Athlete Granted Asylum During the Pandemic: How the Tokyo Olympics will be Remembered as a Turning Point for Sport

The 2021 Olympic games will be remembered for athletes who took courageous stands on issues such as mental health and diversity. This Olympics will also be remembered for political issues that overshadow sport, such as the case of Belarusian sprinter, Krystina Timanovskaya, who feared to return home.

During these Olympics, we observed that many athletes used social networks to show more than just their performances. They became digital influencers, documenting the daily life of the host city, including the warm weather in Tokyo. Brazil, in turn, had a very good performance. The country managed to achieve a record for medals, and the surprises were more noticeable than frustrating results. Off the field, Brazil was able to show off some Brazilian tunes, as the first traditional music played in Tokyo’s arenas.

Covid-19: Cases recorded in Japan, but controlled in the “bubble”

Japanese people walking on a busy street in Tokyo during the Covid-19 pandemic - Japan 2020
Tokyo after the Covid-19 pandemic situation — Photo: Kantaro Komiya/AP Photo

The pandemic became the big story which framed these Olympic Games well before the opening in March 2020. At that time, because Coronavirus was beginning to scare the world, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) and the Japanese government agreed to postpone the event, something unprecedented in the history of the Olympics. There was an expectation that the pandemic would already be under control by July 2021. The vaccines brought hope and brought down the number of deaths in the world, including in Brazil. It is also true that Covid-19 continues circulating in the world with new, more transmissible variants.

Tourist wearing a face mask while taking a picture in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo Bay, Japan, 2020
Tourist taking a picture in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo Bay, Japan, 2020 — Photo: Jae C. Hong, File/AP Photo

Japan took a long time to start their vaccination campaign. It was only in February this year that the Japanese government began to immunize people. There was a race against time to get the local population vaccinated so the games could take place in an environment as close to ‘normal’ as possible. But it wasn’t enough. In April, Japanese authorities decided to ban fans from other countries.

With the worsening of Covid’s condition in Japan, in July, the decision was made to prevent the presence of the public in Tokyo and in most competitions in other cities across the country. Alongside this, everyone involved in the Olympics Games, from athletes to journalists, had to follow a series of protocols and testing to avoid contagion. About 80% of athletes arrived in Tokyo already vaccinated.

The IOC closely controlled the number of cases within the “Olympic bubble”. From July 1st a daily bulletin was released with numbers of coronavirus cases among those involved in the event. Nearly 400 cases were reported. Of these, less than a tenth were athletes.

However, it was during the games that Tokyo city saw the number of cases soar. Towards the close on the 8th of August, the Japanese capital each day registered more than 5.000 people with Covid. Numbers never seen there before.

Policeman checking security at olympic village in Tokyo, 2021
Police responsible for security, located in a strategic area for the Olympic Village in Tokyo.— Photo: Behrouz Mehri / AFP

The authorities guaranteed that the bubble system in which athletes, managers, coaches, officials and journalists were placed, was enough not to worsen the pandemic in the host city. Even so, protests took place throughout the games, and the Covid-19 situation prevented the IOC from taking further steps to open the games to the public. The question remains about what protocols will be in place for the Paralympics, which start at the end of August, in the same competition venues.

The athlete from Belarus who feared returning home

Krystsina the athlete who asked for refuge in Poland. 2021 Olympics
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya just after a 100 meter run on July 30, 2021 — Photo: Aleksandra Szmigiel//Reuters

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya traveled to Toyko dreaming of competing in the 100m and 200m dash. She participated in the qualifiers for the fastest competitions in Olympic athletics. But the Belarusian sprinter found herself in a nightmare situation over the following days: officials put her in a car heading for the airport to immediately return to her country. At the airport, the athlete refused to get on the plane. She said she feared punishment under the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko and asked Japanese police for protection.

She sought help at the Polish Embassy, who granted her a humanitarian visa, and finally she could travel there, where she will be sheltered for an undetermined time. All this happened because Tsimanouskaya had posted on social media criticizing the lineup for the 4×400 relay, an event for which she was not initially registered. According to the sprinter, two Belarusian runners did not pass the anti-doping tests and could not compete.

KrystsinaTsimanouskaya talking to the police at the airport
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya speaking with police at Tokyo airport— Photo: Issei Kato/Reuters

The statements angered Belarus officials, who tried to force the athlete’s return on the grounds that she was experiencing mental health problems. The justification did not convince the IOC, and they opened an investigation.

