In summary

  • Swinburne’s Sport Innovation Research Group shares highlights, reflections and insights from an Olympic Games to remember
  • Tokyo 2020 saw new sports introduced, an equal best gold medal performance, many heart-warming moments and TV ratings successes

The Swinburne Sport Innovation Research Group has followed the highs and lows of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games over the past two weeks. As they rest up in preparation for the Paralympics, the group shares some highlights, reflections and insights from arguably the most remarkable Olympics in history.

New sports, new audiences

Tokyo 2020 saw skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing introduced as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seeks to bring more ‘youthful and vibrant’ events to the Games. The debutant sports reflect global trends in sport participation, including movements towards more unstructured sports and a greater embrace of action sports and activities. They also provide great performances (13-year-olds were among skateboarding’s first medallists) and venues such as the skate park on Tokyo’s waterfront, which delivers potential for a direct physical and public legacy many Olympic venues fail to provide. Most critically, they help the Olympics capture new audiences. Many young fans, when asked about their favourite Olympic sports, will cite a mix of traditional and new sports, giving us a window into the future of the Olympics. The 2024 Games in Paris will see the introduction of more new sports like breakdancing. Debate is already underway about what the Brisbane 2032 organising committee may propose. Netball has its hand up. Anyone for eSports? 

BMX added new events to its Olympics schedule, a move which may help to encourage younger viewers. Secretaría de Deportes, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recapturing the glow: the Australian performance 

While many Australians will remember the Olympics as a snapshot of the COVID-19 pandemic or ‘lockdown era', we’ll also remember the delivery of an equal Olympic Games best of 17 gold medals for Australia and a total medal haul third only to Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. These results are not by accident, with sport funding and Olympic success inherently linked. Swimming, rowing, sailing and paddling are among our three highest funded sports (over $6 million per year) and all delivered multiple gold medals and inspiring moments. Medal results across skateboarding, BMX and surfing have these sports well positioned for ongoing support. Success at the Olympics also positions sports for participation and profile growth. A first medal for our men’s basketball team and signature wins by both the Matildas and Olyroos soccer teams will help cement these among our highest participation sports. 

The Matildas' win over Great Britain was a favourite moment for many and will help cement soccer as one of Australia's highest participation sports.

The Inclusive Games

Tokyo 2020 was arguably the most visibly inclusive games ever witnessed. Tokyo 2020 was the first time a trans woman was permitted to compete, with Laurel Hubbard representing New Zealand in weightlifting. After much debate, the IOC also amended Rule 50 to allow for silent protest and the expression of views pre-competition and on the podium. We saw women returning to elite sport after having children and losing their sponsors, and openly gay men winning gold medals. Importantly, displays of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags across events and the achievements of our Indigenous athletes provided visible recognition towards Australian reconciliation. 

The Olympics still sells

Despite the uncertainty of how popular the Olympics would be without crowds, it proved to be a ratings success for host broadcaster, Channel 7. The most watched events of the two weeks were Peter Bol’s run in the final of the men’s 800m and sprinter Rohan Browning in the men’s 100m semi-final, with more than three million people watching. A peak audience of 2.32 million viewers tuned in to watch the Matilda’s semi-final against Sweden, making it the most watched women’s team sport event in Australian television history. While the friendly time zone differences, COVID-19 lockdowns and the success of the Australian team all contributed, the ratings prove once again that sport – and in particular the Olympics – sells. 

Peter Bol's run in the final of the men's 800m was one of the most watched events of the Olympics for Australian viewers.

It’s the human spirit, not just medals, that captivates us

Some of most memorable moments involved athletes who won our hearts, despite not taking home a medal.

Think of Peter Bol holding on to finish fourth in the men’s 800m, Patrick Tiernan pushing his exhausted body over the finish line in the men’s 10,000m and Cedric Dubler sacrificing his personal performance to run alongside his teammate, Ash Moloney, to help him win Australia’s first ever Olympic decathlon medal. There was also Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim agreeing to share a gold medal in the high jump, and US gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from eventsand drawing important attention to mental health management. 

Tokyo offered many moments for fans to redefine what success, sportsmanship and spirit mean to them, and highlighted the Olympics is not all about the medals.

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