Tokyo doused its Olympic flame on Sunday in a ceremony that echoed the restraint of the games held without spectators, transformed by the global pandemic.
After postponing the Tokyo 2020 Games for a year, organisers said the event would serve as a symbol of world triumph over the pandemic. But with strict pandemic countermeasures and as COVID-19 variants have surged back around the world, the Olympics fell short of the triumph and financial windfall Japan needed.
The ceremony gave athletes something of a glimpse of everyday Tokyo life as the Olympic Stadium was transformed into a park with grass, buskers and BMX riders.
The scene was meant so the visitors could “experience Tokyo”, organisers said, a poignant reminder of the many restrictions of the games.
It was a duly odd ending to an unprecedented event. Japan is now saddled with a $15 billion bill, double what it initially expected, and with no tourist boom.
The president of the International Olympic Committee thanked the Japanese people and acknowledged the difficulty of staging the games during the pandemic.
“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together,” Thomas Bach said. “Nobody has ever organised postponed games before.”
Public anger over the pandemic response and a slow-to-start vaccine rollout have badly damaged Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s standing. Public opinion polls showed most Japanese opposed holding the games during the pandemic.
Still, organisers appear to have prevented the Tokyo Games from spiralling into a COVID-19 super-spreader event, notable given that some 50,000 people came together amid the pandemic.
In a sign of the measures, winners accepted their prizes from trays, putting the medals around their own necks, although social-distancing protocols such as preventing hugging were largely ignored throughout the games.
While the bubble, the set of venues and hotels to which Olympic visitors were largely confined appeared to hold, elsewhere some things fell apart. Fuelled by the Delta variant of the virus, daily infections spiked to more than 5,000 for the first time in Tokyo, threatening to overwhelm its hospitals.
Japan’s record medal haul also helped to take out some of the stings for organisers. The United States finished top of the tally with 39 gold medals, one more than rivals China at 38 and Japan at 27.
For the first time ever, the closing ceremony featured live celebrations from the next host city as the people of Paris welcomed the handover of the Olympic flag.