A Belarusian coach and manager had their credentials revoked and were expelled from the Olympic Village. It is still unclear whether there will be further punishment for the Belarusian Olympic Committee, but the IOC has said that investigations are continuing.

Simone Biles puts mental health into the spotlight

Simone Biles during her presentation at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021
Simone Biles during her performance in artistic gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics. She won the bronze medal— Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Without Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, the sports press cast Simone Biles as the favorite to be the big name of the Tokyo Olympics. The American appeared as a favorite for gold in more than one artistic gymnastics competition.

Problems began to appear in the final for team performance. Biles missed a jump and was clearly nervous. Afterwards, she left the competition site and gave up. She managed, with the rest of the American team, to take the silver medal. But then the surprises came: Biles withdrew from participating in the all-around, jump, solo, and bars finals. She only competed on the crossbar, and even so with a performance well short of her usual.

The reason for the dropouts: mental health. Doctors realized that the athlete was in a bad way and that continuing with the competitions could even cause problems for Simone Biles’ physical health. After all, she felt “twists” — a condition in which gymnasts lose control over their bodies in aerial movements. Medical experts say this generally occurs just when the athlete experiences mental health problems.

The debate on athletes’ mental health had already started before the Games, with tennis player Naomi Osaka of Japan, who ended up lighting the Olympic flame at the Opening — withdrawing from important tournaments in the sport. In addition, a basketball player from Australia with anxiety problems decided not to travel to Japan before the start of official competitions.

The expression of diversity in Tokyo

Raven Saunders protesting against sexism at Tokyo Games podium in 2021
Raven Saunders, USA, protesting at Tokyo Games podium — Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
The Olympic games are diverse by their very nature. There are more than 10,000 athletes from over 200 countries competing. In Tokyo, however, diversity was expressed in new ways, whether with protests against racism and sexism or by athletes who are less and less afraid to express themselves. The demonstrations, by the way, were at the center of the debate because the IOC usually prohibits protests during the Olympic Games. After great pressure, particularly from US athletes, the committee allowed these expressions to take place — but not at the podium ceremonies.
UK rugby player protesting Tokyo Olympics match, 2021
Daniel Bibby, a UK rugby player, kneels protesting against racism before starting the match in the Olympics Games — Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

At first, as requested by the IOC, the demonstrations were off the podium: football and rugby players knelt before the kickoff of matches, and the same striking gesture was repeated by a gymnast from Costa Rica. German gymnasts wore longer costumes against the sexualization of women’s sport.

Then, however, the first protests appeared on the podium: the American Raven Saunders made an X with her arms over her head when receiving the silver medal in athletics. Fencer Race Imboden, also from the USA, drew an X on his hand also on the podium. According to them, it was a way of demonstrating against the different forms of oppression of minorities.

The IOC launched an investigation against these athletes – in the case of Raven, they ended up dropping it after the news of the death of the competitor’s mother. And the committee also decided to investigate the use of brooches bearing the face of Mao Tse-Tung by two female athletes from China, considering the photo of the Chinese leader to be a political demonstration.

Luciana Alvarado, gymnast from Costa Rica, protesting for black lives matter Olympics 2021
Luciana Alvarado, gymnast from Costa Rica, raises her fist in favor of the movement “Black Lives Matter” protesting at the end of her Olympics solo event — Photo: Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo
However, in addition to the protests, diversity showed itself in an unprecedented way at the Olympics: never have the games been so equal in the division between participating men and women.

It was the Games with the largest number of athletes declared to be LGBTQIA+, something spoken about naturally in interviews and by competitors on social media. The OutSports website did a survey which indicates that this year there were at least 160 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and non-binary athletes taking part. The last two Games together totaled 79.

Rivals inside and outside the arenas

Iranian Mohammad Jamshidijafarabadi walks alongside American Javale McGee at the end of the US Iran match
Iranian Mohammad Jamshidijafarabadi walks alongside American Javale McGee at the end of the US-Iran match at the Tokyo Olympics men’s basketball — Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

With more than 200 countries, it is natural for rival countries and political enemies to meet on the court, on the mats or in the field. Most of the time, this happened calmly, as in the USA-Iran match in men’s basketball, where all the athletes treated each other well and praised each others performance.

The sad note was the refusal of Algerian and Sudanese judokas to compete in the Tokyo Olympics because they would face an athlete from Israel, a country which part of the Islamic world considers enemies because of the Palestinian issue.

