Olympics restored faith in a troubled world

Initially much-derided in its host country and around the globe, the Tokyo games eventually demonstrated the enduring strength of the Olympic spirit and its unique appeal to brands.

Tokyo's closing ceremony was fitting end to a two-week celebration of sporting inspiration. (Pic credit: Getty Images.)
Tokyo's closing ceremony was fitting end to a two-week celebration of sporting inspiration. (Pic credit: Getty Images.)

Reading headlines before, during and after the recently completed Tokyo Olympic Games gave an interesting insight into the unconscious biases of the people writing them.

I admit I’m an Olympics junkie, a self-confessed aficionado of the games, but I’m well aware not everyone shares my enthusiasm - especially for this year’s delayed and troubled event in Japan.

Yes, the sport was difficult and confusing to follow on official broadcaster NBC and its streaming channel Peacock. I was never quite sure if I was watching something live or something that happened 14 hours ago. And there were always spoilers on my social media feed and mobile news alerts.

Yes, the TV ratings were way down on the Rio Olympics of 2016 and historical levels at other games. NBC sold out its expensive ad slots but will have to give back make-goods to advertisers to compensate for these lower numbers.

But as m’colleague over on Campaign, Alison Weissbrot, already pointed out, in many ways this is just another reflection and continuation of changing habits in media consumption. Following the games on TikTok through the athletes’ accounts was the big growth area, as was watching the events in bite-sized clips on social media, just as with many other types of mainstream “TV content.”

Young people, especially, just don’t engage with linear TV - and brands are well aware of that in the way they plan their media and deploy their marketing budgets.

And this time there was always Kevin Hart and Snoop Dogg on Peacock to give us a left-field but very entertaining take on the Tokyo games and Olympic experience.

For brands, there were still endless opportunities to stand out. Nike will be thrilled that more than 60% of medalists in the individual track events at the Japan games wore its “super shoes.” I’m sure many amateur athletes and wannabe fashionistas will snap up shoes with Nike’s super spike technology having seen these performances in Tokyo.

The games cost the Japanese nation a well-publicized $15.4 billion to stage, money it hoped to recoup through foreign and domestic tourism and increased consumption within Tokyo and other host cities.

COVID-19 put paid to that. But the economy still benefited from the construction boost of building new stadia and renovating other facilities. There were also spikes in electronic goods sales as people viewed from home and new sports such as skateboarding got a big boost from the games.

The home nation eventually warmed to an Olympics about which it was initially extremely skeptical and concerned due to a worsening pandemic, especially as its athletes turned in a record-breaking medal performance, with 58 in total, 27 of them gold.

It’s still early days in terms of fully assessing the impact on the general population, but fears it would be a coronavirus super-spreader event proved so far unfounded as the spike in positive cases in the Olympic bubble stayed in the low hundreds between July and the end of the games last weekend.

There’s always some controversy at any Olympics and this one was no different. Some athletes tested positive for banned substances and were sent home. A German equestrian coach was caught punching a recalcitrant horse who didn’t want to jump and was also sent home (the coach, not the horse.)

A Belorussian sprinter sought asylum from Poland after criticizing her coaches on social media for forcing her to go to the airport, amid widespread crackdowns on athletes from the former Soviet republic.

Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony but didn’t stick around long as her lack of match practice showed and she exited the women’s tennis competition in the third round.

Novak Djokovic, on track to become the most successful male tennis player of all time, initially seemed to embrace the Olympic spirit and appeared in numerous selfies and other fun pics around the Olympic village.

But in an interview that referenced the Simone Biles situation he said: “Pressure is a privilege … without pressure, there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of the game you better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments.”

Although it was later claimed he was referring to himself, the comments were at best badly timed and presented, and whether he meant it or not were widely construed as Djokovic having a dig at the American gymnast.

It was ironic then that the 20-time Grand Slam winner totally lost the plot and succumbed to pressure soon afterward. The Serbian’s jovial Olympic spirit soured when he lost two matches and failed to medal, missing out on the Golden Slam of all four majors and the Olympics.

The rackets went flying and he pulled out of the mixed doubles claiming to be injured. Seasoned tennis watchers noted Djokovic never seems to lose a match without some sort of injury. It underlined why he isn’t fêted like his big rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

But the Olympic spirit is more about amateur athletes than the professionals who have been shoehorned into the games to add mainstream glamor. It’s about discovering sports such as wrestling, water polo, handball, fencing, beach volleyball and shooting that we only dip into every four years.

As always, and as predicted, great storylines led the narrative, such as the teenage skateboarders from Japan and other countries with mixed heritage including Japanese roots. These and other noteworthy performances by female athletes empowered women in a country still lagging on gender equality.

Simone Biles was the story of the Olympics but not in the way Olympic broadcaster NBC and her many sponsors imagined. It was clear from her demeanor and body language early in the team gymnastics competition all was not well. After a disappointing vault in which she lost track of where she was in the air and was lucky to escape injury, she withdrew from the competition, supporting her teammates from the sidelines as they rallied and won a silver medal.

All of a sudden the globe was familiar with the term “twisties,” gymnasts' mental block version of golfers’ yips - but far more dangerous. Let’s not forget this is a young athlete who faced the pressure of constantly being presented as the face of the games, who has endured sexual abuse at the hands of her national coach, and who was the role model and leader of a team of competitors even younger that herself.

Biles fought through adversity and found redemption by competing in the final beam exrcise and winning a bronze medal, one she will treasure as much as any of her four golds. Afterwards, in conversation with NBC's assured Olympics main anchor Mike Tirico, she communicated movingly and effectively about mental health and the abuse women athletes in particular endure. Any brand would be thrilled to be associated with someone so impressive.

What particularly struck me was the camaraderie of athletes from across the world, no matter how viciously they competed in events or how at odds their nations were on a macro level. From the wild mutual celebrations of the two male high jumpers who decided to share the gold medal to the sporting embraces of swimming rivals Katie Ledecky and Australian Ariarne Titmus.

One of the first to console Biles was her Russian rival Angelina Melnikova. The days of coaches throwing their teenage gymnasts back onto the compeititon floor even after they've suffered serious injuries are thankfully long gone. And far from being mysterious characters from a cold war novel, the athletes all know each other from their Instagram and social media profiles. It's a different world now.

There were also multiple storylines of triumph over adversity, such as the 18-year-old Tunisian winning gold after qualifying slowest in the 400 meter freestyle or the Syrian swimmer competing for the Refugee Olympic Team who escaped tyranny via a broken rubber dinghy and an odyssey through eight countries with her sister.

President Joe Biden said the U.S. Olympic team, which topped the overall medal table, “restored the soul of America” with its sportsmanship and moral courage.

I contend that the Tokyo Olympics restored the soul of the world. Again, what brand wouldn’t want to be associated with something as feel-good as that?

Welsh gold-winning boxer Lauren Price is, for the time being anyway, rebuffing entreaties from promoters wanting her to turn professional because she got a taste of the Olympic spirit and wants to experience it again in three years.

Bring on Paris 2024!

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