Tokyo Olympics: How Games took me by surprise – Bill Carmichael

I MUST admit I wasn’t expecting much from the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Gold Medalist Charlotte Worthington of Team Great Britain poses for a photo with her gold medal after the Women's Park Final of the BMX Freestyle on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

After all the controversies due to the pandemic, the postponement from last year and the fact that athletes would be performing in virtually empty stadiums, I reckoned that much of the enjoyment would be sucked out of the occasion.

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How wrong I was! And I am delighted to admit as much. In fact the Olympics have been a definite highlight of what has been a very difficult 2021 – a life-affirming, joyous event featuring 
superb athletes at the very top of their game.

Great Britain's Sky Brown celebrates winning the bronze medal during the Women's Park Final at Ariake Sports Park on the twelfth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

Track athletics will always be the favourite for me, but I have enjoyed dipping in and out of a huge variety of sports from surfing to sailing, table tennis, taekwondo, fencing, handball and hockey.

I know nothing about these sports, and in some I find the scoring baffling, but the variety of watching sports you would never consider outside the Olympics is part of the fun.

For example, and despite some reservations from traditionalists, the inclusion of so-called “urban sports”, such as skateboarding and BMX bike riding, has proved successful.

Great Britain's Sky Brown celebrates winning the bronze medal during the Women's Park Final at Ariake Sports Park on the twelfth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

And no one exemplified the Olympic spirit better than 25-year-old Charlotte Worthington, who went from working in a fast food restaurant in Manchester to gold medal glory.

As she awaited her final run in the BMX freestyle event the commentator explained she faced a choice; she could either play it safe and guarantee at least a bronze medal, or she could go all out in a very risky effort to overhaul the hot favourite to claim first place. If she fell off her bike, as she had done in an earlier round, she could be out of the medals entirely.

Charlotte took a deep breath and went for it, producing a breath-taking performance of spectacular tricks and somersaults, including a 360 degree backflip – the first woman to achieve this in competition. Her smile at the end was truly golden.

There have been lots of moments like that, and when you consider how hard these competitors have had to train to reach an elite level, it is heart-warming to see them get their rewards.

Bill Carmichael has been captivated by the Olympics.

But I have also been inspired by some athletes who have failed to win a gold, or indeed any medal at all. For example no one exemplified the joy of taking part in a sport you love better than Shauna Coxsey, 28, who came 10th in the women’s sport climbing finals after her preparations for the Olympics were blighted by injury.

Smiling broadly she told the cameras she was just happy to be there adding: “It’s such a privilege to be part of it.”

Black Country boxer Ben Whittaker, 24, who trained in Sheffield, took defeat much harder. He left the ring in tears and said he “felt like a failure” after losing in the final of the light heavyweight class. He told the BBC: “You don’t win silver, you lose gold. I’m very disappointed in myself.”

These guys are trained to accept nothing less than victory, so his dismay is understandable. But perhaps he will feel better when he realises his friends and family back in Wolverhampton are bursting with pride that he won a silver medal.

The Olympics also show patriotism at its best. Competitors of all colours and creeds wrap themselves in their country’s flag once they cross the finish line, but they are quick to congratulate or console fellow competitors and fierce rivals who are, in turn, wrapped in their country’s flag.

Patriotism often gets a bad press, particularly among the British left, 
but what this demonstrates is that it 
can be a force for good, and you can 
love your country with genuine, 
heartfelt passion, without despising anyone else’s.

The Olympics also demonstrates the transformative impact of sports. Little girls and boys around the world will be inspired by what they have seen in Tokyo to join a swimming or running club, take up martial arts classes, or just go for a spin on their skateboards.

Not everyone will realise their dream of competing at an elite level, of course, and still fewer will ever win an Olympic medal, but many will experience the sheer joy of taking part in sport and will begin to understand the benefits of discipline and hard work.

And if more kids are whizzing around your local pump track, it means a healthier society with, in all likelihood, less crime.

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