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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo Olympics close as Japan weighs legacy of pandemic Games

COVID resurgence and public opposition overshadow sustainability bright spots

The Olympic flame is extinguished during the closing ceremony on Aug. 8. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara) 

TOKYO -- Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike passed the Olympic flag to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on Sunday night, as the closing ceremony drew a curtain on Japan's ill-starred Games.

With the Paralympics still to come, over 4,500 athletes and team officials marched into the National Stadium as one group, behind the flags of the 206 national Olympic committees and to the tune of the Olympic March written by Yuji Koseki for the 1964 Tokyo Games.

Several carried fans to cool themselves on a particularly humid evening. The crowd in the spectatorless stadium was noticeably sparser than at the opening ceremony. Many athletes left earlier to comply with instructions to leave within 48 hours after their final competition, as a COVID-19 precaution.

"You created the magic of these Olympic Games," International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the gathered athletes.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto also spoke. "The torch that was lit in Tokyo is about to be extinguished," she said. "But the hope that we have gathered here will never fade. I hope that this hope will light up in the hearts of people all over the world."

In the last days of the Games, Koike spent her remaining time in the international spotlight touting her city's sustainable development and potential as an Asian financial center. Had all gone according to plan, a kinder, greener Olympics might have been Tokyo 2020's legacy.

Japan introduced several new initiatives that future Olympic hosts could emulate. At the athletes' village, food was supplied by farmers in Fukushima Prefecture, still recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Beds and mattresses were made from recycled cardboard and fish nets. Hydrogen powered Olympic venues, as well as the Olympic flame. Metal for 5,000 medals was sourced from electronics recycled by Tokyo residents.

But as Japan now faces a worsening COVID-19 crisis, Koike and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga appeared to dig for a deeper meaning as well.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike waves the Olympic flag during the closing ceremony on Aug. 8.   © Reuters

The governor earlier compared holding the Tokyo Games in the middle of a pandemic to the Antwerp Games of 1920, just two years after Belgium emerged from the ravages of World War I. "Overcoming all sorts of difficulties to succeed in the Games -- I think this will be the legacy of these Olympic Games," Koike had told international media.

After Sunday's closing ceremony, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will have about two months before a general election to make amends with a population that largely opposed hosting the Olympics this year.

"Thank you for staying with us on the side of the athletes, who were longing so much for these Olympic Games," Bach said to Suga and Koike on Sunday night.

Opposition parties will try to fan the flames of Olympic dissent and remind voters that the sports spectacle coincided with daily COVID-19 infections in Tokyo surging to a record 5,000. Suga's own words could be used against him, particularly instructions to hospitals to accept only severely ill patients, which he later walked back. His declaration of a fourth state of emergency on Tokyo and other metropolises looks to have done little stem the spread of infections.

Japanese leaders long maintained that only the International Olympic Committee could have canceled the Games.

"For the IOC, it would have been the easier solution because we could have drawn then on insurance we had at the time, so the IOC would have been saving money," IOC President Thomas Bach said at a Friday news conference.

"There would have been no exposure, neither for Tokyo nor for Japan nor for the sponsors," Bach said.

None of those parties seem to have any hope of recouping their Olympic investments. Government auditors estimate the final bill will be over $20 billion, triple the original budget proposed by organizers. Without spectators in the stands, the Olympics could generate only 1.66 trillion yen ($15 billion) for the Japanese economy, according to Takahide Kiuchi, executive economist at the Nomura Research Institute.

Corporate sponsors who raised $3 billion for the Games distanced themselves, pulling Olympic-related advertising and declining to send executives to the opening ceremony.

Marketing experts blame the "blanket of negativity" that surrounded the Games, including COVID-19 and Japanese public sentiment.

"There's hype, advance publicity and star power. All of those were working in the wrong direction for Tokyo," said Mike Holtzman, who worked on Beijing's bid for the 2008 Games.

"The one victory of Tokyo is the perseverance. It shows a lot of heart," said Holtzman. "Will it be the game changer for the city that Beijing 2008 or Tokyo 1964 was? No."

Highlights of Tokyo's farewell to the Olympics included a light display that conjured the Olympic rings above the athletes on the field. Per tradition, marathon medals were awarded during the closing ceremony. But for the first time, winners of the women's race joined their male counterparts.

After Koike handed her burden to Hidalgo, whose city will host the 2024 Summer Games, the French national anthem was played by an orchestra. A portion was played on saxophone by French astronaut Thomas Pesquet as the International Space Station passed over Japan. Live shots of celebrations in Paris stood in contrast to the empty stadium in Tokyo.

Organizers have yet to decide whether venues will remain empty for the Paralympic Games, which open on Aug. 24.

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