The enduring legacies of the Tokyo Olympic Games
As a person of Greek origin, the Olympic Games have always meant a lot to me. So when the Tokyo 2020 Games started on July 23, 2021, after a one year delay, it was a moment of personal celebration but also anxiety — for the athletes, the organizers, the host country and the Olympic ideals the pandemic has severely tested.
From the absence of spectators to the hesitancy of companies to showcase their sponsorships and, most significantly, resistance from many of the country’s people, the legacies of these games may be unparalleled for the Olympic movement.
In my view, Japan’s primary legacy will be one of hope and resilience. This is a country that hosted the games in the most challenging of circumstances, with an awe-inspiring focus on emotional well-being and perseverance.
These Olympic games put mental health on a global stage, brought to the forefront by gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka and drawing support from other athletes and fans alike. One legacy of these games will likely be the creation of new programs and initiatives to support well-being of athletes. But mental health, stressors and performance cut across all aspects of our lives — work, family, personal relationships — and are relevant to everyone, so the conversations started in Tokyo by athletes will almost certainly ripple through other segments of society.
Another legacy: Japan introduced technological advancements with the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project that will have an impact far beyond the games. This initiative — robots were used, for instance, to welcome athletes and guests, to retrieve javelins and hammers during throwing events and to clean venues — will bring changes in how the sports industry delivers experiences to athletes and fans.
And the Olympic movement? The IOC and the Organizing Committee can claim new technical knowledge about how to manage an event under extremely risky circumstances and how to shape the financial relationships among sponsoring companies for the betterment of host cities and global sport.
The Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence were not necessarily tarnished by the pandemic, as many athletes watched, supported and cheered at competitions and even, in some instances, their competitors. The athletes became the spectators for these games, and their families joined the TV audience around the world. We got to see families react live to their athletes’ performances. And the athletes were able to interact with their families immediately after their events, thanks to the new normal of the pandemic. This accommodation may benefit athletes whose families are unable to attend future games, another legacy.
As these games come to an end, we will again focus on what matters most: the athletes — those with medals and those without — who allowed us, once again, to be thrilled by human performance and to be awed by hope, resilience and innovation.
Kyriaki Kaplanidou is a professor in the Department of Sport Management at the University of Florida whose research focuses on impacts and legacies of sport events, including the legacy of the Olympic Games.