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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    'It's too early to talk about the MVP!', you might think when the NFL's most prestigious individual award is brought up in discussion in September.  

    On the surface, that is reasonable logic three weeks into an extended 17-week season. There are many twists and turns to come that will ultimately decide the identity of this year's Most Valuable Player.  

    Yet the reality is that talk of who is most deserving of the game's top solo prize plays a critical role in forming the narrative of a season.  

    Conversation over which quarterback – sorry, Aaron Donald – is most deserving of the award at certain points of the campaign and what impressive performance does for a player's hopes consistently captures attention and creates heated debate, regardless of whether we think such talk is premature.  

    By the end of last year, Aaron Rodgers had rendered any suggestion of alternative candidates pointless with a stunning 2020 season for the Green Bay Packers.  

    While Rodgers did his prospects of retaining the award no harm by making 37 seconds seem like an eternity in the Packers' last-gasp win over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, the opening stages of the season suggest he will have intense competition.  

    And perhaps his biggest threat plays his home games several hours south of Levi's Stadium, where Rodgers unsurprisingly was the leading man in the theatre the Packers and Niners produced in primetime.  

    Indeed, long before Mason Crosby was sending a 51-yard field goal into the Northern California night to settle a fierce NFC battle, Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers took a similarly dramatic AFC contest off the leg of their kicker, with Brandon Staley's faith in Herbert and the passing game rewarded with a win that alters the complexion of the playoff race.  

    Herbert's four-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams, the second time in the game he hooked up with the former Clemson star, sealed a 30-24 win over the Kansas City Chiefs that solidified the Chargers' status as a threat to the two-time defending AFC champions, who dropped to a losing record for the first time since 2015.  

    It was just reward for a display in which Herbert furthered his MVP credentials, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year outshining Patrick Mahomes on a day where the man most regard as the game's most talented and most explosive quarterback made history. 

    Herbert joins exclusive club

    By throwing for 260 passing yards, Mahomes took his career tally to 15,092, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to reach 15,000 in 50 games or fewer, doing so in his 49th appearance. 

    Herbert is not quite on the same pace, averaging 294 passing yards a game through the 18 he has played so far in his still embryonic career. Last year's sixth overall pick is on track to reach 15,000 in 51 games. 

    But he outshone the 2018 MVP in Week 3, finishing with 281 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions while Mahomes threw for three scores but with two picks, including one with the game tied that set the Chargers up to go for the game-winning score. 

    His performance saw Herbert become the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to record five games with at least three touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his first two seasons. 

    Herbert joins Lamar Jackson (six), Dan Marino (six), Mahomes (five) and Dak Prescott (five) on that list. Three of the other four members of that exclusive club have all won the MVP. 

    Fourth in passing yards with 956 but 17th in yards per attempt (7.59), tied-10th in touchdowns (six) and 18th in passer rating (97.9), the raw numbers do not fully support the argument that Herbert is a candidate to join Jackson, Marino and Mahomes this season. 

    However, an understanding of why Herbert deserves to be firmly in the mix through three games requires a deeper look at his statistics and an examination of the high-level throws he is making look ridiculously routine.

    Unerring accuracy

    Herbert finished Week 3 with a well-thrown ball percentage of 91.7. Only one quarterback, Kirk Cousins (91.9), to attempt more than one pass was superior in that regard going into Monday Night Football. 

    He did much of his best work when under pressure too, delivering a perfectly thrown jump pass to Keenan Allen for Los Angeles' opening touchdown with defensive tackle Khalen Saunders in his face, and putting a pass down the right sideline to where only Williams could get it, the duo connecting for the first of two fourth-quarter scores despite Chris Jones screaming off the edge. 

    More exquisite placement came on the decisive drive, Herbert finding Williams on a lofted back-shoulder throw to put the Chargers close, a pass he delivered with his weight falling away from it. He then hit the same receiver for the game-winner. 

    Those plays will be the ones most remember from Herbert's contribution to an engrossing encounter that ended with a failed Hail Mary from Mahomes, the Chargers having inexplicably left him with over half a minute to produce a reply. 

