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Tokyo Olympics entertains and stirs debate

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The modern Olympic Games have been cancelled only three times since their introduction in 1896. The Games of Berlin in 1916, 1940 in Helsinki (originally awarded to Tokyo), and 1944 in London were scrapped due to world wars. Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented one-year postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, to 2021.

Many thought the Games couldn’t happen under coronavirus conditions. Nevertheless, they went ahead, without spectators other than delegations and officials. Offering a welcome escape from the monotonous days induced by the 18-month coronavirus lockdown, the Games also provoked some critical debate off the field.

South Africa’s performance was dismal. The Rainbow Nation bagged two silvers – from surfer Bianca Buitendag and breaststroker Tatjana Schoenmaker in the 100m. Schoenmaker also won South Africa’s only gold medal in a world record in the 200m breaststroke. This placed South Africa a lowly 52nd on the medals table. Last time around, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, South Africa won 10 medals. Tokyo was the third worst showing for South Africa since readmission to the Olympic Games in 1992 in Barcelona. This was in spite of 179 athletes competing in 19 different sports. They were totally outclassed in team sports like hockey, soccer, and water polo.

By contrast, Israel, with four medals, had its best Olympics ever, finishing in 39th position. It sent 90 athletes to the Games – more than double the number competing in Rio. Israel picked up two bronzes – in the mixed Judo team event, and for Avishag Semberg in Taekwondo. Artem Dolgopyat won gold in the men’s floor for artistic gymnastics. The mainstream media chose to focus on the fact that Dolgopyat – whose father is Jewish but whose mother isn’t – wouldn’t be allowed to marry in Israel under current legislation.

There was high drama around Israel’s second gold. Rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram had built up a small lead in the all-around competition going in the last round with the ribbon. Clad in blue and white and sporting a large Magen David on her leotard, she performed her routine to a jazzed-up version of Hava Nagila. Halfway through, though, she lost control of the ribbon and it fell to the floor. She managed to keep her lead, however, at 107.800 points. Her biggest rival, Russian world champion Dina Averina, needed to score 24.150 points on the ribbon to win. She fell agonisingly short with a 24, handing Israel its first gold in this sport. The Russians have since cried foul and demanded an investigation.

Politics is never far from sport. Earlier in the Games, there was controversy about Israeli participation. Algerian Fethi Nourine withdrew from the Judo competition because he might have had to face Israeli judoka Tohar Butbul, citing political support for the Palestinians as his reason. Nourine and his coach were suspended. A second judoka, Mohamed Abdalrasool from Sudan, similarly dropped out later, without an explanation.

The Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman summed it up well. “The treatment of Israeli athletes is unique. No other country in the world has athletes who are so often treated like this due to political or diplomatic disputes between countries. The treatment of Israel is entirely about hatred of Jews and nothing else in the Middle East. This is clear from the fact that no matter how awful other conflicts are all over the world, these same athletes don’t refuse to compete with one another.”

But things can go in the other direction too. Tahani al-Qahtani from Saudi Arabia did face Israel’s Raz Hershko in Judo, and was lauded in Israel for doing so. She also received support at home in spite of her loss to the Israeli. And Saeid Mollaei, a former Iranian judoka now representing Mongolia, won a silver medal, and he thanked Israel for its support of him over many years. “Thank you to Israel for the good energy. This medal is dedicated also to Israel,” he said on television. Mollaei has a close friendship with Israel’s Sagi Muki, with their story being filmed for an Israeli television series.

Israel was also grateful at the opening ceremony that for the first time since the massacre of Israeli athletes and coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics, an official minute’s silence was held.

Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for heated conversations about gender. Before the Games, Norway’s women’s beach handball team was fined €1 500 (R26 016) for “improper clothing” after players chose to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms in a European tournament. Singer Pink offered to pay the fine. The German women’s gymnastics team chose full-body leotards instead of bikini-cut versions at Tokyo, saying it was a statement “against sexualisation”.

The language used for male and female sportspeople is overwhelmingly more positive in tone when describing men’s sports. Commentators were criticised for not learning female athletes’ names properly and for referring to women condescendingly as “girls”. Journalists were taken to task for comments about the physical appearance of female athletes. This, in spite of the International Olympic Committee’s new media guidelines to avoid sexualising women and not focus “unnecessarily on looks, clothing, or intimate body parts”.

There is also more discussion now about how transgender athletes should be accommodated in the modern Games. This was spurred by the participation of New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the first out transgender woman to ever compete at the Olympics.

Sport will continue to be effected by political and social issues. We wait to see how they will play out at the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022, and the next Summer Olympics in Paris in 2024.

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