 Azerbaijani rhythmic gymnastics team performs at the Tokyo Olympics 2021, wearing black ato protest about the war
Azerbaijani rhythmic gymnastics team performs at the Tokyo Olympics wearing black uniforms to protest against the war— Photo: Lindsey Wasson/Reuters
War was not absent from competitions: in rhythmic gymnastics, athletes from Azerbaijan wore black leotards to honor those killed in conflicts with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which intensified a year ago.

Heat, humidity and wind

Tourists in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on an extremely hot day
Tourists in front of the Olympic rings in Tokyo on a boiling hot day, on Sunday (25) — Photo: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo

When the organizers of the Olympic Games scheduled the event for the Japanese summer, experts were already warning about the risks associated with the season: it is very hot in the capital at this time of year, and the heat island effect enhances the thermal sensation. Extremely high humidity doesn’t help.

This was evident when athletes began to complain about disputes under the hot Tokyo sun. Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev told the referee: “I can die here”, he said during one of the singles matches of the tennis tournament.

Olympic Games held in intense heat
Daniil Medvedev, Russian athlete, took a break during a tennis match at the Tokyo Olympic Games held in intense heat  — Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

The strong wind blowing in Tokyo, which should have relieved the heat, ended up becoming a hindrance for athletes as well. In skateboarding competitions, it was not difficult to see competitors asking to wait before taking action because of the high gusts of wind in Tokyo Bay.

 people try to watch the surfing finals at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 at Tsurigasaki beachh,
Outside the security fence, people try to watch the surfing finals at the Tokyo Olympics at Tsurigasaki beach. — Photo: Francisco Seco/AP Photo
Surfing managed to benefit from the wind. A strong storm, which came close to being considered a typhoon, worried the Japanese authorities, but that turned out to be good news for surfers due to the waves it produced. The finals were brought forward because of the typhoon, and the Brazilian Italo Ferreira, won the first gold medal in the history of Olympic surfing.

Brazilian pop stands out in Tokyo

Stari the DJ who had his music played at the Tokyo Olympics holds the flag of Japan
DJ Stari holding the Japanese flag — Photo: Personal archive/Facebook

From the television broadcasts, you can hear that Brazilian pop is in the Olympics. It is, for example, in the volleyball arenas, with a DJ who chooses hits by Anitta, Barões da Pisadinha, Israel & Rodolffo and the famous Brazilian Drag Queen Pabllo Vittar as soundtracks between one event and another in the games in Brazil.

Pabllo Vittar, by the way, scored what could be the hit song of the Brazilian delegation in Tokyo: “Zap Zum”, the favorite of Douglas Souza, a male volleyball player who became the sensation of these Olympics with his posts on social networks. Another Pabllo song to appear in competitions was “Energia”, a collaboration with the American duo Sofi Tucker, who played in the performance of Laura Zeng during the rhythmic gymnastic performance of the United States.

Brazilian funk also won a place in the official presentation of gymnast Rebeca Andrade. The athlete made her solo appearance to the sound of “Baile de favela”. There was also space for the funk song “Not born to date”, a partnership between  Zaquin and Rick (Brazilian Singers), who rocked the steps of Rayssa Leal, the 13 year old silver medalist in female skateboarding.

Another to use music to back his performance was Hebert Conceição, gold medalist for Brazil in boxing. He entered the ring to the tune of “Nobre Guerreiro” by Olodum, before becoming an Olympic champion.

Brazil makes history in Tokyo

Hebert Conceição, the male boxing athlete holding his Olympic gold medal in Tokyo
Hebert Conceição the male boxing athlete holding his Olympic gold medal — Photo: Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters

The Tokyo Olympic Games also go down in history as the best for Brazilian participation. For the number of medals, there has never been an Olympics so successful for Brazil, who achieved 21 in total, surpassing the 19 from the Rio Olympics in 2016.

For gold medals, it’s harder to win when you are not the host. Brazil achieved 7 gold medals — surpassing the total won 5 years ago. Boxing and skateboarding, with 3 medals each, were highlights for the Brazilian delegation, who also performed well in surfing, gymnastics, swimming and athletics.

The disappointment with beach volleyball, which went without a medal for the first time since the sport entered the Olympic program, was offset by a surprising bronze in tennis.

Despite all the controversy surrounding the Tokyo Olympics, the athletes’ protest was important, mainly because we are living in a society where racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are unacceptable. Many athletes were mentally tired. It is necessary to talk about the mental health of athletes, and also the political oppression which still prevails in many countries. For this reason, these Olympics were highly important, given everything we are experiencing in today’s society.

Leave a Reply