. An San of Korea had already won two gold medals in mixed team and women’s team. She’s paraded through the mixed zone, the labyrinth of rails that athletes must enter to speak to the media after their matches. (The rules for athletes are, you have to go in there, but you don’t have to say anything.) One of the journalists asks her a question, and is instantly cut off by An San’s coach, Park Chaesoon. You know the guy. Looks like this.
Almost overnight, a story has blown up about a deluge of online hate aimed at her and focusing on, of all things, her short haircut. It had snuck out via Korean blogs and social media and reached one of the journalists who had camped out in Yumenoshima Park for the week. Question squashed, Park and An make a quick exit.
It was a story that touched upon many things, including some particularly creaking attitudes at home, but apparently enough trolls had marked An out as a ‘feminist’, because of the way she cut her hair. How many people did this involve? It’s difficult to say, but it involved an online group called (in translation) ‘The New Men’s Solidarity Network’, among others, whose fragile attack troops deluged the bulletin boards of the KAA and elsewhere, demanding that she return the two gold medals she had already won.
Now it’s Friday morning, and An San is fresh from her first match, demolishing Deepika Kumari six-nil – just as she did at the Tokyo test event in 2019, with the same scoreline.
Once again, she goes through the press paddock. The same Korean journalist who asked the question last night and many more pack the rail. Chaesoon stands right next to her, arms folded, glaring, then loudly proclaims to the press that his charge will not answer ‘irrelevant’ questions. The World Archery head of media and the venue media manager line up behind him. Chaesoon stares down the rail of journalists. A few tentative questions, and she’s off to lunch.
The journalists backed down, but it seems to reinforce the story’s importance. That evening, dozens of Korean press and photographers jammed the venue for the denouement of the women’s individual competition.
After her spectacular individual victory, against the toughest opponents, she visibly rolls her eyes before facing the mandatory broadcast media in their strict pecking order, and finally dragged by Chaesoon through the throng to sit at a press conference table in the venue media centre next to Lucilla Boari and Elena Osipova, bronze and silver, neither of whom look like they can believe their luck. (Boari is actually smiling). Then the safety net briefly fails; some random journalist who didn’t get the memo asks her a question about what she would say to the people who have insulted her online.
The assembled media – the ones in the know – perk up. The journo stands back, and a smiling volunteer sprays and disinfects the microphone. There is a moment in the air. The Korean coaches look aghast, and one motions towards An as if to say “you don’t have to answer that.”
But almost immediately, in a few clipped words, she answers: “I will not like to talk about anything but the competition and my skills and techniques.” An stares back at the room. Outside of this air-conditioned tent, in the real world, she is becoming the most famous person in her home country that evening.
Not long afterwards, none other than the President of South Korea described her as “the pride of the nation” the same evening, and went as far as to say: “Sometimes we have to fight over expectations and discrimination. Sometimes we only see the results, but every step of the process is never easy.” If it’s a story that the president has got a handle on, it’s a story.
Unravelling the rest of this tale, whatever it actually is, has been more tricky. In Korea, as in many other places, there has been a small sea change in attitudes and a rise in feminism, driven as ever by younger people.
Much of the internet warrior wrath centres on the use of some obscure hashtags.
The two phrases that apparently proved some kind of misandry are “ung aeng ung” – an onomatopoeia that meaning unintelligible or nonsensical and “5.5 trillion”, meaning a deliberate exaggeration.
There are many more, and many more people arguing over whether a particular phrase indicates ‘feminism’, or just being a modern person on the internet using neologisms and buzzwords. (The fact that An San went to an all-women’s university has also aroused male suspicion, even if it’s the same archery hothouse institution that Ki Bo Bae and Choi Misun both attended.)
An enormous counter-effort supporting An San against the more knuckle-dragging elements of the internet blew up and furiously phoned the KAA demanding they protect An San, hero of the nation, from all this. Mercifully, she has kept quiet and let everyone else do the talking.
It was an oblique reflection of the key overarching theme of Tokyo 2020, that of the mental health of Olympic athletes; quietly an issue for many decades, and now fully in the mainstream. It touched upon societal changes, the power and reach of social media, the moving of goalposts, and the expectations for public figures.
