Tokyo 2020 must deliver on opening ceremony message of solidarity and unity

By Sports Desk July 23, 2021

If an Olympics takes place but no one is allowed to watch it, does it actually take place?

Okay, perhaps not the best philosophical opener – especially given billions around the world will be tuning into Tokyo 2020 on their televisions, and approximately 1,000 dignitaries and delegates were in attendance for Friday's opening ceremony in Tokyo.

But the fact remains these Games, postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, are the Olympics that many did not want.

A Games like no other this may be, but certainly not for any celebratory reasons. There has been little clamour or fanfare in Japan for an event many in the country fear could act as a COVID-19 superspreader with athletes, coaches, officials and media flocking to the capital in their droves.

Right now, the usually blindingly bright streets of Tokyo should be flocked with international fans exploring this beautiful city, finding their bearings and preparing for the grandest sporting show on earth.

Of course, the reality could scarcely be different. Domestic spectators are not allowed into Tokyo venues let alone those wishing to travel from around the globe, while athletes are protected in bubbles, shipped from venue to venue to try and limit infections in a city still under a state of emergency imposed on July 12.

Yet, here we are. Faster, higher, stronger and now – thanks to an addition to the Olympics' well-known slogan – together. The Games have, belatedly, begun.

And with them is a feeling the world is on tenterhooks. It feels especially crucial that the next fortnight run without major incident, to unite, to inspire and to bring much-needed hope amid a world ravaged by a deadly pandemic.

Reminders of what we've all been through were constant throughout an opening ceremony that mixed poignancy with a memorable demonstration of Japanese culture.

A beautiful sequence early in proceedings showcased a runner on the treadmill and a rower on the machine, depicting the way athletes had to train in solitary conditions during the height of lockdowns, adapting like everyone else to the restrictions imposed on all our lives – while the movement of dancers represented the advancements in technology enabling us all to stay connected.

There was an emotional moment of silence and a period of reflection for the hardship and loss experienced for over a year and a half, not to mention the fact that representatives of each of the over 200 nations and IOC Refugee Olympic Team were all wearing facemasks.

But there was a message of hope too, and a belief these Games can offer an example of how to move forward and unite a world divided by COVID-19.

IOC president Thomas Bach was as defiant as ever as he preached a message of solidarity during his address.

"We are standing in solidarity to make the Olympic Games happen, and to enable all of you dear athletes, and from all sports to take part in the Olympic games," he said. 

"This solidarity fuels our ambitions to make the world a better place through sport. Only through solidarity can we be here tonight. Without solidarity there is no peace.

"This feeling of togetherness this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel, the pandemic forced us apart, to keep our distance from each other, to stay away even from our loved ones. This separation made this tunnel so dark."

How we all so desperately want that last message to be true. How we all truly buy into Tokyo 2020's key concepts of moving forward, united by emotion, and for a more diverse future.

And it was easy to get caught up in the belief this can be achieved. Not least because – even in lieu of the usual roar that would meet their arrival – of the obvious joy for the hordes of athletes as they made their way across Tokyo's Olympic Stadium ready to fulfil a delayed dream, ready finally to perform in front of the world for a golden prize after years of gruelling graft and sacrifices in a quest to perform at the pinnacle of sport.

There was kabuki dancing, immense choreography, sparkling fireworks and glorious illuminations lit up by 1,824 drones. Many even braved the stifling heat and humidity to try and sneak a look inside the stadium in perhaps a sign that the stance towards the Games has softened.

But amid the hope came a stark reality. Reports that protestors could be heard chanting angrily from those inside the stadium offered a blunt reminder that there is significant opposition to these Games taking place.

Bach's dream of unity and solidarity is one we can all share. But make no mistake, this is a Games like no other and Tokyo 2020 must deliver on its promise.

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    Football might not be the first thing that springs to mind if you were to think of Finland.

    Long winter nights, saunas, Lapland, reindeer. A quick google search highlights telecommunications company Nokia as its most famous exporter, and that it is renowned for being "the happiest country in the world" with the best education system and cleanest air… oh, and the hotel where this reporter has been staying boasts "the best tap water in the world", too.

    Little mention of football, though. After all, ice hockey is the prominent sport here.

    Finland qualified for Euro 2020, but their sole win in the competition was overshadowed by the fact it came in a game in which Denmark's Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch in Copenhagen, having suffered a cardiac arrest. It was the nation's first appearance at a major international tournament.

