How Tokyo 2020 brought focus and hope to humanity's challenges

Carlo Paalam of Team Philippines celebrates victory over Shakhobidin Zoirov of Team Uzbekistan during the Men's Fly (48-52kg) quarter final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Carlo Paalam of Team Philippines celebrates victory over Shakhobidin Zoirov of Team Uzbekistan during the Men's Fly (48-52kg) quarter final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

When all eyes fell on Japan for the XXXII Olympiad some of humanity’s biggest challenges were played out through the theatre of sport ultimately showcasing that we are stronger together.

Carlo Paalam studied his silver medal carefully. Standing on the second step of the podium in the boxing ring at the men’s flyweight medal event at the Kokugikan Arena on the penultimate day of Tokyo 2020, Paalam had just become the first man representing the Philippines to claim an Olympic medal in any sport for 25 years. But there was more to his gaze at the medal than first appeared.

“The silver medal symbolises what I went through because when I was a young boy, I was a scavenger and I collected junk and garbage,” Paalam commented after the fight on his early poverty-stricken upbringing. “I know this medal is made out of recycled materials, and I can identify with it because it is also made from waste material and garbage.”

Paalam’s very personal story is one that draws attention to the area of sustainability, which was a very important focus for organisers of Tokyo 2020.

Carlo Paalam of Team Philippines poses on the podium for a photo with his silver medal during the medal ceremony for the Men's Fly (48-52kg) on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Carlo Paalam of Team Philippines poses on the podium for a photo with his silver medal during the medal ceremony for the Men's Fly (48-52kg) on day fifteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 07, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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Podiums were made out of recycled plastic, the Olympic torch used aluminium recycled from the temporary housing used after Japan's Fukushima disaster, and the notorious cardboard beds in the athletes’ village were not, as was first supposed, designed to prevent athletes using them for nefarious purposes but because of their sustainability and sturdiness.

And the medals, of which Paalam was so taken, came from a joint project involving Japanese citizens who donated old electronic devices, such as mobile phones, which were smelted down and the gold, silver and bronze elements extracted to create the 5,000 Olympic medals. The Tokyo 2020 Medal Project collected 78,985 tons of electronic devices, including 6.21 million mobile phones from across Japan, and also gave the Japanese a feeling of involvement through doing something good together.

Sustainable action

The most successful female Olympic sailor ever, meanwhile, continues to use her platform to encourage environmental awareness. Hannah Mills added Tokyo gold in the 470 class, alongside fellow Brit Eilidh McIntyre, to her Olympic medal collection of gold and silver from Rio 2016 and London 2012, respectively, but her advocacy of ocean health is as important to her.

Mills co-created the Big Plastic Pledge, with the aim of acting and uniting the sporting world to help tackle single-use plastic, an initiative backed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Mills also joined a British Sailing Team Tokyo 2020-specific Games-time initiative, Challenge 6000, which encouraged the sailing community and beyond to remove 6,000 pieces of litter from the sea between the opening ceremony on 23 July and the closing ceremony on 8 August. Logging the debris found on a tracking app, helps to support scientific research and informs data-driven solutions.

It's okay not to be okay

Mental health awareness was brought to the fore when artistic gymnast Simone Biles took the decision to withdraw from the team competition after she lost her aerial awareness on the first piece of apparatus, the vault. The phenomenon, known in sport circles as the ‘twisties’, means a gymnast or diver or trampolinist, loses their aerial awareness during complicated twisting somersaults, something the athlete has trained a thousand times before but now the mind suddenly goes blank in mid-air.

Biles immediately relayed to her teammates she couldn’t continue safely but said she would do everything she could to help them throughout the competition, which she did, cheering them on, fetching them chalk or a drink, whatever they needed. But more importantly, the athlete who was arguably the face of the Games, made it okay to say she was not okay.

Biles herself was worried about the reaction to her withdrawal but there was nothing but support for the American.

Actress Lily Collins was among many stars within and beyond the world of sport who reacted to this post. Collins wrote:

You have truly exemplified strength and light beyond compare. Thank you for encouraging us all to listen to ourselves and trust how we feel, physically and emotionally. You are paving the way for growth and acceptance ❤️

Swiss-American BMX freestyle bronze medallist Nikita Ducarroz has also used her platform to talk openly about her mental health challenges, which include crippling anxiety. As a teen, Ducarroz was unable to leave the house at one point, even to go to school, and the 25-year-old still has episodes to this day. Talking about it, she says, helps her, so she figures it could help others too.

To this end she co-started an Instagram Project called m1ndtricks with her friend Patrick Kelly, in an effort to fix the lack of conversation around mental health in the action sports world. Through posts and personal stories on their new Instagram page, they hope to reach those in need and inspire more to speak out and reduce the stigma.

In a world that has been rocked by separation due to COVID, these reminders are timely that we are stronger together.