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A Look Back At A Weird Summer Olympics

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's been an Olympics like no other. And earlier today, the epic event formally ended. More than 40,000 people flew into Japan in the midst of a pandemic for a global sports competition that always captures the world's attention. And this year was no exception. At its close, the U.S. leaves with the largest medal haul, 113, including 39 gold medals. And a majority of those were won by women. NPR's Leila Fadel joins us now from Tokyo to discuss what it's been like covering these unusual pandemic Olympics.

Hey, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So we just watched the closing ceremony. Tell us about that.

FADEL: Well, it was marked by the same subdued approach we saw during the opening ceremony of these games, with a nod to the circumstances they were held under, a pandemic. These athletes flew into Tokyo after years of training to compete against the best. And they gave us the drama that makes these games thrilling. What these athletes didn't get was an opportunity to see the incredible city that hosted these games because they were largely isolated from the rest of Tokyo to limit spread of the virus. So at the closing ceremony, organizers recreated a Tokyo park, where people did yoga, played soccer, danced and hung out like you would see on a Sunday afternoon in the city. And athletes had poured into the field to watch, celebrate and be celebrated for all that they accomplished over 17 days. There were far fewer athletes than in years past because after competitors finished their particular event, they had to leave within two days, again, because of COVID restrictions. So the ceremony was beautiful and bittersweet.

MCCAMMON: So, Leila, you've been inside the Olympic Village, in that bubble. What's it been like covering these unusual Olympics?

FADEL: Look; I've never covered an Olympic Games before, but they felt incredibly strange. And from speaking to people who are at these events every four years, these were the strangest games. They had a lot of nicknames - the lonely Olympics, the anger Olympics, the pandemic Olympics. They were defined by the largely empty stadiums where athletes were doing incredible things - breaking world records, shocking the world by winning as the underdog, or becoming the first to take home a medal for their country or their community.

Who can forget American freestyle wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who was giddy with joy, sobbing and wrapped in the American flag after her win in wrestling - a gold medal - the first Black American woman ever to win a gold in wrestling, the second U.S. woman ever. She's going to use the cash she gets for winning to buy her mom a food truck. And there were so many other incredible moments, too many to mention in the time we have.

MCCAMMON: But it must have also been pretty surreal covering this Olympics.

FADEL: Yeah, there's no better word, Sarah, than surreal. Imagine, I was walking into competition venues, and I was one of dozens of people who got to watch the best athletes in the world go up against each other in person. During soccer games in these venues that are built for thousands, I could hear every whistle, every kick, the chatter of the players, usually drowned out by the roar of fans. One Japanese judo competitor described the intimacy of his win without fans. The only sound he heard during the match was the breath of his opponent.

MCCAMMON: Wow. So that is what it's been like inside the Olympic bubble, Leila. What about outside?

FADEL: Well, it's a question I can only partially answer. The first three days, our reporting team was on full lockdown due to COVID restrictions, again, to try and keep people safe. This is a city under a state of emergency. For the next 11 days, we were under soft quarantine, meaning we could only use Olympic transportation to get between venues - no public transportation, no wandering the city, no getting a sense of how Tokyo residents felt about the games.

There were scattered protests throughout by demonstrators, angry at the risk the government was taking. And when I finally was out interviewing people, I found gaggles outside venues waiting for a glimpse of athletes, wanting to show support for the performances they saw on television - basically, a lot of people feeling torn, wanting to be inside these venues, wanting visitors to see their beautiful city but also wanting to be safe.

MCCAMMON: That was NPR's Leila Fadel reporting from Tokyo. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: You're welcome, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.