    Not that there haven't been some notable Finnish players down the years. Jari Litmanen played for Ajax, Liverpool and Barcelona throughout a long career. Sami Hyypia spent a decade at Anfield from 1999 to 2009, while Jussi Jaaskelainen played in the Premier League for 18 years over spells with Bolton Wanderers and West Ham. Laura Osterberg-Kalmari was nominated for FIFA Women's Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006.

    More recently, Teemu Pukki has impressed with Norwich and Lukas Hradecky has been one of the most consistent goalkeepers in the Bundesliga across recent seasons.

    Hradecky, now at Bayer Leverkusen, made his name at Eintracht Frankfurt, and it is the German side – Europa League winners last season – who have travelled across the Baltic Sea to take on the might of Champions League holders Real Madrid in the Super Cup.

    Litmanen, Osterberg-Kalmari and Jaaskelainen were all guests at UEFA's fan park on Tuesday, a day ahead of the match at the 36,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.

    The Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup trophies were on show, though outside the fan park it would have been easy to miss that there was a major European match heading to the city. Indeed, on the opposite side of Helsinki’s grand central train station to UEFA's festivities, a music and arts festival was drawing a much larger crowd.

    That will surely change on Wednesday.

    Madrid are expected to bring approximately 1,800 fans. Meanwhile, 10,000 are anticipated to be arriving in support of Eintracht. 

    The signs were there even as Stats Perform arrived in Helsinki on Monday, with pockets of Eintracht supporters travelling into the city. A day later, the fan park was mostly populated by local football fans enjoying the rare occasion of such a major sporting event – involving one of the world's biggest clubs – coming to their city.

    Helsinki's centre will likely be a hub for Eintracht's travelling masses, and even as Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti ran the rule over his side in an opening training session on Tuesday, fans of the German team were making their presence heard outside the ground as the team coach departed.

    It's nothing new, though. Barcelona coach Xavi was left furious last season after 30,000 visiting Eintracht fans were said to have managed to gain entry to Camp Nou to watch their team sensationally knock out Barcelona in the Europa League quarter-finals. For the final against Rangers, held in Seville, authorities estimated that 50,000 Eintracht supporters made their way to the Andalusian city.

    "They played a big role, if I remember the game in Barca, 30,000, something special and it helped us a lot to perform at this level. They're not here to sightsee, they're here to support us because they believe in us," said goalkeeper Kevin Trapp in Eintracht's pre-match news conference.

    "Tomorrow will be the same, we know there’s going to be 10,000 again. We try to give our best and be able to celebrate again. It's a huge part of this club, this team, it's helping us every time."

    Eintracht might have the more raucous travelling support, but any local neutrals are likely to be in attendance to watch the stars of Madrid. Ancelotti, asked about his brief experience of Finland so far, compared the country to Canada, the home of his wife, and in training his team looked sharp as they put on a show for the assorted media and a small group of fans soaking in the late evening sun.

    Karim Benzema and Luka Modric accompanied Ancelotti in Madrid's media conference, just two of the superstars set to line up in all-white on Wednesday. Ancelotti, as amiable and as composed as ever, confirmed both players would start – unless they had any objections. His team are just rounding off their pre-season, and there were some signs of players still shaking off some rustiness in the finishing drills that ended their practice session.

    Eintracht opened their Bundesliga campaign with a 6-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich, and head coach Oliver Glasner knows that, even if his side are underdogs, they cannot show such naivety against the 14-time European champions. With key player Filip Kostic absent to complete a move to Juventus, Eintracht must avoid another humiliation, even if it is an outstanding achievement to have reached this showpiece in the first place.

    As for Helsinki, it might be a far cry from the football hotbeds of Paris, London, Milan, Munich or Madrid, but those cities have their fair share of big matches already. The welcome has been warm, the weather perfect and the stadium – constructed in the 1930s but recently renovated – an ideal venue.

    Interviewed after his appearance at the fan park, Litmanen told Stats Perform: "It's very important for us to have this kind of game because we don't see these things very often. We cannot get the Champions League final we haven't been in the World Cup or the European championships. This is a big game for Finland."

    Now it's time to enjoy the show.

  • Serena to retire: The remarkable stats, facts and figures that highlight Williams' legacy Serena to retire: The remarkable stats, facts and figures that highlight Williams' legacy

    Serena Williams' long and illustrious tennis career is drawing to a close after the American confirmed on Tuesday that the countdown has begun.

    Following a long piece in Vogue, Williams wrote of her plan to "move in a different direction" after "these next few weeks", suggesting the US Open – which begins in late August – will be her last outing.