The biggest story of all from Tokyo 2020 was that of American gymnastics megastar Simone Biles pulling out of multiple events citing mental health issues as well as the ‘twisties’ – essentially the gymnast’s equivalent of target panic, with much more dangerous potential consequences.
That’s right. The biggest story of the Olympics was an athlete choosing not to compete. Nothing else really came close. The predictable reactions from the American media ran the gamut from string-her-up-the-traitor to supporting-you-all-the-way-Simone. It fed the news maw, hungry for the meta-story, even as it frustrated audiences and the networks, expecting a ratings bonanza from the biggest star of all. (Although in gymnastics it allowed a new hero, Sunisa Lee, to emerge.)
We always demand more. And the cycle feeds itself. As the Korean National Press Labor Union put it:
“… there are a lot of articles that the media spread about the current [An San] case as a conflict of opinion. And I want to ask if these articles are really worthwhile as news, and some of the articles posted on the Internet community are not true, but only hate and sarcasm against women and feminism. As these articles became news articles, related posts in the community were amplified even more, and a vicious cycle that quickly led to mass sending of articles citing other hateful remarks occurred, urging the media to pay attention.”
Welcome to 2021, where the real world, the media, and the social media churn in endless depressing loops. There may be more to find out about An San, now examined as closely as any K-pop star for signs and signifiers, every online move future and past scrutinised and discussed. (If you’re interested, try diving into this in translation).
The former president of World Archery, Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone (back when it was still called FITA) described a Korean women’s team who “lived in a sort of convent-like seclusion” after a 1980s World Championship. This is manifestly no longer the case. The only thing that is abundantly clear about An San is that she is a thoroughly modern person; connected, thoughtful, part of society – as much as a professional sportsperson can be.
The tale goes that she insisted on an archery program for girls being started at her school, when it was intended only for boys. Since her international debut in women’s recurve at the Berlin World Cup in 2019 (she won) the immense natural talent was obvious. She also won the Tokyo test event held here in 2019. She was tested harder than any other Korean woman has been tested on the way to the title, and passed.
At every competition, I always have a favourite pic of Dean Alberga’s. This time it came early, at official practice:
The day before the ranking round that would set An San on the path to three golds, it told a tale of handing over, of utter badassery, of the threat of the new girl, of something in the air. It captured something changing. An San would not only destroy the field, she would destroy her teammates too. In a couple of days time Kang and Jang would both also be gold medalists, but by the end of the week, they seemed almost like also-rans. An San turned up and was just cooler than them, and indeed, than pretty much everybody else.
Of course the three of them together were going to win the women’s team event. I wrote a few months ago about the only chance that any other squad – we presumed it would be Chinese Taipei – would have to beat the Koreans, now almost on the longest medal streak in Olympic history. The only way was to be a confident, bulldozing, dangerous second place, terrifying the other side of the bracket. Chinese Taipei’s women, so confident in Den Bosch, simply didn’t show up, qualifying in seventh place. From the ranking round on, you knew it was done. The psychological road was unimpeded. Korea would never be beaten on the stage, but they might conspire to lose it themselves in their heads before going on. That wasn’t now going to happen. The battles were for silver and bronze. When the three Korean women were together, they looked light years ahead of the rest. With the exception of An San, individually, they looked distinctly vulnerable.
Watch again, if you can, the exit of Jang Min Hee of Korea – the most mysterious member of the team – at the hands of Miki Nakamura of Japan, in a strangely vapid second round encounter in a lull in the wearisomely long action on Wednesday.
Jang seems empty, and tense. The wind whirls a little. Hair flies. Nakamura stares into the back of Jang’s head like she is trying to bore a hole in it. The explosive qualities of her shot seemed to have gone. She looked horribly, painfully average. Nakamura wasn’t amazing. But you sensed where it was going from the first set.
What happened? We won’t know. Jang Min Hee walked into the press mixed zone, bowed her head, burst into tears and walked out again. (A reminder: the rules are you have to walk in there at least, although you’re not obliged to actually say anything. But sometimes, you don’t really need to.)
