Tokyo 2020: Team GB's Olympic success and the sporting legacy of a truly unique Games

Team GB medals, PA
Team GB have matched their medal total from London 2012 on the final day of the Tokyo Games, having secured 65. Credit: PA

What price for an Olympic moment? There is always an obsession with the final medals table but in a couple of months’ time, apart from those responsible for handing out future funding, who actually remembers who finished where? And who really cares?

What will stay with most of us after Tokyo’s couple of weeks in the sporting sun are those magical, unexpected, life-affirming snapshots of success, or even heroic failure.

And there are plenty to choose from.

For Team GB there were any number of history-makers in Japan; the invincible Adam Peaty, Duncan Scott’s record medal haul, Laura Kenny striking gold in three successive Games and then her near perfect partnership with Katie Archibald in the madison, double success in the modern pentathlon, Emily Campbell’s celebration, Tom Daley’s gold, Hannah Mills, Charlotte Worthington, Galal Yafai; I could go on.

Joe Choong won gold in the modern pentathlon, Galal Yafai won gold in boxing, Matt Walls and Ethan Hayter won silver in Madison cycling. Credit: PA

But if you’re looking for lasting feel-good memories then you’re more likely to find those on the fringes of competition.

Think Daley’s knitting habit, Kye Whyte cheering on his best mate Beth Shriever, Tom Dean’s family and friends in Maidenhead celebrating his success; Alice Dearing’s smile after becoming the first British female black swimmer at an Olympics, Laura Muir’s tears as bad luck finally deserted her; there are so, so many.

Whether or not you think these Games should have been staged at all, Japan deserves great credit for pulling them off.

Tom Dean's family and friends in Maidenhead went wild as he became an Olympic champion

It is of course disappointing that all the above and more took place without fans, especially when you consider that Tokyo’s giant shopping centres are teeming with locals, even under the state of emergency here.

Keeping them all well away from Olympic venues does not seem to be a decision based on any logic. 

But as we all know, the Olympics is first and foremost a television event and anecdotally it seems, empty seats or not, it has not been significantly diminished as a spectacle.

By its very nature, sport throws up winners and losers and there have been some notable and surprising successes that could end up shaping future Games.

New Zealand and Fiji players prior to kick-off during the Men's Rugby Seven Gold Medal match in an empty stadium at the Tokyo Stadium. Credit: PA

Breakout events like skateboarding and BMX especially have sucked in a younger audience and made the Games more relevant.

Not just because every sport needs approval from the next generation but because these particular sports are accessible, unlike the more traditional Olympic fare of rowing, pentathlon, equestrian, sailing and the like.

It’s a conundrum facing UK Sport when it considers its priorities for the next round of who gets what. Much of that depends on how punishing the government’s spending review is, as Chancellor Rishi Sunak juggles with a multi- billion pounds Covid related deficit. 

UK Sport is actually asking for millions more and those that run it will have their National Lottery fingers crossed that British success here in Tokyo will not go unnoticed.

But whatever the outcome of those negotiations, they still have to slice the cake and rowing’s huge portion is looking the most vulnerable.

Elsewhere, while the number of champions is down on the past few Games, medals-wise Team GB has more or less hit its target.

But all that is for another day. 

Tokyo 2020 has been a game changer or Games changer to be exact. It was very unpopular with the Japanese public but opinion certainly softened once the sport got underway.

They feared the Olympics would be a super-spreader event but despite rising Covid cases in Tokyo there is no evidence, as yet, that the upward trend in infections is Games related.

The word 'Arigato', which means 'thank you', written in lights during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: PA

We must never forget though that the prime motivation for getting these Olympics on, whatever the IOC says, was cash. Billions of pounds of it.

For all the undoubted sporting drama over the past couple of weeks, perhaps the most significant conversation of all was prompted by the biggest superstar here, Simone Biles.

Her bravery to first withdraw and then to explain in great personal detail why she stood aside has given all athletes, high profile or not, a new confidence to stand up and open up.

Many competitors from any number of sports will feel empowered and are less likely to suffer in silence now.

The theatre that played out surrounding Biles over several days encapsulates an Olympics quite neatly. They are more than glinting medals and a champion’s joy. They are that too of course, but they are so much more.