    Yet just as impressive from Herbert were the plays that came up short, including a second-quarter missile from his own 45-yard line - one he uncorked after escaping pressure and rolling left - which was broken up in the endzone to prevent Jalen Guyton hauling in a spectacular touchdown, but that incompletion served as yet more evidence of Herbert's near-boundless ceiling. 

    The first three games of the year have seen Herbert consistently demonstrate that upside. His well-throw percentage of 84.4 is fifth in the NFL to attempt multiple passes, with Kyler Murray (84.5) the only player to have averaged seven or more air yards standing above him on the list. 

    While Murray provides a greater running threat than Herbert, the Chargers' signal-caller has done a superior job of taking care of the ball. He has thrown an interceptable ball on 2.46 per cent of passes, compared to 4.12 per cent for Murray. 

    Though Murray has one more win than Herbert this season, he does not yet have the signature moment the former Oregon man produced at Arrowhead. 

    Kyler playing catch up

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    Herbert enters Week 4 in a position of which few quarterbacks have experience, having gone blow for blow with Mahomes and come out on top. 

    If he maintains the level that saw him achieve that feat, Herbert will have an excellent shot of replicating Mahomes and Jackson in winning the MVP in his second season.

  • Man City nearly impenetrable, Man Utd issues masked by penalty miss, bad omens for Nuno – the Premier League weekend's quirky facts Man City nearly impenetrable, Man Utd issues masked by penalty miss, bad omens for Nuno – the Premier League weekend's quirky facts

    Manchester City made something of a statement in their 1-0 win over potential title challengers Chelsea on Saturday, whereas Manchester United seemed to take another step back as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's reign stuttered again.

    But Solskjaer is certainly not the only top-flight manager feeling the heat – Nuno Espirito Santo's honeymoon period as Tottenham boss is well and truly over, with the Portuguese now among the favourites to be the first Premier League boss sacked this season following a 3-1 defeat in the north London derby.

    Without any further ado, here are some of the more curious facts and stats from across the Premier League this past weekend…

    City defence putting the 'guard' in Guardiola

    It may not have been the thrill ride neutrals were likely hoping for, but City's 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge was another impressive indicator of just how good Pep Guardiola's team is as a unit.

    Of course, they won the Premier League only a few months ago, so saying City are "good" probably won't cut it for analysis – but what is really making people sit up and take note at the moment is how their unity and cohesion is translating into defensive solidity.

    City have conceded just one goal in their six Premier League games this term, the fewest they've ever shipped at this stage of any league campaign.

    Let's not forget that Chelsea had been widely praised for their own start to 2021-22, yet on Saturday they were prevented from having a single shot on target in a home league game since November 2012, which coincidentally was also against City.

    But even more impressive from City's perspective was the fact Chelsea's expected goals (xG) value was just 0.2, the worst they've recorded in a home Premier League game since Opta records began in 2008-09.

    While Chelsea fans will understandably be frustrated, it would seem their struggles on Saturday were more down to City being in a groove defensively.

    They've only faced six shots on target this season, a record no Premier League has bettered over the first six matches in a campaign since at least 2003-04. If they keep this up, the title will surely be staying at the Etihad Stadium.

    Fernandes' penalty miss not Man Utd's big issue

    It was another day to forget for United on Saturday as they lost 1-0 at home to Aston Villa.

    They were presented with a great opportunity to equalise in second-half stoppage time, but Bruno Fernandes sent his penalty over the crossbar.

    Much of the focus afterwards was on Fernandes and his miss, though it would be unfair to pin the blame on him – after all, of the 23 spot-kicks he has taken since his United debut, he's only failed to convert two.

    In the same time period, Cristiano Ronaldo – seemingly Fernandes' main penalty rival now – has taken 22 and missed four. This is not a problem that United need to dwell on much.

    Instead, they'd be wise to look into their glaring tactical inefficiencies, with Solskjaer's team sorely lacking identity, cohesion and a defined playing style. Too often they are bailed out by moments of individual brilliance, which is an unsustainable approach to solely rely on in a title challenge.

    Against Villa, those instances of individual excellence never arrived, despite United mustering 28 shots. That was the most efforts attempted by United without scoring in a home league game since October 2016 (38 shots in 0-0 draw with Burnley).