Jang Min Hee – never to be seen again, is my guess. I really wonder if that is the end, if she will be like Choi Hyeonju – popping up out of nowhere, getting the team gold, bombing out of the individuals at the same Games, realising it’s never going to get much better than that, and packing it in. Jang’s deeply weird technique, apparently requiring wrist support (not required when she was a junior) must of course have been good enough to get her onto the team. Against the formal simplicity of An and the strength of Kang, it looked amateurish.
Finally, to Kang “The Destroyer” Chae Young. She never looked comfortable in the individual competition, at any point, even against the relative cannon fodder she had to face the first two times out. She looked pale, wan, and drawn. Her shooting was indifferent. It was obvious that Osipova was going to cause her trouble in the third round. She did. She *ahem* destroyed her.
About a minute after this picture was taken, Kang also broke down in tears and was helped out by her coaches. Not happy then. I mean, she even looked pretty unhappy when facing the Korean media, as the usual conquering heroes, at Incheon airport on the journey home:
Perhaps to the women’s team, the gold is considered manifest destiny, something you get merely for showing up. The real competition is for the individual gold; the one that may see you elevated to the pantheon of Korean archery goddesses. (The goddesses that were not only watching, but commentating.)
I was also genuinely intrigued to find out along the way that all three of the women’s team this year apparently identify as Buddhists – as well as Kim Je Deok.
Around a quarter of the Korea population are Buddhists, and around 70 of the 237 athletes going from Korea identified as such. You think you know these people, even a little. You don’t know them at all.
It began with bureaucracy, shuffling documents in a long, brightly-lit airline terminal at Haneda airport.
A three hour process, politely coerced from station to station across echoing halls, sleepily handing over document after document proving you are who you say you are and you are free from the plague, smiling faces behind masks, computers tapped, small bows from helpful volunteers, all the machinery of overmanned Japanese protocol and administration.
No other country on earth could have done the process better. It could have been more efficient, more digital, more informed. But it wouldn’t be Japan. Of course, this non-indignity led to a small handful of witless commentators such as a USA wrestling coach doing a “your papers please” comparison to Nazi Germany, and who barely kept her accreditation as a result.
Journalists are used to writing about the interface between the Games and the host city, ruminating on how welcoming the local public might be, and being free to flaneur about the place and be impressed or unimpressed about what has been laid on for the Big Dance.
This year, as soon as you stepped off the plane, it was made abundantly clear to the media and all other overseas visitors that their freedom had taken a back seat to public health concerns. This didn’t stop certain myopic outlets whining at length at the appalling disrespect that one of their team had been confined to quarters for a close contact:
The reason why they aren’t the ‘Coronavirus Games’, then or now or after, is because the Japanese government came up with a vast and complicated solution to the problem– in fact, a pioneering effort as to how to keep something like this safe in the future. And it worked. It doesn’t stop the whining beforehand, including the British race walker who complained about the ‘prison-like’ conditions and the food in Sapporo, a few hundred miles north. He ended up placing a disastrous 25th, but not before being widely mocked by Japanese Twitter users, with comments including “We’re not going to be lectured to by a Brit about shit food.”
Every day, we spit into a tube. We then hand it to someone unlucky enough to have the role of ‘Covid Liason Officer’, gathering the group’s sputum. They then hand off to some poor bugger who will take charge of hundreds of tubes of spit and eventually take them to a lab somewhere where some kind spit-dipper will check tens of thousands of us, the closest link, for the plague. Every one of the 13 days I am in Tokyo, I am tested for coronavirus, for free. (The three days of testing required beforehand to let me into the country cost £240, and the pointless unsupervised Day 2 / Day 8 tests I have to do on returning to the UK cost £160).
I also have to take my temperature every day beforehand for two weeks, which I do dutifully, and take it again every day when I am in Japan, all of which has to be entered into an app on my phone on pain of a furious reminder from the Covid Liason Officer. This app also forces you to answer a number of questions, which are easier to breeze past, even if expressing the required millilitres of gob into the tube never gets more enjoyable.
