“After 18 months of uncertainty, every single Olympian should be extremely proud of the fact that they made it here,” said British diver Tom Daley after winning gold in the men’s synchronised 10m platform.
Pride will be felt by everybody connected to Tokyo 2020, proud of their ability to organise Olympic and Paralympic Games safely and successfully amid a global pandemic.
Short-term, Tokyo had also been preparing to welcome millions of visitors in time for the Games. But in the shadow of COVID-19, this correspondent was one of the privileged few who got to experience omotenashi, Japan’s unique brand of hospitality, as well as the sporting spectacle.
What we also witnessed, though, was a determination to secure Tokyo 2020’s long-term legacy through accessibility, sustainability and inclusivity, from which visitors and locals alike will benefit for years to come.
Accessibility all areas
In 2008, the Japanese government brought into force the ‘barrier-free’ law, aimed at enabling everyone, including the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women and those with children, to move independently in public places and lead a safe and comfortable social life. These initiatives included the installation of ramps, lifts, tactile floors, spaces for wheelchair users and information in Braille – and nowhere are they more visible than on Tokyo’s world-class subway system.
This drive towards accessibility was given further impetus in 2013 by the awarding of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics to Tokyo. Hotels agreed to increase the number of accessible rooms while the Olympic Village was designed specifically to be 100% accessible.
The Village also leads the way when it comes to sustainable Games venues. Built on reclaimed land and with fully recyclable beds – polyethylene mattresses and the much-talked-about cardboard frames – the Village Plaza was constructed using 40,000 pieces of donated timber that has since been returned to 63 municipalities across Japan for reuse in local facilities.
What remains is a barrier-free, hydrogen-powered residential complex promoting social diversity.
In all, the 43 competition venues for the Games included only eight new permanent structures, each combining eye-catching architecture with sustainability features, while even the much-coveted gold, silver and bronze medals were made from recycled mobile phones and other electronic devices donated by the public.
The flagship venue was of course the 68,000-seater Olympic (now National) Stadium. Designed by Kengo Kuma and made partly from Japanese timber, the stadium – which is currently holding tours for the public while it undergoes post-Games renovations – felt reassuringly atmospheric during the Games, despite the absence of fans. “The atmosphere, the emotions and the rush still felt like an Olympic Games.” said New Zealand shot putter Valerie Adams, a two-time Olympic champion who took bronze in Tokyo.
USA surfer Kolohe Andino agreed. “It’s been great,” he said. “The hospitality from the Japanese people has been insane … It’s been awesome for sure. This is my fourth time here. I love coming to Japan. It’s always great.”
Other sustainable venues have since been opened to the public, from the solar-powered Tokyo Aquatics Centre to the Ariake Arena, which as well as being run on renewable energy also boasts accessibility features for families with young children, guide dogs and wheelchair users. Used for volleyball and wheelchair basketball respectively during the Olympics and Paralympics, it will hold major sporting events and other cutting-edge live entertainment.
“Newly built venues were designed to meet the public needs and these venues will enrich people’s lives even more and in every possible way,” said Masa Takaya, a spokesperson for the Tokyo 2020 organising committee. “We hope that people have been able to recognise sports’ values through the 2020 Games so that sports and athletes keep playing a crucial role in building a better society.”
Beyond the Games
To this end, Tokyo 2020 represented great progress. Helped by the honesty and openness of US gymnastics star Simone Biles after she withdrew from the women’s team event, athletes’ mental health was front and centre. “I’m really proud of her and the way she is standing up for herself but also making things better for others and bringing a lot to the forefront of these conversations,” said sprinter Allyson Felix, who became the USA’s most decorated track and field Olympian in Tokyo when she won her 11th medal.
The Games also became a symbol for tolerance and inclusivity – and not just for people with disabilities: according to Outsports.com, at least 186 openly out LBGTQ athletes competed at the Tokyo Olympics, more than three times the corresponding figure at Rio 2016.
“It is truly great that a path has finally been created for athletes to be able to compete while being their true authentic selves in sports,” said Fumino Sugiyama, a transgender activist and former fencer, now on the Japanese Olympic Committee’s board of directors.
Proof that even without fans Tokyo 2020 was able to carry forward the Olympic spirit of embracing diversity in its own unique way.
By Luke Norman