A perfect 10 - that was the review which poured in from gymnasts after the FIG Friendship and Solidarity competition in Tokyo on Sunday (8 November), the first international sporting event to be held in Japan amid the global pandemic.
And it was accompanied by a powerful message from the star of the winning team - Uchimura Kohei who, in a rare emotional plea, begged all of Japan to work together in making the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games a success in 2021.
“You could probably tell from the expression on our faces, but we had a great, great time”, the three-time Olympic champion said before a crowd of 2,094 at Yoyogi National Gymnasium, speaking on behalf of the athletes in a closing address. “I thought this was a huge success.
“Because of the pandemic, most of us couldn’t train or compete. It was nice not just to see each other again but to be able to share all the emotions”.
Unable to hold back, Japan's Uchimura - who also turned in a powerful performance with the top score in the horizontal bar with a mark of 15.200, which would have been good enough for a gold medal at the last two world championships - continued his outpour.
“I know it’s somewhat unavoidable with the virus but I read an article that said 80 per cent of the people in Japan don’t think the Olympics can be held, which I thought was disappointing”, said the two-time men's all around Olympic gold medallist, who had to brave a positive COVID-19 test scare in the lead-up to Sunday.
“But the question we should be asking ourselves is not whether we can hold the Games or not - but how, and all of us need to put our heads together to make sure that it does go ahead. I want people to start thinking differently."
“I say this, however, knowing full well that it will not be easy. If we athletes and the public aren’t on the same page, I don’t think it will happen.
“But I’m certain there is a way to make it happen, and I ask everyone to stop thinking that it can’t happen”.
Organisers put in place a range of measures to ensure the 30 participating athletes stayed safe for the four-way mixed team competition featuring the United States, Russia, China, and Japan.
Each athlete was PCR tested every morning and each team occupied one entire floor of a hotel.
Athletes’ movement was kept to the bare minimum, being solely restricted to the hotel and competition venue.
Even inside the hotel, they had routes to strictly follow and use 24-hour attendants to cater to any and all personal needs such as finding a beverage.
While some athletes felt stifled because they were not allowed out, everyone understood why the coronavirus countermeasures were in place.
“It’s almost like a mini-Olympics for us”, said the United States’ Yul Moldauer. "It shows Tokyo is a great place to host the Games.
“For me I didn’t have a problem doing any of the procedures. I was actually really happy they were taking everything so seriously because it comes down to safety”.
Added Moldauer’s USA compatriot Shilese Jones, “Honestly, I think it helped me a little bit because it kind of kept my mind in a zone.
“Just keeping your mind focused on what needs to be done is the best thing for me”.
Victory for Kohei and Solidarity
The meet was won by the Solidarity team including Uchimura and reigning world all-around champion Nikita Nagornyy. They outscored team Friendship 423.600 to 421.300.
The result though was a sideshow to the fact that the event went ahead, with a crowd in attendance, under intense scrutiny at an actual Olympic venue against the backdrop of COVID-19.
Spectators were distanced and carefully shepherded in and out of the iconic arena, built for Tokyo’s last Olympic Games in 1964, on top of the mask and temperature checks as well as hand sanitizing.
While fans were asked to stay in their seats and not to raise their voice, there seemed to be genuine joy and appreciation for sport again in the air throughout the three-hour event.
In a video message aired during the opening ceremony, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach stated the importance of staging Sunday’s competition.
“In these difficult times, we need the Olympic values of excellence, respect and especially friendship and solidarity, more than ever”, Bach said. “This is why the Friendship and Solidarity competition comes at a perfect time."
“With this competition, you’re also setting an example that sport can be organised safely even under the ongoing health restrictions." - IOC President Thomas Bach
“This is a very important thing for the entire world, giving us confidence in our preparations for future events - in particular of course, the postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020”.
Said Nagornyy: “I think for us athletes, next year’s Olympic Games will be so important of our lives.
“Through this competition today I want to show the world that we can organize sport amid the coronavirus pandemic”.
More than 11,000 athletes are expected for the Games, to be held from 23 July-8 August, 2021.
Japan to host 2021 world championships
It was also announced that Japan will host the 2021 world artistic gymnastics and rhythmic gymnastics championships in the southern city of Kita-Kyushu.
The artistic gymnastics championships will be held from 17-24 October, the rhythmic gymnastics from the 26th to the 31st. They are being marked as legacy events of Tokyo 2020, FIG President Watanabe Morinari said.
"It's special enough to have the Olympics in your home country", Uchimura Kohei said. "But to host the world championships in your hometown gives me even greater joy".