    They have now conceded in each of their past eight league games at Old Trafford, their worst such run in 49 years, and lost three successive home matches (all competitions) for the first time since 1962.

    Norwich set new benchmark for worst start

    With every match that passes, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to become ever dimmer for Norwich City.

    A 2-0 defeat at Everton on Saturday leaves Norwich pointless and with a -14 goal difference after six matches – that makes their start to the season the worst after six matches in Premier League history.

    Only twice before had a Premier League side begun a campaign without a single point from six games, the last of which was Frank de Boer's infamous Crystal Palace team in 2017-18 – the Dutchman was sacked after the fourth match in that sequence.

    Norwich have at least been a little more patient than Palace, with Daniel Farke's record of overseeing two promotions seemingly ensuring he retains some good will at the club, even if he now has the highest loss percentage (75 per cent, 33/44) of any manager to take charge of at least 20 games in the Premier League.

    Most would already consider Norwich to be doomed for relegation, though perhaps there is some reason for optimism.

    There have only been nine teams to start a top-flight season (prior to 2021-22) with six or more successive losses, but four of them – including Palace – have avoided relegation.

    Vardy joins exclusive club

    Jamie Vardy ended up having a peculiar day when Leicester City drew 2-2 with Burnley on Saturday, the former England striker scoring three of the four goals.

    It was his own goal that gave Burnley an early lead, while he also got both Leicester equalisers, including one late in the day.

    That was his first own goal ever in 360 appearances for Leicester, while he became the first player to net at both ends for the club in a single Premier League game.

    It's happened to some of the best, though. He joins an illustrious list containing 11 others who have scored at least 100 goals but also put past their own goalkeeper, with Harry Kane, Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney among them.

    On top of that, Vardy is now only one of five players in Premier League history to score at least twice at the right end and an own goal in the same game after John Barnes (Liverpool v Spurs 1995), Niall Quinn (Sunderland v Charlton Athletic 2001), Rooney (Man Utd v Stoke City 2012) and Tammy Abraham (Chelsea v Wolves 2019).

    But he is still doing more than his fair share at the other end, his brace in this game taking him to eight goal involvements in his past seven league games, which is 89 per cent (8/9) of Leicester's goals in that time.

    Bad omens stacking up for Nuno

    After three wins from his first three Premier League games in charge, everything was looking rather rosy for Tottenham boss Nuno.

    Three matches and three defeats later, some will doubt whether he'll still be in charge this time next month, let alone this time next season.

    Sunday's north London derby was his 10th in charge of Spurs and the 3-1 loss made him the first manager to lose as many as four of his first 10 matches at the helm of the club since Glenn Hoddle in 2001.

    Hoddle was also the last Spurs boss to conceded at least three goals in three consecutive league games in September 2003, and he was sacked after that run.

    Nuno will probably make it to the next match but the last team to begin a season with three wins and then lost the next three (Everton, 1993-94) finish as low down as 17th.

    His future arguably rests on getting something out of Kane, who's failed to score in five straight league games for the first time since August 2016, but things aren't looking great given Spurs' 35 open-play shots is the second fewest in the division and their expected goals (xG) total is just 3.2, only higher than three teams.

    While a lack of quality chances might usually be masked by Kane's excellence, he's not bailing them out any longer – if that continues, it's difficult to see Nuno keeping his job for the long term.

  • Arsenal aristocrats savour the sinking of Spurs on dream derby day for Arteta Arsenal aristocrats savour the sinking of Spurs on dream derby day for Arteta

    It made Thierry Henry and Tony Adams happy, and Mikel Arteta on the touchline was so excited by it all that he probably expended more energy than the Tottenham midfield.

    So bravo Arsenal, bravo. A 3-1 win – their 600th in the Premier League – over Tottenham looks great on paper and proved rather fetching on grass, too, the Gunners picking off their north London neighbours at will, particularly in an embarrassingly one-sided first half.

    But in essence, this was all about keeping up with the Joneses. Any significance from a sunny Sunday afternoon's Emirates Stadium stroll can only be gauged by what Arsenal, and indeed Spurs, do next.

