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The big takeaways from the Tokyo Olympics

Vigyan Verma | Updated on August 10, 2021

For and against: Simone Bile’s sudden withdrawal from team events in gymnastics left the sporting world split down the middle   -  REUTERS

Mental health issues, representation of women, and sustainability practices came to the fore at the biggest sporting event

* This was the most challenging Olympics for the athletes, right from disruption of preparations due to the pandemic

* Going forward, brands might attempt psychometric tests to assess mental toughness of athletes before signing them on

* Tokyo Olympics saw the official broadcasting body, Olympics Broadcasting Services, resolving to change the visual narrative to ‘Sport appeal, not sex appeal’

* The podiums that were used by athlete for receiving the medals, were made out of recycled plastics

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Tokyo Olympics 2020 will be remembered for many firsts. For starters, unlike what the nomenclature suggests it was held in 2021 and has the makings of a trivia quiz question in a few decades from now.

The global pandemic-induced heightened anxiety and disinterest in Olympics among citizens in Japan due to the increasing Covid-19 cases meant that even the official sponsor Toyota had to tone down its involvement by not going ahead with running its TV campaign. Till it actually got off the ground, there was an air of uncertainty hanging over it, with officials determined to make it happen on the one hand, largely governed by commercial interests and fallouts, and the civil society, including the medical fraternity, on the other hand wanting it scrapped.

One can only imagine what must have been in the minds of sportspersons gearing up for the big stage. Truly, this was the most challenging Olympics for the athletes, right from disruption of preparations due to the pandemic through much of 2020 and 2021, accentuated by significantly reduced competitive events in the run-up to the Olympics that serve as essentials of tuning up, as also performing at the biggest stage of sports in front of empty stands. Besides the highly unusual circumstances in which it was held, Tokyo 2020 may be remembered for the following reasons, which may well go on to set a progressive trend.

Coming out on mental health

Simone Bile’s sudden withdrawal from team events in gymnastics left the sporting world split down the middle. She got abundant support from people at large who expressed empathy for the pressures athletes go through, especially with an invasive social media which is a bane for modern athletes. However, there were critics too who questioned her unexpected exit, leaving her teammates in the lurch. Predictably, her sponsor, Athleta (a sportswear brand of Gap) and Visa, supported her stance with due understanding and concern.

While this may seem extremely humane, this is possibly the only way left for a brand to react after an athlete pulls out. Despite the overt display of solidarity, going forward, brands might attempt psychometric tests to assess mental toughness of athletes before signing them on as brand faces since there’s a lot of money at stake in sponsorships. Coming soon after Naomi Osaka’s unexpected withdrawal from the French Open and later Wimbledon as well, brands may re-assess the hiring process with ‘scrutinise first, solidarity later’, being the mantra. While courage is the oft-repeated expression when athletes talk of mental health and quit, a slight shift in perspective can make the whole act less laudatory. Imagine being passengers inside an aircraft whose pilot announces giving up on controls of the plane mid-air, citing mental health reasons!

Reset button on gender equality

Tokyo Olympics saw instances where conventional norms of representation of women were questioned. This will certainly gladden the souls of all those who have felt that women have been forced to operate in a sexualised sporting environment while the world has been evolving on this front otherwise. It started with the Norwegian beach handball team flouting the prescribed bikini bottoms dress code and instead donning the more equitable shorts, while willingly paying $1,764 for the transgression.

The German gymnastic team was next to defy the script by going in for ankle length unitards as compared to the conventional bikini-cut leotards. While sporting competitions have been traditionally designed for the male gaze with live TV production often guilty of sexualised coverage, Tokyo Olympics saw the official broadcasting body, Olympics Broadcasting Services, resolving to change the visual narrative to ‘Sport appeal, not sex appeal’.

Pioneering sustainability

In business circles, sustainability has been moving out of the shadows of the CSR framework and taking centre stage as a business imperative. Tokyo 2020 epitomised this shift through a slew of initiatives that demonstrated a genuine intent towards the green cause. The most prominent and perhaps the most symbolic of the initiatives was the use of metals recycled from discarded mobile phones to create medals for Olympic winners.

Besides, the podiums that were used by athlete for receiving the medals, were made out of recycled plastics. The one piece of furniture that got more than its due share of attention was the bed used for athletes in the Olympic Village. Made out of cardboard, these were initially derided, somewhat inaccurately, for being incompatible with amorous activities but that was just a minor distraction amidst some other initiatives such as using EV vehicles to transport sportspersons from the Games Village to the stadiums and back. The target was to collect enough carbon credits to offset and actually go beyond carbon neutrality. This drive is expected to reverse the trend of declining sustainability efforts in 16 Summer and Winter Olympics held between 1992 and 2020.

Vigyan Verma is founder, The Bottom Line, a brand consulting and solutions company

Published on August 08, 2021

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