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Tokyo passes Olympic baton to Paris after imperfect, irrepressible games

Tokyo staged an Olympiad that was delayed by Covid and dismayed a skeptical public but still delivered its share of drama.
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TOKYO — Japan took its Olympic bow on Sunday.

Tokyo passed the baton to Paris after staging a Games that was delayed by Covid-19 and dismayed a skeptical public but nonetheless still delivered its share of memorable moments.

The fast-paced and tightly-scripted closing ceremony kicked off at 8 p.m. Tokyo time (7 a.m. ET) and, just like the opening ceremony, was a celebration of sports and Japan. It ended with the word "arigato," which is Japanese for "thank you," displayed on a giant screen as the athletes strolled off the field.

And all of it played out at the Tokyo Olympic stadium before an audience of mostly empty seats.

The rest of the world watched it at home, with the event streaming live on and rebroadcast on special coverage later in prime time on NBC.

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In the French capital, crowds gathered to celebrate the handover of the summer games to Paris 2024, dancing and celebrating at the foot of the Eiffel Tower while fighter planes trailing a tricolor of blue, white and red smoke swooped through the sky.

"I declare the games of the 32nd Olympiad closed," Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said as the world bid goodbye to a Games like no other.

"See you in Paris."

Image: Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony
French aerial patrols fly over the fan village in front of the Eiffel Tower during the Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony Sunday.Stephane de Sakutin / AFP - Getty Images

The ceremony began with one athlete from each participating country marching in with their flags. Once the athletes were assembled in a circle, the soundtrack quickly segued into a jazzy number during which those participants still remaining in Tokyo streamed out to take part in the ceremony, their faces covered in masks.

The upbeat extravaganza at one point featured The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra knocking out a dance version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" before the beating of the traditional taiko drum signaled the start of the celebration of Japan's unique and vibrant culture.

It capped two weeks of Olympic action that was watched by millions of people around the world but seen in person by a select few because of a pandemic that will stalk the host country long after the athletes have left.

Image: Closing Ceremony - Olympics: Day 16
Performers wave to the crowd during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Sunday.Adek Berry / AFP - Getty Images

It was an Olympics faced with unprecedented logistical challenges and domestic opposition, but also a stage for sporting glory mixed in with geopolitical intrigue, discussions over athletes' mental health and so much more.

The United States once again led the world with 113 medals as of Sunday morning, including 39 golds, ahead of China and the Russian Olympic Committee on both counts.

In a video message to the team posted on Twitter Saturday, President Joe Biden thanked the U.S. athletes "for showing what we can do together as one America and as one team."

"Beyond the medals and the results, you reminded us that we are stronger than we thought we were," Biden said.

Japan made the top five with 58 medals, nearly half of them gold, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Image: Closing Ceremony - Olympics: Day 16
Japanese Olympians carry the host nation's flag at the start of a parade of countries during the closing ceremony Sunday.Francois Nel / Getty Images

Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Games who had spent much of the Olympics fielding tough questions on the coronavirus and other controversies from skeptical reporters, did not try to hide his satisfaction at Friday's daily news briefing.

"It's important that athletes from every country perform their best, but also good to see athletes from the home soil doing well," he said.

They secured their most cherished medal of the lot early Saturday, shutting out the U.S. to win the baseball-mad country's first-ever gold in the sport.

Japan mounted the world’s biggest sporting celebration in the face of a plague that has infected more than 200 million people and killed 4.3 million around the world, and — propelled by the delta variant — began spreading through Tokyo at a record rate just as the Games were getting underway.

The Olympics may be at an end, but the Paralympics in Tokyo are still ahead. They kick off Aug. 24 and run through Sept. 5.

History will judge whether these Olympics were a success. But this much is clear:

These were the Games where gymnastics star Simone Biles took home a team silver medal, a bronze for the balance beam, and a golden legacy on and off the mat after she shocked the world by pulling out of some key events to focus on her mental health.

These were the Games when established stars Allyson Felix and Katie Ledecky added to their medal hauls and a constellation of new Olympics stars emerged, like swimmer Caeleb Dressel, surfer Carissa Moore, gymnast Suni Lee and runners Sydney McLaughlin and Molly Seidel.

The U.S. women's soccer team fell short in their pursuit of another gold medal, but veteran striker Alex Morgan — one of many stars of this golden generation who may have played in their last Olympics — told NBC News they're proud of their hard-earned hardware.

"We're really happy that we came away with a bronze medal," Morgan said.

The U.S. men's basketball team, led by Kevin Durant, defeated a formidable French squad to bring home a fourth straight Olympic gold and cement America's status as the world's pre-eminent basketball power.

Then the U.S. women's basketball team, led by Brittney Griner, defeated a scrappy Japanese team to secure America's seventh straight Olympic gold medal in this event.

Americans were also introduced to Olympic heroes from unlikely places, like Alaska teen Lydia Jacoby, who won gold in the women's 100-meter breaststroke and hails from a state with exactly one Olympic-size swimming pool — which she couldn’t train in for months because of Covid-19.

They cheered on the kids competing in the Olympics, like 15-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Grimes, and a litany of skateboarding teens, including Japan's 13-year-old champion Momiji Nishiya. They cheered on age-defying athletes, too, like U.S. women's basketball player Sue Bird, who is 40, equestrian rider Phillip Dutton, 57, and Uzbekistan's Oksana Chusovitina, who at age 46 is the oldest Olympic gymnast in history.

These were the Games where a Belarusian sprinter defied her country's authoritarian leader by criticizing her coaches, escaped the handlers trying to send her home at a Tokyo-area airport, and found sanctuary in Poland.

Other female athletes stood up — or took a knee — for Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and rebelled against having to compete in revealing outfits.

The Games opened to protests in Tokyo and broad opposition from the Japanese people, who feared an influx of athletes from abroad would worsen the Covid crisis at home, but who were nevertheless welcoming to the thousands of visitors in their midst.

There were Olympic displays of kindness and class — runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nigel Amos of Botswana helped each to their feet after they got tangled and fell during the 800-meter semifinals, while high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar embraced in delight as they agreed to share a gold medal.

Image: Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshi
Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy embraces fellow high jump gold medalist Mutaz Barshim of Qatar on Aug. 1.Matthias Schrader / AP

But there was also the Olympic meltdown of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic smashing his racket in frustration after he failed to medal and blew his chance of becoming the first man to win the Golden Slam — four Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Algerian judo competitor Fethi Nourine defied the Olympic ideal by withdrawing from competition rather than fight an Israeli. And in what could be an Olympic first, a coach with the German modern pentathlon team was kicked out of the Games for punching a horse that balked at jumping.

Just three weeks ago, the Tokyo Games appeared to be imploding.

Key members of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee were knocked out by scandal. Polls showed a solid majority of Japanese were still opposed to the Olympics. One of its biggest sponsors, Toyota Motor Corp., pulled its Japanese TV ads lest it be forever bound to an event that seemed certain to be tarnished. And then came the steady stream of reports that athletes were testing positive for Covid-19 and testing the assurances of Japan’s leaders that the Games would be “safe and secure.”

Image: Closing Ceremony - Olympics: Day 16
The Olympic cauldron is seen during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Sunday.Leon Neal / Getty Images

Olympics historian Jeremy Fuchs told NBC News at the time that “there’s never been an entirely happy Olympics” and that the Games have, at times, been overshadowed by contentious debates about human rights and politics, even excessive spending.

“But this much controversy I think is really unprecedented,” Fuchs said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an example in history where citizens of a host country are this unhappy.”

In an interview with NBC News on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted it was a struggle to sell the event to his people. But he said the Games would go on.

And they did.