    Successive 1-0 wins over Norwich City and Burnley kept the wolves from Arteta's door after Arsenal's slow start to the Premier League season, and this derby success was received like they used to savour championships in these parts.

    Of course, there is a temptation to look at this result without a dispassionate perspective, to rave about Emile Smith Rowe, who was excellent, and Bukayo Saka, whose season perhaps starts now. The young English pair both scored and both had an assist, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang played like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rather than an imposter.

    Record scorer Henry, sitting in the stand alongside Spotify billionaire Daniel Ek, was all smiles and giggles, while former skipper Adams, in the Sky Sports studio, gushed about "a wonderful, wonderful first-half display". The Gunners gentry were grinning, dreaming it might be the start of something.

    "I'm excited guys, I'm excited," Adams said, almost apologetically. "I was absolutely delighted the kids took the game to Tottenham."

    Even Gary Neville said Arsenal had been "fantastic", and in many ways they were.


    SPURS TAKE A HIDING

    Smith Rowe wandered untracked into the heart of the Spurs penalty area to drive home Saka's low centre for the 12th-minute opener; then Aubameyang put the finishing touch to a glorious Arsenal counter-attack, Tierney to Aubameyang, on to the galloping Smith Rowe with a delicious flick, then back to Aubameyang for an unstoppable finish into the far right corner.

    Tottenham were torn apart again in the 34th minute as Saka bundled his way through a desperate Spurs defence before driving a shot across Lloris.

    Harry Kane had given the ball away at the other end of the pitch and dashed back to try to make amends, only to nudge Saka's attempted pass handily back into the path of his England colleague, who pounced on the chance.

    Smith Rowe, at 21 years and 60 days, firstly became the youngest player to score and assist in a Premier League north London derby since Cesc Fabregas in September 2007.

    Then Saka took that record outright from Fabregas, 21 days after his 20th birthday. Saka is also the youngest Englishman to score a league goal for Arsenal against Spurs since a 19-year-old Stewart Robson at Highbury in April 1984.

    Son Heung-min got Spurs a goal in the 79th minute, ending their 307-minute goalless run, and Lucas Moura hit the bar in stoppage time, but this was a hiding for the visitors.

    "They weren't competitive in any shape or form," said Graeme Souness, incandescent.

    "Arsenal would wish they could play against a team like Spurs were in the first 45 minutes every week. Spurs were so poor."


    KANE DRAWS A BLANK AGAIN

    Kane went for a Hail Mary shot from 28 yards and the Arsenal crowd gleefully jeered as the ball cleared the bar by several yards. The England captain then headed wide from a corner and another roar went up.

    Aaron Ramsdale pushed aside a Kane shot that may have been drifting wide as Spurs showed more spark after the break, before the Tottenham talisman scooped a shot wide after running in behind the Arsenal defence for the first time.

    He cannot buy a Premier League goal this season. Five games in and he has yet to get off the mark, but at least he had five attempts here, more than doubling his tally for the campaign. It was 2016 when he last went on a five-game goalless streak.

    Aubameyang answered his own critics in style and has now scored in all three of his home Premier League games against Spurs, but Kane only fuelled the arguments of those questioning his performance this season. Dele Alli was hauled off after 45 wasted minutes, with Sky pundit Neville saying: "He needs to sort himself out."


    SPURS NEED TO CHANGE THEIR TUNE

    Spurs have conceded three goals in three consecutive Premier League games for the first time since September 2003, and after the derby dismay against Crystal Palace and Chelsea, here was another savage reminder of their shortcomings.

    They are only the second team in Premier League history to win their first three games of a season and then lose the next three, following the Everton team of 1993-94 who finished in 17th place.

    So for one day at least, we might say Tottenham are in dire trouble and the future looks bright for Arsenal, despite them sitting alongside one another in mid-table.

    And, of course, the CEO of Spotify fancies Arsenal. He loved the 80s mix, the 90s mix and the 2000s mix, and senses the 2020s mix could have a rocking soundtrack too, bouncing to the beat of Saka, Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard.

    Tottenham, for now it seems, are lacking punk, lacking soul, stuck on a sad-song, life-sucks loop.

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