The rest of the COVID precautions are less intrusive; a gun temperature check to enter the breakfast wing of the hotel, several mandatory squirts of hand sanitiser here and there, and of course, wearing masks everywhere at all times. Pretty much everyone I see, press, staff and athletes happily complies – except for a very well-known older member of the Italian archery delegation who has his mask perpetually round his chin, even on the TV footage. (Just once, I headed downstairs from my hotel room to the vending machine on the fifth floor and forgot my mask, only realising once I’d got there. On my way back, I only saw one other person, a Japanese lady, who scurried past me with alarm in her eyes. I’m still feeling bad about it now.)
Our hotel, for its part, has instituted a kind of apartheid system for its overseas guests. We eat breakfast in one of two echoing ballrooms, our tables spaced off with perspex. Japanese guests eat in the restaurant. The hotel has a pool and a gym and various other amenities; all of which are off-limits to the Olympic gaijin. The hotel bar shuts at 7pm each night by government edict, long before we get back from the venue.
Apart from the lobby, in the hotel we don’t mix with anyone – not even ourselves. Dinner in the evening is a lonely meal ordered via an app, picked up at the front door, and eaten in the hotel room.
Uber Eats has been one of the big hospitality beneficiaries of Tokyo. The app is in English, but most of the menus are not, so ordering anything other than pizza requires a laborious process of screenshotting a hopeful looking menu and running it through the camera function on Google Translate.
Eventually, someone brings round food on a bike. It’s still telling me their names. Thank you Hirohito. Thank you Tetsuo. No, thank you, Yamato. Yes, I will press this button and you will get a tip. The constant stream of bike couriers bearing takeaways combined with the language barrier means that one night, starving, I get back to my room and realised I have picked up someone else’s order. I take it straight back down and tell the concierge and hope someone didn’t go hungry that night.
We are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything. We are not allowed to walk down the street, go into a shop or order a drink. We eat, sleep and do our jobs. Even as, for the world’s media, the world is changing. Half a million people like An San’s Instagram post on her gold medal within an hour. She’s good enough to tell stories on her own:
Media, including the sacred broadcast footage, is violently respun into memes and jokes, which get more eyeballs than the actual competition in many countries. The social media whirl doesn’t reflect talent or results though: An San’s pile of followers pales besides Valentina Acosta, the well-connected ‘influencer’ archer from Colombia, who managed to gain 1.6 million followers, a 600% increase, during the Olympics without winning a single match.
It’s also clear that there is considerable duplication of media work; many technical roles are undemanding, and digital changes mean that a lot of media gathering could be very different indeed – and handled with considerably fewer people onsite. And increasingly, the athletes are telling the stories themselves, and the gatekeepers and intermediaries are less powerful. We’re here, but do we need to be?
The biggest crime of all: no spectators. What a beautiful, beautiful field. What a well-considered, tidy expanse of sporting venue, with a wide promenade deck at the back, twenty feet up, that looked like something off a fancy ship. The Yumenoshima Park finals arena was easily the greatest Olympic archery venue yet, perhaps bar the minimal beauty of the Panathenaic Stadium. As part of the ‘look’, the careful branding that all Olympic venues go through and designed to show up behind athletes for any particular camera angle, the upper part of the temporary stand seemed to rise up at the corners, almost like a classical bit of Japanese architecture.
For a temporary structure, made mostly of scaffolding, it surpassed its function. It felt like somewhere permanent, even if it was only a place of brief communion, with athletes, officials and volunteers all scuttling about in a borrowed space trying to put on the big show; and the coaches and journos and photographers all sneaking off and finding their special secret spot to have a smoke.
I wrote before the Games on the strange and hypocritical decision to not have spectators, even as other Japanese sports venues continued to let them in. It was manifestly clear that there was all-but-zero risk to a masked, well-spaced, well-marshalled audience in an outdoor venue like this. Although, I can understand that perhaps the situation was less clear a few months out, and deciding to fill Olympic venues on a case-by-case risk assessment basis would have been a nightmare on many fronts.
