TOKYO — It was a week and a half of extremes.
Extreme heat. Extreme spikes and an extreme track, two technological advances that combined to produce extreme times. But also an extreme absence of spectators, a vacuum that the athletes sought to camouflage with extreme performances.
Track and field at the Tokyo Games helped fill the final 10 days of the Olympic schedule, and five years — in so many ways — was worth the wait. Members of the old guard played starring roles once more, some of them for their final time, and a new generation stepped forward, many of them in events that had so often been overshadowed in the past.
These were the Games of the shot-put, which Ryan Crouser of the United States fashioned into must-see TV. These were the Games of the pole vault, as Mondo Duplantis — the Louisiana-born Swede — narrowly missed vaulting higher than any human in history as a postscript to his gold-clinching performance.
These were the Games of the 400-meter hurdles, an event experiencing a renaissance. Karsten Warholm of Norway and Sydney McLaughlin, the 22-year-old American, broke their previous world records, producing midday spectacles in Tokyo that were broadcast in prime time in the United States — a knowing nod from the television executives that hurdling has never been cooler.
And these, of course, were the Games of Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, a singular athlete who had arrived in Tokyo with her eye on a stunning achievement: three medals in three grueling events. She left with Olympic gold in the women’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters, a bronze in the 1,500 and a keen understanding that the improbable is possible.
“I think I’m kind of crazy,” she said.
But her most palpable emotion, she said, was relief: relief that she had advanced through the maze of pandemic-related protocols; relief that she had survived the humidity and her qualifying rounds; relief that she was able to assemble the pieces at the most important moments possible, even if the Olympic Stadium more closely resembled a cavernous sound stage.
Many of those feelings were communal ones. Athletes cried together and celebrated together. So many of them had trained in relative isolation during the pandemic and the yearlong Olympic postponement, describing it as the most challenging 18 months of their lives. Now, there was an opportunity to share their quiet pain.
“It’s by far been my hardest year, mentally and physically,” Noah Lyles said through tears after winning bronze in the men’s 200 meters.
Yet there was joy, too — joy that was expressed most transparently by Gianmarco Tamberi, an Italian who jumped into the arms of Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar after they agreed to share the Olympic title in the high jump. “He’s one of my best friends,” Barshim said.
And there was joy from Allyson Felix, who, at 35, won two medals at her final Olympics to become the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history.
“I’m a fighter,” she said. “The last couple of years, it’s what I’ve done. I just needed a chance.”
Removed from her family and friends, Felix was on FaceTime with her young daughter, Cammy, after she won the bronze in the women’s 400 meters. It was all part of the strangeness of the experience, devoid of family and friends ready to embrace their loved ones at the finish line.
Only the marathoners and the racewalkers had the privilege of competing before fans, but they did so in Sapporo, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, where the locals lined the streets to cheer athletes like Molly Seidel, a 27-year-old American who came away with a bronze after running in only her third marathon.
“I just wanted to stick my nose where it didn’t belong and get after it,” she said. “The Olympics only happens every four years, so you might as well take your shot.”
The last word, though, belonged to Eliud Kipchoge, the soft-spoken Kenyan who continues to redefine the boundaries of human performance as the greatest marathoner ever. On Sunday, he raced to his second straight gold medal in the men’s marathon and his fourth Olympic medal overall, a legacy that dates to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where he was a 5,000-meter runner.
This being 2021, Kipchoge shared his postrace thoughts on Twitter, describing how the Olympics are a special dream for athletes. Sports are like life, he said. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
“But today,” he wrote, “was a day where I won.”