    Thanks to her success and brilliance on the court, Williams has become synonymous with tennis and is regarded by many as the greatest the women's sport has ever seen.

    Yet, her seemingly imminent retirement cannot be seen as a shock. At the age of 40, Williams has persisted with tennis far longer than most do, and that is testament to her quality and enduring desire for success.

    With Williams now reaching the end, Stats Perform takes a look at the key facts, stats and figures of her career; in other words, Serena's remarkable legacy.

    Twenty-three… and counting?

    Of course, the headline fact for Williams' career is her grand slam titles count.

    She has won 23, which is more than anyone else in the Open era.

    But she's still got one target left: matching Margaret Court. The Australian's 24 grand slam successes include nine won before the Open era began in 1968, though her overall total has been the benchmark ever since she claimed her final crown at the US Open in 1975.

    Clearly, victory for Williams at Flushing Meadows would be the perfect farewell.

     

    The finals hurdle

    Even if Williams only reaches the championship match next month, she'll still be equalling a different record.

    Assuming she does compete in Queens, Williams heads into the US Open having played in 33 grand slam finals, one more than Martina Navratilova.

    But Chris Evert (34) sits out in front, and that record will remain hers for many, many years if Williams cannot reach the finale at Flushing Meadows.

    Top of the pile

    It's been a while now since Williams was last the highest-ranked player in the world, but in a way that only further highlights how remarkable her career has been.

    She's spent 319 weeks ranked as world number one, which is behind only Steffi Graf (377) and Navratilova (332).

    While many might have expected Williams to have been top of the pile for even longer, it's worth remembering how she's spent time out due to injuries and pregnancy, with her general involvement in top-level tennis decreasing after 2014 when she played 16 tournaments – in 2016 that halved to eight, and during no year since has she played in more.

    Additionally, some will also be surprised to learn she actually only finished the year as the top-ranked female player five times. Nevertheless, that's still third to only Graf (eight) and Navratilova (seven).

    Go hard or go home

    Such has been Williams' quality, she was always considered a threat regardless of the surface – she's won each grand slam at least three times.

    But there's no denying she was at her most lethal on hard courts.

    She has won 48 WTA Tour-level titles on hard courts, which is 11 more than anyone else (Graf) in the Open era.

    Those 48 come from a grand total of 73 across all surfaces, leaving her ranked fifth behind Navratilova (167), Evert (157), Graf (107) and Court (92).

     

    Surface to say…

    Williams' comfort on hard courts goes even further than that.

    She's won 539 matches on the surface, making her one of just two female players to surpass 500 victories on one specific ground type.

    Navratilova (600 on carpet) is the only other player to achieve the feat, with Serena's sister Venus (498 on hard) the closest to the 23-time grand slam champion.

    The grass is greener

    Despite that unrivalled excellence, hard courts may not be the surface many feel to be most synonymous with Williams, however.

    Wimbledon is the tournament that would appear to be her favourite.

    She's reached the final at SW19 11 times. Only Navratilova can better that record for the most finals at one tournament – though it's worth saying she contested the WTA Finals and Chicago 14 times each, Eastbourne 13 times and 12 at Wimbledon.

  • Haaland, Shevchenko, Morata and Barthez – how the Premier League's 90-point teams invested Haaland, Shevchenko, Morata and Barthez – how the Premier League's 90-point teams invested

    From a false nine to a true nine, Manchester City will roll out Erling Haaland as last season's Premier League champions show off their marquee addition.

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    The 90-point mark is widely seen as a benchmark for a team's greatness, but managers always see room for improvement.

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    100 POINTS

    Manchester City are the only team in Premier League history to hit the 100-point mark, doing so in 2017-18, and they offloaded former kingpins Joe Hart and Yaya Toure at the end of that campaign, making just one big investment by signing Riyad Mahrez (£60million) from Leicester City.

    Already a Premier League title winner with the Foxes, the Algerian winger has added three more league medals in Manchester, including one in his first season.

    99 POINTS

    Liverpool denied City a hat-trick of consecutive titles by triumphing in the coronavirus-interrupted 2019-20 championship, finishing 18 points clear of Pep Guardiola's team. The Reds then spent the thick end of £75million to acquire Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich, Diogo Jota from Wolves and Kostas Tsimikas from Olympiacos.

    They recouped around half of that by selling Dejan Lovren, Ki-Jana Hoever and Rhian Brewster, before finishing with 30 fewer points in the following campaign.

