Tokyo Olympics fully arrives as athletics light up hollow Olympic Stadium

Tokyo Olympics fully arrives as athletics light up hollow Olympic Stadium
On day one of the action at the Olympic Stadium, Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega won gold in the 10,000m, but there were no fans in attendance

From 25 men and 25 laps to one man and his last lap. Ethiopian Selemon Barega’s sharp burst at the death of Friday evening’s 10,000m race took him from a concealed cluster of rivals to the outright winner of Tokyo 2020’s 2020’s first gold medal achieved in the Olympic stadium.

He was cloaked into the penultimate lap by the likes of Joshua Cheptegei, the world record holder at this and 5,000m distance, along with the precocious Jacob Kiplimo. The breakaway brought with it chasers, but he held firm, especially so from the Ugandan pair in the straight to ensure they had to make do with silver and bronze, respectively.

There’s something special about that first medal achieved on a brick red Olympic track. Naomi Osaka’s lighting of the flame opened the Games but Barega’s outstretched arms as he crossed for victory and the ceremonial use of the Ethiopian flag as the most soul-warming of pashminas lit a fire in us all. Thanks for your time, swimming. Great job, cyclists. 3X3 basketball, sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met? At ease, fellas. Athletics has got it from here.

Say “Olympics” and most of us think athletics. No slight on the countless others who have already had their turn. Their stories are no less inspiring, sacrifice no less commendable, medals no less shiny. But Olympic track and field, the undeniable pinnacle of its component disciplines, just hits different. Even for us on the periphery.

Partly that’s down to the recency bias of playing out in the final week of a Games. Coming in late and taking all the glory, elbowing out the memories built up earlier and settling deep into the grey matter. So deep that, at times, plays tricks on us. How many of you Olympic casuals need to remind yourselves that 2012’s Super Saturday when Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill was a full eight days before the end of the Games?

Thus, Olympic Stadiums carry a grander, even this completely empty one sticking out in the thriving Shinjuku City district. The Japanese locals flocked to its outer limits, no intention of breaking through but trying to get as close to the action as possible for the “I was (almost) there” anecdotes these occasions give us to pass down to the next generations.

No doubt the Japanese public were split on the IOC barrelling ahead with these Olympics in the midst of a pandemic. But even those before Covid-19 carried a great sense of inconvenience. London 2012 was going to be a shambles. Rio 2016 a disorganised mess. But as two lines swelled outside the arena – one for photos with the Olympic Rings, the other up against the metal fences trying to catch sight of an athlete (all they saw were journalists) – an Olympic truism emerged revealed itself on cue. By the time the athletics gets underway, even the cynical want their part of history.

It goes without saying – and yet should be said – that Friday’s first action in this colosseum felt hollow. Just as it has been over the last eight days, teammates and coaching staff tried to concoct an atmosphere of sorts. But the bulging corners of this venue designed to swirl the cheers of 48,000 instead bounced the around before losing enthusiasm.

Night temperatures were 30 degrees and 73 per cent humidity. It’s always the most preferable time of day, but goes to show how excruciating morning sessions can be.

The 4×400 Relay Mixed Round 1 on day seven at the Olympic Stadium

The biggest cheer of the night came from the German mixed-relay team who were confirmed in the 4×400 final as one of the two fastest outside the top three as the times hit the big screen for the last of the two heats.

That event was perhaps the most empty without fans: a combination of breathless pace and exciting tactical match-ups. With teams made up of two men and two women, those in charge lived or died by the order chosen.

Great Britain’s choice of having Zoey Clark and Emily Diamond holding the middle while Cameron Chalmers and Lee Thompson kick things off and bring it home, respectively, was the most common tactic. However, Nigeria decided male sprinter Nathaniel Samson Oghenewebga would take the penultimate leg, blitzing the otherwise all women field before handing over to Patience Okon-George, who is no slouch. But while she valiantly held a diminishing lead to the cusp of the final bend, the seven men chased her down to cross the finish line before her.

They would have also crescendoed perfectly into the conclusion of the medal race. This was not a quick 10,000m by any stretch, but as ever at this distance, all the technical jousting in the middle gave way to the kind of excitement any couch-to-couch dweller can enjoy.

The bell for the last round seemed to ring like a starter pistol for Barega, who kicked like he was off from a sprinter’s block to break away from the main race-within-a-race faction. He was momentarily overtaken by Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed, before reasserting himself at the front and holding the lead until the end.

Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega celebrate as he crosses the finish line in the 10,000m

His final 800 of 53.94 looked every bit as impressive as it was – the fastest kilometre of an Olympics 10k race in history. The celebration, too, spoke of uncapped elation: continuing on for almost 100m more before posing just to the left of the javelin V on the centre turf, holding each one long enough for the cameras to rush over to him.

With that, he searched for his representatives in the crowd before, finally, succumbing to his efforts and pausing to catch his breath. Not long after, the silence returned and we were reminded once more that no one was here to enjoy any of that.

There were still fans on the outer perimeter at 10pm, drawn to the light of the stadium amid the deepest black of Tokyo night. They will be back tomorrow, and the day after that, right the way through to the closing ceremony a week on Sunday. By then, they will hope to have picked up enough of a buzz to say they were here, even though they were not.