Ranking sporting experiences is an intensely personal thing for the doers and the watchers but, during a privileged career as a sportswriter, a few stand out.
Exhibit A: That magical Monday night at Sydney’s Olympic Park in 2000 when Cathy Freeman electrified a nation with her famous victory in the 400 metres.
The feeling was something no one among the record crowd of 112,574 will ever forget; the magnitude of Freeman’s achievement almost incalculable.
Yet although there will be no lack of remarkable performances in Tokyo over the next 17 days, the atmosphere will be among many things sure to be extraordinarily different.
Applaud if you must, athletes and coaches, but hugs, handshakes and high-fives are strongly discouraged and cheering, singing and shouting to be avoided.
Remember the excitable Laurie Lawrence’s poolside theatrics in Seoul in 1988 after rank outsider Duncan Armstrong’s 200-metre freestyle gold medal in world record time?
A 2021-style Laurie would have been restricted to an enthusiastic little clap, and the TV interviewer spared a headlock and a few love taps across the chops.
Those who make it onto the (socially-distanced) podium will take their medal from a tray held by a fully vaccinated official and hang it around their own neck.
Over a mask-covered face. Having eaten all meals alone or at least two metres away from others, and been banned from visiting public places, tourist areas, shops and restaurants throughout their stay.
Which will not be longer than absolutely essential. Where, at previous Olympics, athletes whose work was done could join the party – with 450,000 condoms distributed to the 10,500 competitors in Rio at an average of 42 each – they must leave Japan within 48 hours of being eliminated or their competition ending.
Many will be glad to, of course, given the onerous bubble restrictions and other drawbacks articulated by Nick Kyrgios when announcing his withdrawal as the combination of an abdominal injury suffered at Wimbledon, and this not being the dreamed-of experience.
“If I’m to play the Olympics I want to do it the right way. With full crowds, with my guests there. When I’m able to watch other athletes do their thing. That’s the Olympics for me,’’ Kyrgios said. “The Olympics, the way it’s going to go on, is not the Olympics.’’
Except that it still is for so many who have trained all their lives to get there (and whether tennis players and golfers should be at the Olympics at all is another matter entirely, for surely four majors each year are enough).
Still, the IOC isn’t just courting global superstars such as Novak Djokovic and our Ash Barty, but determined to appeal to new and younger audiences.
In: Skateboarding, sport climbing, surfing and karate, with new disciplines in existing sports including three-on-three basketball and cycling’s BMX freestyle.
Other mixed-gender team events have also been added, including relays in swimming and track and field, allowing additional high-profile events without needing to accommodate extra athletes under the ever-groaning cap.
As for who will cover all these exploits, on-site media numbers have been trimmed, and even renowned athletics guru Bruce McAvaney will call his 11th games from a Channel Seven studio rather than trackside.
In contrast to my own freedom to roam in Sydney and then Beijing in 2008, these Games are virtually being staged in quarantine inside Tokyo, with no interactions between visitors and locals allowed.
Nationwide, the opposition to hosting the largest international gathering since the pandemic began, fearing it will become a superspreader, is well-documented. So much so that the host nation’s biggest company, Toyota, is not showing any Olympic-related ads in Japan despite being one of the IOC’s commercial partners.
Without ticket sales and the hoped-for boost to tourism, the broader financial bleeding continues, with some estimates that the original budget of $10 billion has almost tripled. Despite organisers apparently using recorded crowd reactions from Games past, expect an eerie emptiness in all those expensive stadia and arenas from which overseas spectators were banned back in March and locals followed when the latest state of emergency was announced on July 8.
So what of the athletes? Before Australia’s 100m sprint champion Hana Basic departed to finalise her pre-Olympic preparations in Europe, we discussed whether the debutante was nervous about the virus situation in Tokyo.
“Look, no, which is so weird, and I feel like I should be!’’ Basic admitted.
“But I just think if there’s a place that would have it all covered, and just be so professional, it would be Japan.’’
Understandably, for even with no crowds, a rigid set of restrictions and protocols including mandatory testing and face masks, Basic would not want to be anywhere else.
And however great the 2021 contrast with what has become known as Cathy’s Night back in 2000, the first delayed Olympic Games will at least have the distinction of being unique.