TOKYO – It was a week and a half of extremes.
Extreme heat. Extreme peaks and an extreme track, two technological advances that combined to produce extreme times. But also an extreme absence of spectators, a void that athletes sought to camouflage with extreme performances.
Athletics at the Tokyo Games helped complete the last 10 days of the Olympic calendar, and five years, in many ways, were worth the wait. Members of the old guard played leading roles once again, some of them for the last time, and a new generation stepped forward, many of them at events that had so often been overshadowed in the past.
These were the Shot Put Games, which Ryan Crouser of the United States turned into unmissable television. These were the Pole Vault Games, as Mondo Duplantis, the Louisiana-born Swede, narrowly missed jumping higher than any human in history as a postscript to his gold-winning performance.
These were the 400m Hurdles Games, an event that is undergoing a renaissance. Norway’s Karsten Warholm and 22-year-old American Sydney McLaughlin broke their previous world records, producing midday shows in Tokyo that aired in prime time in the United States, a conscious nod from television executives that the obstacles have never been cooler.
And these, of course, were the Games of Sifan Hassan from the Netherlands, a singular athlete who had arrived in Tokyo with her sights set on an impressive achievement: three medals in three grueling events. She walked away with Olympic gold in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters, a bronze in the 1,500, and a deep understanding that the improbable is possible.
“I think I’m a little crazy,” she said.
But his most palpable emotion, he said, was relief: relief that he had made his way through the maze of protocols related to the pandemic; relief from having survived the humidity and its qualifying rounds; Relief to be able to put the pieces together at the most important moments possible, even if the Olympic Stadium looked more like a cavernous soundstage.
Many of those feelings were communal. The athletes cried together and celebrated together. Many of them had trained in relative isolation during the pandemic and the one-year Olympic postponement, describing it as the most challenging 18 months of their lives. Now, there was an opportunity to share her silent pain.
“It was by far my most difficult year, mentally and physically,” Noah Lyles said through tears after winning bronze in the men’s 200 meters.
However, there was also joy, joy that was more transparently expressed by Gianmarco Tamberi, an Italian who jumped into the arms of Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim after they agreed to share the Olympic title in the high jump. “He’s one of my best friends,” Barshim said.
And there was joy on the part of Allyson Felix, who, at age 35, won two medals in her last Olympics to become the most decorated American track and field athlete in Olympic history.
“I am a fighter,” she said. “The last few years is what I have done. I just needed a chance. “
Away from family and friends, Felix was on FaceTime with her young daughter, Cammy, after she won bronze in the women’s 400 meters. It was all part of the strangeness of the experience, with no family and friends willing to hug their loved ones at the finish line.
Only marathoners and race runners had the privilege of competing in front of fans, but they did so in Sapporo, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, where locals lined the streets to cheer on athletes like Molly Seidel, an American. The 27-year-old who arrived took a bronze after running alone in his third marathon.
“I just wanted to stick my nose where it didn’t belong and chase her,” he said. “The Olympics are only held every four years, so you better take your chance.”
However, the final word went to Eliud Kipchoge, the soft-spoken Kenyan who continues to redefine the limits of human performance as the greatest marathoner in history. On Sunday, he ran towards his second consecutive gold medal in the men’s marathon and his fourth Olympic medal overall, a legacy dating back to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he ran 5,000 meters.
Being this 2021, Kipchoge shared his thoughts after the trace on Twitter., describing how the Olympics are a special dream for athletes. Sports are like life, he said. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
“But today,” he wrote, “was a day that I won.”