Hula’s Talks: Olympic historian Bill Mallon offers his assessment of Tokyo 2020

Mallon thinks historians “will talk about the fact that it was held during a pandemic”, but that “with time, that will fade, and the athletic performances will be remembered a little bit more”.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Closing Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 8, 2021. Fireworks are seen from outside the stadium during the closing ceremony from the Shibuya Sky observation deck REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Closing Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 8, 2021. Fireworks are seen from outside the stadium during the closing ceremony from the Shibuya Sky observation deck REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Bill Mallon, an orthopedic surgeon, former professional golfer and leading authority on Olympic history, sees this year’s Games as historic both due to the pandemic and athletic feats – while also offering up his insight about Tokyo 2020′s significance within the context of past and future editions.

A founding member and former President of the International Society of Olympic Historians, Mallon spoke to Around the Rings founder Ed Hula on his ‘Tokyo Report’ podcast. He told Hula that the Tokyo 2020 Games should first and foremost be remembered as a success, in that “the most important thing is it looks like [the organizers] pulled it off”.

“I wasn’t expecting any operational issues in terms of the Tokyo Organizing Committee. The only question was the virus and if they could contain it and it looks like they have... Overall, really relatively few problems with the virus”, Mallon said, pointing to only a handful of positive cases among athletes.

Mallon nonetheless noted that while the difficulties presented by the COVID-19 pandemic were unprecedented, they were not the first existential threat to face an Olympic Games. Editions in 1916, 1940 and 1944 were cancelled due to World Wars One and Two, and others such as in 1920 or 1976 came close to being shelved for lesser-known reasons.

“[The 1917-19 Spanish Flu] was a way worse pandemic than anything we’ve gone through. The estimates are that 50 to 100 million people died from that worldwide, and that’s in a population that was about one seventh the population of the world now... However, the Spanish flu pandemic kind of burned itself out in early 1919, so [the 1920 Olympics] were fortunate it didn’t affect them too much.”

“1976 in Montreal – this was not well known at the time, it leaked out over 30 years later – it was revealed from some IOC members that Lord Killanin, then president of the IOC, was so concerned about the Montreal Organizing Committee in their efforts leading up to the Games they actually had Amsterdam as a backup host”.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's 400m Hurdles - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Sydney McLaughlin of the United States crosses the line to win gold REUTERS/Phil Noble
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Women's 400m Hurdles - Final - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Sydney McLaughlin of the United States crosses the line to win gold REUTERS/Phil Noble

Despite the Games being overshadowed by COVID-19, Mallon urged viewers to also take stock of exceptional athlete performances and stories. The highlights of the Games for him included both “Beamon-esque” 400 meter hurdles races, where the top two men and women each broke the world record, and the men’s high jump, the first time in Olympic track and field that the top two athletes opted to share the gold medal instead of continuing to compete.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Swimming - Women's 50m Freestyle - Medal Ceremony - Tokyo Aquatics Centre - Tokyo, Japan - August 1, 2021. Emma McKeon of Australia with her gold medal REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Swimming - Women's 50m Freestyle - Medal Ceremony - Tokyo Aquatics Centre - Tokyo, Japan - August 1, 2021. Emma McKeon of Australia with her gold medal REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Mallon’s standout moment of the Games, though, is less often reported on. “The most historic thing in these Games to me”, Mallon said, “is Emma McKeon, an Australian swimmer, who won seven medals here in Tokyo, four golds and three bronze medals. That’s the most medals ever won by a woman at one Olympic Games. It was done one other time in 1952, a Soviet gymnast named Maria Gorokhovskaya also won seven medals at one Olympics... It’s pretty historic and I don’t know if it’s been mentioned much back in the US.”

Spectators might further assume that 12-year-old Japanese Kokona Hiraki, a silver medalist at Tokyo in skateboarding, made history by becoming the youngest Olympic medalist ever; or that 62-year-old Australian Andrew Hoy, bronze in equestrian eventing, became the oldest. However, Mallon says that this is not actually the case if you look far back enough through the years.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Skateboarding - Women's Park - Final - Ariake Urban Sports Park - Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Cocona Hiraki of Japan in action REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Skateboarding - Women's Park - Final - Ariake Urban Sports Park - Tokyo, Japan - August 4, 2021. Cocona Hiraki of Japan in action REUTERS/Mike Blake

“There’s younger medalists than [Kokona Hiraki]. There may be one in 1896, a Greek gymnast who was 10 years and 216 days old named Dimitrios Loundras. Though that’s a little controversial, we’re not quite sure his date of birth is accurate”, he disclosed.

If Loundras is excluded, the youngest Olympic medalist then becomes 11-year-old Luigina Giavotti of Italy, who won silver in team gymnastics in 1928. The oldest Olympian medalist, Mallon shared, was 72-year-old Oskar Svahn of Sweden, who won silver in shooting at the 1920 Games.

This year’s Olympics were historic according to Mallon along one other axis: in that they were the first Games to implement the IOC’s Agenda 2020, which allows hosts of the Games to propose new events to the IOC such as karate, baseball and skateboarding in Tokyo. Going forward, Mallon offered some insight on what kinds of sports we can expect to see the IOC approve for future Olympics.

“[The IOC] looks at a couple of things in adding sports. For one, they want it to be good for television. They want it to look good on television. They want it to be popular on television. They want it to be popular around the world. They don’t want sports that are only played in a few countries. There’s a great sport in Southeast Asia called Sepak Takraw, which is basically volleyball with your feet. It’s a tremendous sport that’s only played in about five countries, so that’s not going to get on the program”, Mallon explained.

“The other thing the IOC looks at is gender equity. They’re not going to bring in a sport that doesn’t have equal programs for men and women, or at least very close to equal programs. I’ve spoken at a few sports conferences about things like this and I’ve been asked about American football, is American football ever going to get in the Olympics? And I told them: not as long as women don’t play it. They do play it a little, but very little. So they’re not going to bring American football in because it’s not gender equitable.”

“They also don’t like, any more, subjective sports or judged sports such as gymnastics and figure skating where there’s all those controversies and it’s so hard to tell who actually won.”

Evolution in the IOC’s priorities, according to Mallon, could endanger the standing of regular sports on the Olympic program. Discussions about weightlifting or boxing being dropped from the Games due to governance issues have become commonplace; but Mallon also drew attention to modern pentathlon, the Olympic status of which he believes is on shaky ground.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Modern Pentathlon - Women's Swimming - Heats - Tokyo Stadium - Tokyo, Japan - August 6, 2021. General view inside Tokyo Stadium REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Modern Pentathlon - Women's Swimming - Heats - Tokyo Stadium - Tokyo, Japan - August 6, 2021. General view inside Tokyo Stadium REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“[Modern pentathlon] is on life support. The biggest thing that has been going for it is that the sport is supported by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. [the first vice-president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union]. He’s a very influential member of the IOC and the son of the former president Juan Antonio Samaranch... I think if his influence ever wanes or his support drops, I’m not sure it’s going to survive”.

All in all, the Tokyo Games have had no shortage of human interest stories, pandemic controversies and reflections of a changing Olympic movement. But when asked by Hula about what historians fifty years from now will write about Tokyo 2020, Mallon predicted that the sporting events themselves would stay in people’s memories just like with any other Olympics.

“I think [historians] will talk about the fact that it was held during a pandemic. However, I think with time, that will fade, and the athletic performances will be remembered a little bit more”, he concluded.

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