The other joy was that we were actually in a park, built by the water on a vast pile of decades of Tokyo’s rubbish, with greenery and trees to absorb some of the ferocious heat. The continuous background noise generated by the cicadas, that pudgy, noisy insect, was only just inaudible on the TV coverage. For everybody there, it was a continuous white-noise reality. Cicadas like to scream at the hottest part of the day. Like this:
On the branches, they were well camouflaged. An unluckier one I found on the ground revealed an absolutely exquisite golden wing structure, like a piece of fancy jewellery.
Japan cheer politely, enthusiastically. I’m in the spectator stands for Furukawa’s bronze, and it’s polite applause all the way. Not even a ‘whoo’. I’m also in the stands for Osipova vs An, and three Russians are making as much noise as a twenty strong Korean delegation put together. A masked Galsan Bazarzhapov bangs the metal floor of the stand with an umbrella and his foot hard enough that the whole thing shakes. Almost like there’s malice there.
One of those Russians was my favourite champion of all, Ksenia Perova, who after her final individual match walks off without entering the mixed zone, looking pissed off. She is returned to do her mandated press duties by Vladimir Esheev (bronze medal, 1988) and proceeds to open up fully. In a quiet, halting voice, she says:
I like shootoffs. They give me an adrenaline rush, and I feel the growth of responsibility. Today, it wasn’t successful because I couldn’t handle the mental pressure because the opening is very strong. She put a lot of effort into this. And I think she deserves to go to the final round and I will be rooting, not only for our team members but also for her.
Three minutes ago, everything ended for me. And now I feel relief and I’m very tired, and I cannot think about anything except going home and meeting my family.
The preparations for this Olympics were very long and not easy. I had problems with my shoulder and I overcame so many things to to perform here. So now I can thing only about relaxing. I have plans to take a vacation. I haven’t been home since we 3rd of March. That’s why I want to go home. I have a daughter, a husband, relatives. They are very supportive. I’ve been doing this for 20 years. They respect my choice. They don’t say anything bad. They cheer me up.
Are you going to quit? “I’m 32 years old, I haven’t decided completely, but I’m thinking about that. I’m taking a break, then I’ll decide what I’m gonna do. I need to take a rest after five years of work. Paris? I don’t I don’t know. I don’t have certain plans for that. My shoulder is a problem. I’ll look at the pros and cons. It’s not only my decision but also my team.”
(Given that I once asked the Russian women’s team ‘who was in charge?’ and they all nervously pointed at Perova, this comment is perhaps not 100% accurate.)
“I’m doing this from when I was 11 years old and I cannot imagine doing anything else. You imagine yourself beyond the sport. This is my life, archery for many many years, and I don’t have any other business. So if I started something else, I would need to start from the beginning.”
Are you happy with how it has gone? “Yes, I think it was successful. I’ve been working at it for five years, I had all the problems with my health so that’s why I thought I wouldn’t even get to the Olympic Games because at one point I couldn’t even draw the bow. I have suffered and endured all the preparations to get to Tokyo. That’s why I am satisfied with the results. ”
“I don’t feel any regrets. I don’t feel an emptiness that I lost, like I used to feel before when I really wanted to win. The silver in the team rounds gave us some confidence that we could compete with the Koreans. I love the Russian gymnastics team, they’re from Yekaterinburg, so I’m rooting for them. I had goosebumps watching them, because they did such a great job. The ROC wins because it has such strong athletes.”
There is much to say about disappointment, and the darkness that comes at the end of an Olympic cycle. However much you know how well you did or didn’t do, however much your peers and your coaches and your federation know how well you did, the world sees only one thing: medals. Alejandra Valencia brought back a bronze medal to Mexico, one of just a handful the country won. As the plane landed, they let her in the cockpit and gave her a water cannon salute. One or two fractionally better arrows than someone else, and you get a water cannon salute. Because medal. It’s not fair. (It’s not. It really isn’t.)
“I don’t think I deserve to lose. Yeah, I was just unlucky against my rival and she’s really good. And when I look at the group, my group was the hardest. I just can’t understand why it’s happening like this.”Yasemin Anagoz
As to what impact archery made; it looked better on the TV than it did in Rio, that’s for sure; cleaner, tighter, great shots, better background. OBS seemed to have upped their game across all sports. But archery was a pretty minor part of the wider Olympic narrative this time, especially with four of the five golds going in the usual direction.
