When French President Emmanuel Macron walked into the newly built national stadium at the Japanese capital for the Tokyo Olympics 2020 opening ceremony, the distinguished statesman made an interesting comment to France Television hours before the curtain raiser. He said, “We have to hold these Games. Olympic spirit is a spirit of cooperation and that’s what we need in these times.” I can’t help but agree with President Macron.
Amidst the numerous challenges and the pandora’s box of troubles thrown open by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics 2020 is positioning itself as a mix of celebration and solemnity. Previous instances of the world’s largest sporting event have celebrated many feats of unity. A pertinent example was North and South Korea together under a unified flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. This edition in the Pacific nation, however, takes the concept of solidarity and unity in times of adversity to a whole new level, which was epitomised during the opening ceremony. The theme of the show – United by Emotion – was studded with routines that carried more symbolism related to the time spent apart and the struggle borne by frontline workers combating the deadly virus.
Olympism to the rescue
In a broader perspective, sports and particularly the Olympics have been a platform for encouraging inclusivity. There have been numerous leagues and players who have leveraged sports to accelerate movements and drive social cohesion. This time, besides inclusivity, there has been a larger mission to the Olympic movement that Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), highlighted in his letter titled ‘Olympism and Corona.’. “We have the unique opportunity to turn the celebration of the postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 into a festival of unity for humankind, and a symbol of human resilience to overcome this coronavirus crisis. Imagine what a powerful signal of hope these Olympic Games will be for the world during these unprecedented times. The Olympic flame can be the light at the end of the dark tunnel that humankind currently finds itself in,” he said.
The Tokyo Olympics are expected to lift our spirits amid the ongoing pandemic and bring the world together for a common purpose. Athletes and teams across the world will leverage the platform to demonstrate unity, solidarity against racism and inequality. More importantly, the competitive spirit coupled with raw emotions one witnesses during the games is probably something no Hollywood blockbuster can recreate. Don’t believe me? During the Tokyo Games, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus put the challenge by U.S. star Katie Ledecky behind and won a gold in the 400-meter women’s freestyle, recording the second-fastest time in history for the 400m swimming event at the Olympics. But while the Aussie was bathing in victory, pun intended, it was her coach, Dean Boxall, who made a big splash online with his exuberant, no-holds-barred celebration. He kicked the air, hammered his fists, ripped off his mask and thrust his hips – almost as if caught in some trance – and that sent social media into an overdrive.
Indian women lead the way
Closer to home, I look at our own ‘Mira-cle’ lady, Mirabai Chanu and the reception that was accorded to her after clinching silver in the women’s 49kg weightlifting event. Her toils, struggles and sacrifices for five years ended India’s 21-year wait for a weightlifting medal at the Olympics. Sure, that would inspire an entire generation. In fact, it’s already begun – a video has been doing the rounds on social media of a little girl trying to imitate Mirabai’s winning moment. What about fencing sensation Bhavani Devi? Yes, she may have lost the second round, but she made India’s presence felt in an elite European sport at the highest level. Who can forget the feats of table-tennis star Manika Batra? She became the first Indian player to enter the round of thirty-two at an Olympics. The icing on the cake has to be PV Sindhu, who now is India’s first woman to win two individual Olympic medals. Talking about turnarounds, one can look no further than the Indian women’s hockey team. An impeccable victory by Rani Rampal and Co. against three-time champions Australia, to reach their maiden semi-finals in women’s hockey at the Olympics is worthy of high praise. Their male counterparts too aren’t far behind – PR Sreejesh will play world champions Belgium for a place in the final, hoping to win the first medal since the 1980 Mosco Olympics. Such commendable feats have come a long way, a far cry from when participation of Indians in the Olympics was just a mere formality. Now, they are there to win. When you see their victory emotions unravel, there is nothing else that matters!
Tokyo has witnessed far more gender diversity and India has been one of the key contributors which has resulted in the surge of female athletes. The country has sent 56 female athletes to the Tokyo Olympics, making it the country’s largest female contingent at the Summer Games.
Another emerging trend that has made Tokyo special is the importance given to mental health and wellbeing that gained context after the shocking exit of Simone Biles, the superstar gymnast from the United States. In an increasingly competitive world, mental health has become of paramount importance, and India’s PV Sindhu agrees with this issue. She said, “Athletes need to be at their best, both in terms of mental and physical well-being, if they are to produce their best effort at the Olympics.” For Sindhu, meditation ensures she stays in a good space.
Key learnings for brands
The Olympics have been notable for players and teams sending strong messages to fans and viewers worldwide. But just as important as the need to embrace inclusive change is the need to be united in times of adversity. This provides an important learning for brands and communicators. Optimism never goes out of style; messaging is always important in communication and purpose can be your north star during an adversity.
The Tokyo 2020 Games were delayed, challenged and threatened by a global pandemic, but they were finally launched with an opening ceremony that was scaled down, but touching nonetheless. What it goes to show is that no matter how big the obstacles were, the historic postponement came to be a great demonstration of unity in an Olympic movement under these unprecedented circumstances. Take a bow, Tokyo, you’ve triumphed against the odds, exemplifying true Olympic spirit!
Dolly Tayal, Regional Managing Director, Sports & Entertainment, BCW APAC