Walker The Talker: Even Without Fans, The Magic Remains At The Olympic Games

With no fans, things are going to feel different this summer but there is still an undeniable buzz around Tokyo 2020
11:58, 18 Jul 2021

Well here we go then. Whatever people think about whether it could, should or would happen, Tokyo 2020 is at last almost upon us. And not before time in my opinion. 

My first Olympics was Athens 2004 and as I write this I’ve just touched down in Japan ready for my fifth Games. I can honestly say I feel as excited as I did all those years ago as a younger, somewhat less wrinkled athletics fan who boarded the flight for Greece wide eyed and unsure what the greatest sporting show on Earth would actually be like in the flesh.

Reminiscing with my Dad last week, I was reminded of how long ago that was as I recalled that on my one morning off from working behind the scenes in the broadcast centre for the BBC, I went to the athletics stadium to watch an 18-year-old Usain Bolt in the heats of the men’s 200m.

Many will forget the fact that Tokyo represents the first Olympiad without the greatest male sprinter in history since Sydney 2000. 

Truth be told Athens came a little too soon for Bolt, who failed to make it out of his heat. There had been a lot of noise about the young Jamaican as he had set a world junior record of 19.93 in April that year (age 17) less than two years after winning the World junior title as a 15-year-old on his home track of Kingston in 2002.

As a stroke of luck, I had been chosen to accompany BBC Radio 5 Live’s brilliant Mike Costello to Jamaica in May that year to help out on his exclusive Interview with the fledgling star. And what’s more, whilst Costello was busy spending time with Bolt for 5 Live, I’d been offered the chance to interview the very young 100m specialist Asafa Powell for Athletics Focus.

Asafa Powell
Asafa Powell

At that time Powell was a complete unknown on the global stage, partly as he had the misfortune to be drawn in the same quarter-final as Jon Drummond in the men’s 100m at the previous years World Champs in Paris.

Those of a certain vintage will remember Drummond being DQ’d in 2003 but then lying down on the track and refusing to move for well over half an hour. It was an embarrassment for the sport and it unsettled the young Powell (who was also subsequently disqualified) and therefore he didn’t have the chance to give us a glimpse of what was to come the following summer.

By the time the Games arrived in ‘04, the 100m was teed up to be a duel with him against Maurice Greene, who had won the Olympic title four years earlier. As it turned out, a certain unflappable American by the name of Justin Gatlin did the business, with Powell back in 5th and Greene picking up the bronze. 

Anyway, I digress. Despite what cynics may say about the authenticity of the modern Games being brought into question by those who wish to exploit it merely as a cash cow, there is an undeniable buzz around this quadrennial festival. 

Heathrow Airport was quiet yesterday but the sight of brand new tracksuits of all colours and the instantly identifiable five rings embroidered onto pristine tops was a reminder of where and why we were all heading to the Far East.

Yes, there are significantly smaller numbers of us actually on site and yes, the athletes village won’t be the same for those talented enough to be returning for a second, third or fourth Games. Yet, despite all that, it’s here and will unfold in all its glory in less than a week's time. 

Of course, it won’t be the same buzz for the athletes to perform in empty arenas and stadiums, but what will not be lost on any of them is their collective and individual ability to inspire from afar. The viewing figures from Tokyo 2020 could be absolutely huge, with so many countries and families forced to rely on what they can watch, as opposed to do, waiting for the return to “normality.”

Since terrorism tried (tragically but unsuccessfully) to define the 1972 Munich Games, there is a strong argument that Tokyo 2020 represents the most important symbol of hope and global sporting equilibrium of the last four decades.

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There will be heartwarming and heartbreaking stories in equal measure, along with many, many world records from those looking to remind themselves and others of what they have sacrificed and dreamed of for many many years.

In many regards it is going to feel different and odd. With no crowd how could it not? But those of us lucky enough to be here owe it to the Japanese public, the athletes and those fans/relatives/friends who have been told to watch from home, to do our bit to try and help bring the drama to life. And after the extraordinary drama of the Euros and England’s run to the final, it feels as if the British public are ready to embrace what’s to come.

I was asked to appear on Vernon Kay’s Team GB podcast this week and it was a lot of fun as he and fellow presenters came up with their favourite British Olympic moments which I then had to recreate in Comms via YouTube on the show.

Their choices? Daley Thompson ‘84, Kelly Holmes ‘04 and Jessica Ennis-Hill in 2012. No one ever tires of reliving iconic glory days and neither did any of us.

A new generation of British stars are waiting in the wings ready to etch their names into international sporting history. All we have to do now is sit back and watch - even if the majority are doing so from thousands of miles away. 

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