Tokyo passes Olympic baton to Paris after imperfect, irrepressible video games

TOKYO – Japan made its Olympic arch on Sunday.

Tokyo turned the baton on to Paris after hosting games that were delayed by Covid-19 and dismayed a skeptical audience but still delivered its share of memorable moments.

The fast-paced, close-knit closing ceremony began at 8 p.m. Tokyo time (7 a.m. ET) and, like the opening ceremony, was a celebration of the sport and Japan. It ended with the word “arigato,” which is Japanese for “thank you,” and was displayed on a giant screen as the athletes left the field.

And all of this took place in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in front of an audience with mostly empty seats.

The rest of the world watched it at home, with the event streamed live on and later re-broadcast in prime time on NBC in special coverage.

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Crowds gathered in the French capital to celebrate the handover of the 2024 Summer Games to Paris, dancing and partying at the foot of the Eiffel Tower as fighter jets swept through the sky with a tricolor of blue, white and red smoke.

“I’m declaring the 32nd Olympiad Games closed,” said Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, as the world said goodbye to a game like no other.

“See you in Paris.”

During the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, French air patrols fly over the Fandorf in front of the Eiffel Tower.STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP – Getty Images

The ceremony began with an athlete from each participating country marching in with their flags. After the athletes had gathered in a circle, the soundtrack quickly turned into a jazzy number in which the participants who remained in Tokyo attended the ceremony with masked faces.

During the optimistic extravaganza, the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra once played a dance version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” before the beating of the traditional taiko drum heralded the beginning of the celebration of Japan’s unique and vibrant culture.

It was the culmination of two weeks of Olympic action watched by millions of people around the world but seen in person by a select few due to a pandemic that will haunt the host country long after the athletes leave.

It was an Olympics, faced with unprecedented logistical challenges and domestic resistance, but also a stage for athletic glory mixed with geopolitical intrigue, discussions about athletes’ mental health, and much more.

The United States led the world again on Sunday morning with 113 medals, including 39 gold medals, ahead of China and the Russian Olympic Committee on both counts.

In a video message to the team posted on Twitter on Saturday, President Joe Biden thanked the US athletes “for showing what we can do together as one America and as a team.”

“Aside from the medals and the results, you reminded us that we are stronger than we thought,” said Biden.

Japan reached the top 5 with 58 medals, nearly half of them gold, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Japanese Olympians carry the host country flag at the start of a parade of countries during the closing ceremony.Francois Nel / Getty Images

Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Games who spent much of the Olympics facing tough questions about the coronavirus and other controversy from skeptical reporters, did not try to hide his satisfaction at Friday’s daily press conference.

“It’s important that athletes from every country do their best, but it’s also good to see that the athletes from home are doing well,” he said.

They secured their most valuable medal early Saturday, ruling out the US to win the baseball-crazy country’s first gold in the sport.

Japan hosted the world’s largest sports festival in the face of a plague that infected more than 200 million people and killed 4.3 million around the world, and – powered by the Delta variant – started spreading at a record rate in Tokyo, right how the games were getting underway.

The Olympic Games are over, but the Tokyo Paralympics are still ahead. They start on August 24th and run through September 5th.

History will tell whether these Olympic Games were a success. But this much is clear:

These were the games where gymnastics star Simone Biles took home a team silver medal, a bronze for the balance beam, and a gold legacy on and off the mat after shocking the world by pulling away from some major events to herself focus on their mental health.

These were the games when established stars Allyson Felix and Katie Ledecky expanded their medal wins and a constellation of new Olympic stars emerged, such as swimmer Caeleb Dressel, surfer Carissa Moore, gymnast Suni Lee, and runners Sydney McLaughlin and Molly Seidel.

The U.S. women’s soccer team fell short of its quest for another gold medal, but veteran striker Alex Morgan – one of many stars of this golden generation who may have played in their last Olympics – told NBC News they were proud of their hard earned money Hardware.

“We are really happy to have won a bronze medal,” said Morgan.

The US men’s basketball team, led by Kevin Durant, defeated a formidable French team, clinched Olympic gold for the fourth year in a row, and cemented America’s status as the preeminent basketball power in the world.

Then the US women’s basketball team, led by Brittney Griner, defeated a rowdy Japanese team to secure America’s seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.

The Americans were also introduced to Olympic heroes from unusual locations, such as Alaskan teenage Lydia Jacoby who won gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke and is from a state with exactly one Olympic pool – which she couldn’t train for months because of Covid -19.

They cheered on the kids who took part in the Olympics, such as 15-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Grimes and a litany of teenage skateboarders, including Japan’s 13-year-old champion Momiji Nishiya. They also cheered on decrepit athletes, such as US basketball player Sue Bird, who is 40, and equestrian Phillip Dutton, 57, and Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan, who at 46 years old is the oldest Olympic gymnast in history.

These were the games where a Belarusian sprinter defied her country’s authoritarian leader by criticizing her coaches, escaped the handlers trying to send her home at an airport near Tokyo, and found refuge in Poland.

Other athletes got up – or got down on their knees – for Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and rebelled against having to compete in revealing outfits.

The Games began with protests in Tokyo and widespread opposition from the Japanese population, who feared an influx of foreign athletes would worsen the Covid crisis at home, but who nonetheless welcomed the thousands of visitors among them.

There were Olympic displays of friendliness and class – runners Isaiah Jewett from the USA and Nigel Amos from Botswana helped everyone on their feet after getting tangled and falling in the 800 meter semifinals, while high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim hugged enthusiastically as they agreed to share a gold medal.

Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy hugs his gold medalist Mutaz Barshim from Qatar.Matthias Schrader / AP

But there was also the Olympic meltdown of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, who smashed his racket in frustration after failing to get the medal and wasting his chance to become the first man to win the Golden Slam – four Grand Slam titles and one Olympic Gold medal in the same year year.

Algerian judo competitor Fethi Nourine defied the Olympic ideal by withdrawing from the competition instead of fighting an Israeli. And at a possibly Olympic premiere, a trainer of the German modern pentathlon team was kicked out of the games because he hit a horse that was reluctant to jump.

Just three weeks ago, the Tokyo Games seemed to be imploding.

Key members of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee were knocked unconscious in a scandal. Polls showed that a solid majority of the Japanese were still against the Olympics. One of its biggest sponsors, Toyota Motor Corp., has ditched its Japanese TV commercials so that it would not be forever tied to an event that surely seemed to be postponed. And then came the steady stream of reports that athletes tested positive for Covid-19 and tested assurances by the Japanese leadership that the Games would be “safe and secure”.

Olympic historian Jeremy Fuchs told NBC News at the time that “there has never been a completely happy Olympics,” and that at times the Games have been overshadowed by contentious debates about human rights and politics, even by excessive spending.

“But I find so much controversy really unprecedented,” said Fuchs. “I think you will have a hard time finding an example in history where the citizens of a host country are so unhappy.”

In an interview with NBC News on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted that it was a struggle to sell the event to his people. But he said the games would go on.

And they did.

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