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The Observer view on the Tokyo Olympics | Observer editorial

The unifying spirit that characterised the 2012 London Olympics has too often seemed a distant memory in the fractured political years since. In the past few weeks, however, out in the closely policed Tokyo bubble, symbolic elements of that spirit have shown themselves alive and well.

An unusually united kingdom has once again proved itself capable of coming together to be greater than the sum of its parts, drawing collective excellence from all its counties and regions and nations, showcasing a levelling up of south and north, urban and rural, setting standards in everything from the extraordinary niceties of the dressage to the wild ride of BMX.

No Olympics has ever arrived with less fanfare than this one. These were Games that hardly anyone believed should go ahead – beyond the Japanese organising committee with its £18bn bill, and the athletes who had waited five years for their shot at gold, or their opportunity to say “I was there”.

But while the pandemic has made the event a unique effort in caution and control, the action, as ever, has been all about thrilling risk and emotional release. Perhaps our months of relative confinement have made that display of all-or-nothing energy more affecting. It used to be the marathon that was the heartbeat of the Olympic movement. These days, to British eyes at least, it has become the triathlon that first stirs the blood and has a nation setting its alarm clocks. There was only one Brownlee on show this time, but the brothers’ legacy was felt in the collective triumphs of the relay quartet.

As in 2012, the implications and potential of such displays of national team spirit, an all-inclusive and joyful patriotism, have not always found favour in predictable quarters. The ludicrous Sir Digby Jones felt his experience was spoiled by the proud Tower Hamlets consonants of Alex Scott, eloquently anchoring the BBC coverage alongside Clare Balding, and keeping up a winning smile for a fortnight. John Redwood bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t just sit down and cut to the chase of winner-takes-all competition, without a preamble exploring the long emotional journey that got an athlete near a podium. His criticism not only exposed the limitations of his empathy but a misunderstanding of the fact that authentic glory is only ever about sacrifice.

Simone Biles, to many the greatest athlete on show, proved you could be an inspiring champion not only by pushing the limits of human possibility but by showing your vulnerability and fear in the pursuit of that goal (rarely can a bronze medal have warmed more hearts than the one Biles gained from her final humbling efforts on the beam).

More than previous Games, perhaps, and at the end of a year when almost every family on the planet has had to make sacrifices, the BBC coverage of events in Tokyo revealed just how human the anxieties inside these superhuman bodies were. Cycling gold medallist Laura Kenny, still giggling as much as she did in 2012, has proved herself the steeliest competitor in British women’s Olympic history, but that didn’t stop her crumbling every time someone mentioned her son, Albie, from whom she had been so long separated.

These were Games that opened up a new parity of competition for men and women, in hugely successful experiments with mixed events. Tom Daley also proved once and for all that there is no single blueprint for male sporting heroism or Olympic families. His two medals were separated by a cardigan’s worth of knit and purl, and joyously celebrated by his husband and son back home.

There have been times when it seemed Olympic sport would go the way of other sports, and be more about cynicism than grace, contracts than courage. Even in the absence of crowds, however, there have been plenty of moments in these Games that have shown the original flame still flickers. And only three years to wait until Paris.

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