To the rest of the world, Korea won again, even if the undercard fights kept the archery cognoscenti interested and the men’s title went way off script. Archery did its thing, while the rest of the world’s attention was on Simone Biles and a lady crying on a horse. Even An San barely got mentioned in the write-ups afterwards, although someone decided to add her to this boss poster for France 2024:
The problem.. isn’t so much the Games as the series of bewildering events currently masquerading as “reality”. In the middle of which the Olympics is somehow still happening, and happening in a way that takes us pretty much off the map.Barney Ronay, The Guardian
The Japanese public, for their part, seemed to gradually warm to the event, helped by an avalanche of home team medals across multiple sports right from the off. The host nation always does well at a home Games (just automatically qualifying for every sport has more to do with it than you might think), but even Japan sometimes seemed surprised at just how well they were doing against the usual big beasts.
Press photos show the Japanese public peering into venues through fences, not invited to the party that they paid for. Absolutely everybody I met was courteous and welcoming, without exception.
The successful execution has to be measured against a backdrop of massively rising COVID cases in Tokyo and the rest of Japan (as of this writing), even if it seems increasingly clear that this is not directly connected to the Olympics. The Delta variant is not interested in local political concerns and all variants have apparently been held at bay by the massive system designed to insulate the overseas contingent from the Japanese public. It’s clear that the Olympics was not a ‘super-spreader event’, despite that phrase being parroted by dozens of moronic journalists in the buildup. In the end there were 430 positive cases within the bubble, but almost all of them were Japanese residents; volunteers and contractors. The wall had held, and then some.
What seems more reasonable to blame on the Olympics is the bad example set by insisting on it going ahead; and having thousands of people pitch up and TV screens full of athletes hugging. The Dominic Cummings effect; if they’re doing it, why can’t we? Tokyo is particularly weary of lockdowns, and there were plenty of pics of packed bars in Shibuya and Shinjuku ignoring the bafflingly voluntary ‘state of emergency’ measures. (The classic cool Tokyo bar: small, tightly packed, smoky and low-ceilinged seems custom-designed to spread airborne viruses.)
Much has been made of the supposedly immutable Japanese cultural norms that emphasise the group over the individual, and how this has helped the country and the COVID figures during the pandemic. But these norms are changing; people, especially in cities, now seem more willing to step out of line. Among younger people in particular, the Japanese social contract is fragmenting. If we can have an Olympics, why aren’t I allowed a drink after work?
The wider impact will be felt in due course. For the all-important American TV ratings, it was a disaster for NBC, the US host broadcaster. The average ratings for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is about half of what the 2016 Rio Olympics brought in and barely a third of the viewers that watched London 2012. NBC were forced to give away advertising space for free to clients, to make up the viewership shortfall.
The 13-hour time-zone difference between Tokyo and the East Coast did not help, nor did the programming being fractured across a bewildering variety of channels. The lack of Simone Biles, who was expected to smash events night after night for a week, but of course decided not to, didn’t help viewing figures either, nor did the early bath for tennis superstar Naomi Osaka or the non-appearance of basketball star LeBron James, among others.
In the UK, the rights deal with Discovery+ / Eurosport, despite being made over five years ago, caught out sports fans who were expecting the full panoply of red-button sports on the BBC, which only had sub-licensed rights this time around. The BBC was restricted to just two live sports at any one time, and focused almost exclusively on GB medal chances, for which it was criticised.
Despite this, it looks like this split model may be here to stay, as the viewing figures were healthy for the BBC with significantly reduced costs. Apparently around a third of homes had some Eurosport access as part of various packages with Sky and others. But there was no question about who had the bigger reach: the men’s 100m final attracted 5.1 million TV viewers on the BBC, but just 100,000 tuned into Eurosport 1, according to BARB figures.
It seems increasingly likely that if you want your wideband fill of the Games in the future, you will have to fork out for Eurosport, and in the UK, the chances of you catching archery on free-to-air TV, or indeed anything where there isn’t a significant British medal chance, is not good. Your chances of seeing a smaller sport and thinking “I’d like a go at that”, are vanishing fast.
