Tokyo Olympics: The Friendship Games

An Olympic medal is the ultimate achievement in most sports, but the Games are also about friendship, relationships, and human dignity and the Tokyo Olympics was no different. 

Gianmarco Tamberi of Team Italy and Mutaz Essa Barshim of Team Qatar react after winning the gold medal in the men's High Jump.

The greatest and biggest theatre of sport – the 32nd edition of the summer Olympics – has come to an end after 17-days of riveting action in Tokyo. Athletes from over 200 nations gave their best, basking in the spotlight of the Olympic flame, going higher, longer, faster to attain immortality. But this was – as always – the game of unity and camaraderie. 

An Olympic medal is the ultimate achievement in most sports, but the Games are also about friendship, relationships, and human dignity – the Olympics brings the world together.

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In the Japanese capital, the basketball match between the USA and Iran had no undertones of the two nations' four-decade-long fractious relationship, there was no politics in the court at the Saitama Arena.  

Iran’s 23-year-old shooting guard Navid Rezaeifar had a moment to cherish when he shared the court with three-point shooting phenom Damian Lillard. “It was great to play alongside Lillard. I spoke to him after the game, and he was very nice. He gave me a few tips too,” the ecstatic Rezaeifar said.

Iran's Navid Rezaeifar spoke of his admiration for USA's Damian Lillard. Photo: Getty Images

 

USA coach Gregg Popovic was more profound. “In general, people in different countries get along a whole lot better with each other than their governments do. When you involve politicians, it becomes much more complicated with self-interests, ideologies, and personal agendas. The Olympics here are a venue and a time where sport transcends all that petty crap that you get from governments,” he said. 

In the badminton arena, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu-ying found a companion in her rival P.V. Sindhu after she lost the women’s singles final. “After the match, I was satisfied with my performance. Later, Sindhu ran over and hugged me, held my face, and told me: I know you’re uncomfortable and you’ve been very good, but today isn’t your day. Then she held me in her arms and said she knows all about it,” Tai Tzu said on Instagram “That sincere encouragement made me cry. I was really sad because I tried hard. Thank you again for your support and encouragement. Thank you all for walking with me till now,” she said. 

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Sindhu, who finished with a bronze, had lost to Tai in the semifinal. 

Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu-Ying wears a dejected look after losing the women’s singles final to Chen Yufei of China. Tai Tzu had an unlikely cheerleader in India’s P.V. Sindhu, who she had defeated in the semifinals. Photo: REUTERS    -  REUTERS

 

The most heart-warming moment of the Games came when Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi shared the men’s high jump gold medal. The duo had earlier faced career-threatening injuries and was tied in the race for the gold. When the official suggested that they should settle it with a jump-off, Barshim had a better idea – “How about two golds?” he quipped. The official said: “that would be possible” and wild celebrations broke out. Tamberi could barely believe his ears and leaped onto Barshim for a bearhug.  

The medals had already been decided in the men’s pole vault final and Armand Duplantis had won the gold. But as he went for a new world record, the rest of the pack – led by USA’s silver-winner Chris Nilsen – cheered and spurred on Mondo (as the 21-year-old world-record holder is popularly known) with fist bumps and back-pats ahead of his jumps. It was a special moment to see competitors, all vying for the same prize, encourage one of their own to try and better his own world record. Duplantis did not manage the record but made some friends for life. 

Pole vault gold medalist Armand Duplantis of Sweden shares the moment of glory with silver medalist Chris Nilsen of the United States, and bronze medalist Thiago Braz of Brazil. Photo: REUTERS    -  REUTERS

 

India’s Neeraj Chopra, too, had his moment of glory, winning the nation’s first track and field gold medal. And on the podium, Neeraj interlocked fingers with both his Czech Republic opponents Jakub Vadlejch (silver) and Vitezslav Vesely (bronze) and raised their hands in celebration.

Vesely, 38, would later say that this was his last Olympics campaign. He was made to feel extra special by a 23-year-old from Panipat.

One of the early congratulatory messages to Neeraj came from his Pakistan counterpart Arshad Nadeem, who finished fifth in the javelin final. “He (Nadeem) was telling me about that photo from the Asian Games (2018) and he said that people in Pakistan equates us to Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh.” Neeraj said.  

Milkha and Khaliq, the fastest runners in Asia in the late 50s, had a great rivalry on the tracks but remained friendly off it despite the tensions between the two countries.  

Neeraj and Nadeem, too, can propagate the message of friendship.