Everyone has a memory of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. These relate to a collective history and also to his own which they helped to give benchmarks. No matter how far was the progression in recent decades towards ever greater professionalization, the Games still largely represent pure sport in many disciplines, the Grail of any competitor, the legend for the medallists and sometimes even for those who have not been but have gone above and beyond, an incomparable pride for the organizing nations and the wonderful memory of so many volunteers. To use a term dear to this site, it is a palpitation of a world in unison every four years, whatever the vicissitudes, which at the same time arouses a vocation and a commitment to perpetual surpassing.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, postponed to the following year and even threatened with cancellation shortly before they took place, have just ended. Almost everything has already been said about the success on all levels of this special edition, on the sanitarian and economic risk taken by the organizing country. It required a nation, which lives permanently with the threat of earthquakes and that of the tsunamis, to face with so much calm, methodical spirit and cold blood and give us so – as in L’île nue (Hadaka no shima), this masterpiece of its cinema – a lesson in resistance and optimism. The spectators were most often kept away from the events but we felt they were attentive and quick to show their enthusiasm as was the case during an anthology road cycling event on the slopes of Mount Fuji, won by a champion from Ecuador, another land of volcanoes.
Each nation has its own memory of the Games. On the French side, where medals have long been rare, it is Alain Mimoun who finally won – against his competitor and friend, the immense Zàtopek – the Melbourne marathon in 1956; Pierre Jonquères d’Oriola conquered in extremis the only French Olympic title of the previous Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964, just before the closing ceremony began; the prodigy again in horse riding of the horse Jappeloup jumping higher than its size in Seoul in 1988; or Marie-José Pérec flying in a sublime way in Barcelona in 1992, then in Atlanta in 1996 to achieve a double on 400 m and 200 m flat. But the list is obviously not exhaustive and should include so many other remarkable athletes.
For China in 2008, the Games were more than just sport. They signified the dazzling and long-awaited entry into the great international scene of a nation “never-ending awakening” – to paraphrase the title of a famous book. This has resulted in sumptuous and arguably unmatched opening and closing ceremonies.
But the United Kingdom has, in its own way, taken up the challenge of Beijing in a very British and globalised way at the same time. It should be noted that until now London is the only city in the world with Athens to have hosted in 2012 (after 1908 and 1948) the Games for the third time. In London, the nervousness of the vigil of arms was great (the pre-match tension), but the opening ceremony was a paroxysmal moment liberating relief and immense pride in a country described as « the lover of sport and cradle of modern sport » by the President of the IOC.
The bar to be crossed was indeed high since the gigantism of Beijing 2008. It was a celebration in the U.K. by film director Danny Doyle. He traced the evolution of the country from the rural world to the modern society. If the presentation has tried to show the best, for example the NHS to which the British are attached, the historical overview was without complacency with the description of the hardness of the industrial revolution. The embodiment of the powerful nouveau riche by Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh and foundry workers forging the Olympic rings – on infernal musical rhythms precisely called «Pandaemonium» – will remain one of the great moments of this exceptional evening. British humor tinged with self-mockery has also been pushed very far, if not with Mr. Bean participating with the London Symphony Orchestra in the interpretation of the music of the Chariots of Fire, at least with Queen Elizabeth II’s stunning performance of a role alongside Daniel Craig alias 007.
The success of London 2012 was also, and perhaps above all, that of tens of thousands of admirable volunteers and, let us not forget, that of the Paralympic Games, probably the most successful in history, which took place in the Olympic Stadium in front of 85,000 spectators.
The British should remember today – and we with them – the strong message of their last Games. If London’s candidacy had been determined, as has been said, by the idea of helping to forge the modern, post-imperial identity of a United Kingdom that had become a globalized and multicultural nation, the message had then been expressed with impressive force. The Games will return to Europe, after the impressive brilliance of Beijing, the post-modern British affirmation and the perfection of Tokyo in the face of extreme challenges. Paris will also host the Games for the third time, like Athens and London, a century after the 1924 edition. The challenge will be to enrich the memory of the Games through innovation and creation, thanks to the path traced against all odds by previous Games and Tokyo 2020-2021.