TOKYO – It’s time for Japan to do its Olympic bow.
Tokyo will hand over the baton to Paris on Sunday after hosting games delayed by Covid-19 and dismaying a skeptical audience but still delivering its share of drama.
The closing ceremony, which begins at 8 p.m. Tokyo time (7 a.m. ET), will round off two weeks of Olympic action that has been watched by millions of people around the world but seen in person by a select few due to a pandemic that is about to stalk the host country long after the athletes left.
Watch Live: NBC’s coverage of the Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony
“We know that by the end of the Games we will have 200 million cheers from every single country in the world,” said Yiannis Exarchos, who heads the Olympic Broadcasting Services, on Saturday.
“That’s a big number.”
An early focus on logistical challenges and domestic opposition gave way to not only the drama of athletic glory and defeat, but geopolitical intrigue, the mental health of athletes, and more.
The United States led the world again on Sunday morning with 113 medals, including 39 gold medals, ahead of China and the Russian Olympic Committee on both counts.
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In a video message to the team posted on Twitter on Saturday, President Joe Biden thanked the US athletes “for showing what we can do together as one America and as a team.”
“Aside from the medals and the results, you reminded us that we are stronger than we thought,” said Biden.
Host country Japan made it into the top 5 with 58 medals, almost half of them gold, according to the latest NBC News tally.
Masa Takaya, a Games spokesman who spent much of the Olympics answering tough questions about the coronavirus and other controversies from skeptical reporters, made no attempt to hide his satisfaction at Friday’s daily press conference.
“It’s important that athletes from every country do their best, but it’s also good to see that the athletes from home are doing well,” he said.
They secured their most cherished medal early Saturday, ruling out the US to win the baseball-crazy country’s first gold in the sport.
Japan hosted the world’s largest sports festival in the face of a plague that infected more than 200 million people and killed 4.3 million around the world, and – powered by the Delta variant – started spreading at a record rate in Tokyo, right how the games were getting underway.
History will tell whether these Olympic Games were a success. But we can say so much with certainty:
These were the games where gymnastics star Simone Biles took home a team silver medal, a bronze for the balance beam, and a gold legacy on and off the mat after shocking the world by pulling away from some major events to herself focus on their mental health.
These were the games when established stars Allyson Felix and Katie Ledecky expanded their medal wins and a constellation of new Olympic stars emerged, such as swimmer Caeleb Dressel, surfer Carissa Moore, gymnast Suni Lee, and runners Sydney McLaughlin and Molly Seidel.
The U.S. women’s soccer team fell short of its quest for another gold medal, but veteran striker Alex Morgan – one of many stars of this golden generation who may have played in their last Olympics – told NBC News they were proud of their hard earned money Hardware.
“We are really happy to have won a bronze medal,” said Morgan.
The US men’s basketball team, led by Kevin Durant, defeated a formidable French team, clinched Olympic gold for the fourth year in a row, and cemented America’s status as the preeminent basketball power in the world.
Then the US women’s basketball team, led by Brittney Griner, defeated a rowdy Japanese team to secure America’s seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.
The Americans were also introduced to Olympic heroes from unusual locations, such as Alaskan teenage Lydia Jacoby who won gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke and is from a state with exactly one Olympic pool – which she couldn’t train for months because of Covid -19.
They cheered on the kids who took part in the Olympics, such as 15-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Grimes and a litany of teenage skateboarders, including Japan’s 13-year-old champion Momiji Nishiya. They also cheered on decrepit athletes, such as US basketball player Sue Bird, who is 40, and equestrian Phillip Dutton, 57, and Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan, who at 46 years old is the oldest Olympic gymnast in history.
These were the games where a Belarusian sprinter defied her country’s authoritarian leader by criticizing her coaches, escaped the handlers trying to send her home at an airport near Tokyo, and found refuge in Poland.
Other athletes got up – or got down on their knees – for Black Lives Matter and #MeToo and rebelled against competing in revealing outfits.
The Games began with protests in Tokyo and widespread opposition from the Japanese population, who feared an influx of foreign athletes would worsen the Covid crisis at home, but who nonetheless welcomed the thousands of visitors among them.
There were Olympic displays of friendliness and class – runners Isaiah Jewett from the USA and Nigel Amos from Botswana helped everyone on their feet after getting tangled and falling in the 800 meter semifinals, while high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim hugged enthusiastically as they agreed to share a gold medal.
But there was also the Olympic meltdown of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic, who smashed his racket in frustration after failing to get the medal and wasting his chance to become the first man to win the Golden Slam – four Grand Slam titles and one Olympic Gold medal in the same year year.
Algerian judo competitor Fethi Nourine defied the Olympic ideal by withdrawing from the competition instead of fighting an Israeli. And at a possibly Olympic premiere, a trainer of the German modern pentathlon team was kicked out of the games because he hit a horse that was reluctant to jump.
Just three weeks ago, the Tokyo Games seemed to be imploding.
Key members of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee were knocked unconscious in a scandal. Polls showed that a solid majority of the Japanese were still against the Olympics. One of its largest sponsors, Toyota Motor Corp., withdrew its local TV commercials so that it would not be forever tied to an event that was sure to fall into disrepute. And then came the steady stream of reports that athletes tested positive for Covid-19 and tested assurances by the Japanese leadership that the Games would be “safe and secure”.
Olympic historian Jeremy Fuchs told NBC News at the time that “there has never been a completely happy Olympics,” and that at times the Games have been overshadowed by contentious debates about human rights and politics, even by excessive spending.
“But I find so much controversy really unprecedented,” said Fuchs. “I think you will have a hard time finding an example in history where the citizens of a host country are so unhappy.”
In an interview with NBC News on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted that it was a struggle to sell the event to his people. But he said the games would go on.
And they did.