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The Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony Caps Off The Summer Games

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

With a parade of athletes in masks and acrobatics, the Tokyo Olympics closed with a relatively muted ceremony today. It marked the end of over two weeks of sports competitions. It's been the strangest games of our time, between empty stands and coronavirus outbreaks. But the United States won the medal count, grabbing at least 39 golds and 113 medals overall. My good friend NPR's Leila Fadel has been covering it over the last 17 days, and she joins us now. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let's just start with what it was like at these games. Take us there.

FADEL: Well, I can't underscore how, like you said, strange these games were. They had a lot of nicknames - the pandemic Olympics, the anger Olympics, the lonely Olympics.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Nothing good.

FADEL: Right. Athletes were shuttled to and from the venues on buses, separated from the city hosting the games, daily coronavirus tests, isolation facilities set up all to ensure as safe as possible an event being held in the midst of a surge of coronavirus in Japan and the world. And that means athletes did incredible things - broke world records, brought home first-time golds, sometimes first-time medals all without fans, save the volunteers, Olympic officials and country delegates in the stands. So in some ways, these games were sad.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, they were. Were there moments that sort of stuck with you during these games?

FADEL: So many moments. I mean, despite all the challenges around them, the athletes brought the highs and lows that come with incredible triumph and difficult loss. And what struck me the most was the way competitors really became each other's cheering squads and support systems in the absence of fans. And I'm thinking of a moment that you're probably now familiar with, Qatari high jumper Mutaz Essa Barshim and Italian Gianmarco Tamberi deciding to share the gold and instead of go to a tie-breaker. And they had both suffered near-career-ending injuries. Both worked their way back, and both go home the best in the world.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it made me cry.

FADEL: Yeah, me, too. And there were also incredible underdog stories that we usually get. One was the 400-meter freestyle Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui shocked everyone with his win. He had the lowest qualifying time, and no one seemed as surprised as him. He said, it's too incredible. I can't accept it. And there in the stands was his coach just going wild, again, highlighting just how much the Olympics is about athletic feats, yes, but also about fans erupting in cheers for their athlete. And isn't that the story of our lives in these times - trying to figure out how to live and work and perform when this pandemic just won't go away?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, that is so true.

FADEL: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it wasn't all moments of triumph. I mean, talk to us about the tensions.

FADEL: Absolutely. I mean, of course, Olympic organizers are under more pressure than ever to do away with a rule that bans protests on the podium. Critics say this steals athletes' freedom of expression at the one moment that they have the world's attention to protest oppression or issues of racial and social injustice at home. And then there was the tension over whether these games should've happened at all. There were scattered protests by people really angry about the risks and the money spent. But most people I spoke to here in Japan used the words like it's complicated or bittersweet to describe the games. U.S. sprinter Rai Benjamin, just after he won the gold - he gave this - in the 4x400 meter relay, he gave this message to the Japanese people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAI BENJAMIN: Given the circumstances that we're under with COVID, I mean, I just can't thank you guys enough. I know it's been tough. I know public opinion is definitely against you guys. But I just want to say, thank you guys so much from the bottom of my heart.

FADEL: Even in that moment of triumph, the pandemic weighed heavy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's NPR's Leila Fadel. Thank you so much.

FADEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.