    98 POINTS

    City's encore to their ton-up season was made remarkable by the fact Liverpool were hot on their heels, finishing just one point back. This 2018-19 title-winning effort by City was followed by captain Vincent Kompany taking flight for Anderlecht, while Danilo, Eliaquim Mangala, Fabian Delph and Douglas Luiz also said goodbye.

    Guardiola invested wisely as Rodri (£62.8m from Atletico Madrid) and Joao Cancelo (£60million from Juventus) arrived. Both became staple members of the City side, but their first season on Premier League duty, as Liverpool romped to glory in front of empty stadiums, was probably best forgotten.

    97 POINTS

    Liverpool must have wondered what it would take to topple City after the seismic 2018-19 campaign, although the Reds' Champions League win showed they were firmly on the right track. This 97-point haul is the highest total any Premier League runner-up has secured.

    Jurgen Klopp decided no big adjustments were required, investing in Takumi Minamino from Salzburg (£7.25m) and Harvey Elliott from Fulham (£1.5m, rising to £4.3m). He had done his serious spending the previous year, securing Naby Keita, Fabinho and Alisson.

    95 POINTS

    When big-spending Chelsea landed a then-record 95 points in the 2004-05 campaign, the response from the Blues, in the headiest phase of the Roman Abramovich era, was to splash more cash.

    Shaun Wright-Phillips (£21m) and Michael Essien (£24.4m) were newcomers as Jose Mourinho evicted Mikael Forssell, Scott Parker, Mateja Kezman and Tiago. The result of that trading? A second consecutive title as the Premier League points mercury rose up into the 90s again.

    93 POINTS

    Two teams have had 93-point seasons: Chelsea in 2016-17 and Manchester City in 2021-22. Chelsea's post-season dealings were especially notable for captain John Terry moving on to Aston Villa. The club cashed in as Juan Cuadrado went to Juventus, Nathan Ake and Asmir Begovic left for Bournemouth and Nemanja Matic joined Manchester United. They acquired Antonio Rudiger (£31m), Tiemoue Bakayoko (£40m), Alvaro Morata (£60m), Davide Zappacosta (£23m) and Danny Drinkwater (£35m). The spree didn't help much, though. Chelsea trailed in fifth in 2017-18, Antonio Conte sacked despite an FA Cup win.

    City made Haaland their priority this year but also added England midfielder Kalvin Phillips (£42m) and goalkeeper Stefan Ortega (free), while Julian Alvarez (£14m) arrived after being signed in January. Fernandinho, Gabriel Jesus, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Raheem Sterling left.

    92 POINTS

    Manchester United were the first Premier League side to top 90 points, in 1993-94, albeit in a 42-game competition. After that title, United's second in succession, Bryan Robson left to become player-boss at Middlesbrough and David May (£1.4m) was bought from Blackburn Rovers. United went chasing a hat-trick of titles in the subsequent season but found big-spending Blackburn too strong. The record £7million arrival of Andy Cole midway through the campaign could not rescue Alex Ferguson's side, who tallied 88 points, one fewer than the champions.

    Liverpool's 92-point season came last time out. It remains to be seen how Nunez (£64m) copes with the Premier League spotlight. Among a string of departures was Sadio Mane, who left for Bayern Munich. Mane scored 90 goals in 196 Premier League games with Liverpool.

    91 POINTS

    Manchester United followed their treble campaign with a 91-point haul in 1999-2000, before signing up France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez (£7.8m). They tallied 80 points in 2000-01, enough to finish 10 clear of second-placed Arsenal.

    With Wright-Phillips and Essien on board, Chelsea notched 91 points in 2005-06. At the end of that season, the Blues swooped for Michael Ballack (free), Andriy Shevchenko (£30m), Arsenal's Ashley Cole (£5m, plus William Gallas) and John Obi Mikel (£16m). They were second best to Manchester United in the following season's Premier League, but enjoyed FA Cup and EFL Cup wins.

    90 POINTS

    Two teams have scraped the 90-point mark, Arsenal doing so in their 'Invincibles' season of 2003-04, with 26 wins and 12 draws. They signed young Dutchman Robin van Persie (£2.75m) towards the end of that campaign and he arrived in the summer. Newcomer Mourinho led Chelsea to the following year's title, with Arsenal runners-up.

    Manchester United got to 90 in 2008-09 – Cristiano Ronaldo's last season before his £80million Real Madrid switch. Manager Ferguson then brought in Antonio Valencia (£16m), Michael Owen (free), Gabriel Obertan (£3m) and Mame Biram Diouf (£4million), with Valencia the only one to become a regular. With Ronaldo gone, Chelsea edged out United by a point for the following year's title.

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