Finally, it’s a long-established journalistic tradition to try and nail down the ‘meaning’ of the Olympics. Sure, I’ll give it a go. Broadly, it was a Games that held a mirror up to the times, rather than set an agenda for the future like Tokyo 1964; the symbolic Games of a nation emerging from post-war destruction to take its place in the world.
Of course, Japan didn’t need to emerge into the world in 2021; it is the fourth largest economy on the planet and its technology and culture are found in every corner of the globe. It was hoping instead to be a ‘Games of reconstruction’, after the Fukushima disaster. Instead, they ended up with… something else. The damned if they do, damned if they don’t Olympics, maybe.
The relentless media cycle shone an uncomfortable light on some sports, such as the grotesque incident in the modern pentathlon competition where the randomly-assigned horse for a leading competitor refused to jump for its rider, and was then apparently punched by a coach. Endlessly repeated and repackaged, you could sympathise with both rider and horse, but then ask: Why is this ludicrous, possibly cruel sport even in the Olympics anymore? (Modern pentathlon has long been considered to be first in line for removal from the Games, perhaps this was the death blow.)
The host nation was also forced to grapple with issues of multiculturalism, as it fielded a home team featuring more than three dozen athletes of mixed parentage, including megastar Naomi Osaka.
Ren Hayakawa, the naturalised Japanese Olympic archer who was born and raised in South Korea, said that unlike her older sister who represented Japan in archery at Beijing, she had never experienced discrimination. Hayakawa competed in Tokyo, and won a medal with the Japanese team at London 2012. She told Asahi Shinbum this, which kind of raises other questions:
“In the early days when I competed against South Koreans, I felt really lost and felt pressure. But whenever that happened, my coach would tell me ‘You are doing well. And you are Japanese.’”
There was a lot of focus on stories with LGBTQ+ athletes, including our very own Lucilla Boari, who came out, somewhat unexpectedly, to the Italian media after winning individual bronze. She is not the only gay archer in the professional archery peleton, but she’s certainly the first one to come out at an Olympic Games. It’s perhaps interesting that she felt she was in an atmosphere comfortable enough to do so.
Tokyo 2020 rubbed up against a changing world. Newer stars. Younger. Stranger. More connected. More diverse. Not necessarily fitting into conventional sports star boxes. Sharing gold medals, even. Athletes have emerged from the industrial pressures of Big Sport to decide what their priorities are, and they were led there by the biggest star of all. And all this in spite of a pandemic, and all swirled up by an off-axis, time-shifted news cycle and social media, complete with fake news.
Entire eras had also changed. The men’s 100m final was won by… an Italian. The tonal changes from the Usain Bolt era were remarkable. It felt completely different.
Who knows, perhaps the 100m is done in some way, the idea of male sprinting power as some kind of register of basic human worth a little absurd, foolish, boomer-ish, old hat… Every 100m race is run against the past to some degree, those glorious, tarnished shadows. And right now that history feels a little distant, a place of juiced-up times and a single outlandish talent. Probably this was always a dream, or at least, never quite the thing it was made to be.Barney Ronay, The Guardian
Many things, in the glaring, empty light seemed a little bit much. The immense expense, the concrete contracts, the years of effort for just two weeks of action, it all felt a little like something of the past. Wisely, Tokyo 2020 lacked a grandiose opening and closing ceremony, choosing a relatively simple, procedural-focused routine going both in and out. There was no sense of grand finale. It was done, and the IOC and the politicians and the federations and the public all breathed a sigh of relief.
If there was a theme; it was ‘it was tough, but we did it.’ We survived. We got through it. Pandemics, Olympic cycles. We did it, and oh yeah, everything has changed now. Things are different. The Olympics won’t ever quite be the same again.
As for our thing, I got to see it. I got to walk around. I got to watch. It was, for an archery fan, a position of almost unimaginable privilege. I didn’t feel like a journalist anymore. Sorry I couldn’t tell all the stories. There wasn’t room.
I hope I brought you a few fragments of what it was like. It was a competition that deserved more people saying ‘I was there’. Because there was still some magic in the air.
Arigato to all the people who helped me get to Tokyo, and helped me when I was there.