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Athletes put through the Olympic wringer

Their struggles with the unbearable pressure of expectations will be the Tokyo Games’ legacy.

Simone Biles competes in the women’s balance beam final Aug. 3 in Tokyo.
Simone Biles competes in the women’s balance beam final Aug. 3 in Tokyo.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Tokyo Olympics ended Sunday not with a bang but a muted sigh and a symbolic tear.

Every modern Olympics has been a reflection of the world around them at the moment of competition. And this one — in the time of COVID, global warming and the rise of multiple demagogues — is no different.

Going back to Games of yore is like viewing a snapshot of global history in the making.

The 1936 Games heralded the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

The 1972 Munich Olympics brought terrorism to the forefront.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were a salute to the global power of corporations and moneyed sponsorships. And then came the bomb in Olympic Park.

There were no Olympic Games at all in 1916, 1940 and 1944 because of world wars.

So what will we think of these 2020 Olympics held in 2021?

Not much, I’m afraid.

First off, they were supposed to be held a year ago but could not be because of the untamed pandemic, a pandemic that is far from gone. Indeed, Japan’s cases surged during the Games, a number of athletes were forced out because of COVID and most Japanese citizens didn’t want the Olympics from the start.

Gold medals presented in empty stadiums to masked athletes in near silence are the stuff not of massed celebration but of fear and isolation, fueling visions of an even more nightmarish future.

China hosts the Winter Games in six months, and what that virtually closed country is planning would stun Orwell himself.

According to the New York Times, Chinese guards will wear biohazard suits and prevent anyone from leaving venues, passageways will be divided lengthwise and athletes will be interviewed behind plastic walls via microphone and will wear armpit thermometers to sound an alarm if they get a fever.

“Authorities intend to wall off China’s 1.4 billion people from essentially all athletes, judges, drivers, guides, journalists and others associated with the event,’’ the paper stated.

This is the big hug felt around the world?

And there was Tokyo’s grand closing ceremony, held in front of almost no one. Athletes themselves seemed irrelevant. No tourists, no fans, no discernible joy.

The Olympic torch was symbolically handed off to Paris, site of the 2024 Games. And all that came to mind was: Good luck, France.

If anything, these Games will be remembered (beyond disease) for the trials of Simone Biles, all 4-9 of her, the greatest female gymnast in history.

Her televised mental meltdown under the psychic weight of expectation from a world demanding transcendence and entertainment was epic and important in itself. The ‘‘twisties,’’ she called her sudden loss of self in midair.

The twisties might be a good term for all future athletes to use when they mentally crumble from the near insanity of endless training while attempting to become the best in the world.

The man with the most Olympic gold medals, former swimmer Michael Phelps, spoke compassionately about Biles and her torment. Phelps knows. He felt the emptiness of tunnel focus, winning and then . . . nothing.

After his four gold medals in 2012 at the London Games, Phelps had way more than the twisties.

“I didn’t want to be alive anymore,” he said, admitting that he narrowly avoided suicide.

American sprinter Noah Lyles, who won bronze in the 200 meters in Tokyo, was just as open about his mental struggles. Lyles has two therapists to help him deal with non-physical issues.

“I know there’s somebody out there who is probably struggling with the same issues I was,’’ Lyles said. “And I want them to know there are ways to feel better.’’

So there’s the likely message of these Games. Take care of yourself. And, along with that, dear God, take care of this planet.

You could say hope and dreamy good cheer are still the prime movers of the Olympics, much as they were at the start of the modern Games.

But with millions of acres of forests on fire, icebergs calving like falling dominoes, athletes collapsing in the heat and a deadly virus stalking the Earth, thinking of the Tokyo Olympics as the Mental Health Games might not be a bad way to go.

Every viewer out there should be asking existential questions. Prime among them: What price dominance? What price Planet Earth?

And how’s your mental health?

I mean everyone’s.