The 4 times when the Summer Olympics were held in Asia Pacific

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Japan's Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hironshima on the day the atomic bomb fell on the city in 1945, climbing up the stairs to light the Olympic cauldron at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.
Japan's Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb fell on the city in 1945, climbing up the stairs to light the Olympic cauldron at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. (PHOTO: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — It would not be an understatement to call the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics one of the most significant and tumultuous Summer Games editions in its 125-year history.

After all, it is already the first Olympic edition to be postponed from its original date, after the world was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic last year. With the coronavirus still wreaking havoc around the globe, the upcoming Tokyo Games will be a stern test of the Olympic family's collective will to host a morale-inspiring sporting extravaganza. 

Regardless of the athletes' exploits on the sporting arena, the 2020 Olympics will undoubtedly be a notable edition. In fact, since the modern Olympics' inauguration in 1896, all the four occasions that the Summer Games were held in Asia Pacific have been memorable and left enduring sporting legacies.

Tokyo 1964

When Tokyo was announced as the host of the first Olympics to be held in Asia, there was tremendous joy across Japan, still recovering from the wounds of World War II. The war had destroyed the country, but its economic revival in the ensuing years helped earn it the nod to host the Olympic Games.

The Olympic flame was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on that city. He was chosen for the role to symbolise Japan’s postwar reconstruction and peace.

The 1964 Games were the first to be telecast internationally using satellite communication, without the need for tapes to be flown overseas. It was also the first Olympic Games to have colour telecasts, albeit partially.

On the sporting front, Japan's freestyle wrestling world champion Osamu Watanabe capped off his career with a gold medal, finishing his astonishing career without a single defeat — 189 bouts, 189 wins.

Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser won the 100m freestyle event for a third time in a row, while Ethiopia's Abebe Bikila became the first person to win the marathon twice in a row. Gymnastics great Larisa Latynina ended her glorious Olympic career with two golds in Tokyo for a total of 18 medals — a record haul until swim icon Michael Phelps broke it in 2012.

Canada sprinter Ben Johnson (second from left) celebrates winning the men's 100m in world-record time at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He would later be disqualified for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Canada sprinter Ben Johnson (second from left) celebrates winning the men's 100m in world-record time at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He would later be disqualified for taking performance-enhancing drugs. (PHOTO: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

Seoul 1988

Inspired by the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, South Korea submitted its bid for the 1988 Summer Games in 1981, hoping to similarly host a "coming-out party" and showcase its economic strength. More ominously, the South Korean government hoped that increased international exposure would provide protection from increasing threats from North Korea, which boycotted the Games.

In retrospect, the Games is remembered for numerous sporting achievements – as well as one major scandal.

Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who set a world record of 9.79 seconds in the men's 100m final, was sensationally disqualified and thrown out of the Games after he tested positive for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. The scandal dominated global headlines and brought the battle against performance-enhancing drugs to the forefront of the Olympics.

Sadly, it overshadowed glorious achievements by the likes of Greg Louganis, who won two back-to-back golds in diving despite knocking his forehead on the springboard in the preliminary round; Florence Griffith-Joyner, who won the women's 100m and 200m golds, the 200m in world-record time; and Steffi Graf, who completed a unique tennis Golden Slam – winning the Olympic gold and the sport's four major tournaments in a single year.

Australia's Cathy Freeman, world record holder of the women's 400m race, holds the torch before lighting up the Olympic Flame at the Olympic Stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the XXVII Olympic Games, September 15, 2000. Athletes from 199 nations are participating in the Games which will continue until October 1.

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Australia sprinter Cathy Freeman holds the torch before lighting up the Olympic Flame at the 2000 Sydney Games. (PHOTO: Reuters)

Sydney 2000

From start to finish, the first Summer Olympics to be held in Oceania was a resounding success, as Sydney 2000 earned worldwide acclaim for its organisation, its sportsmanship displays and the overwhelming support from the Australian public. Subsequent editions frequently pointed to this Games as the benchmark for how a major sporting event should be run.

The only major scandal actually occurred years after the Games, when American sprinter Marion Jones admitted in 2007 to steroid use when she won three golds and two bronzes in Sydney. She was subsequently stripped of all her medals won at the Games.

But there were plenty of other wondrous sporting performances to complement the exuberant atmosphere in Sydney. Among them was swimmer Ian Thorpe, who won three golds – and smashed three world records along the way – as well as two silvers, with the Australian fans going ga-ga over the hometown boy.

Then there was Cathy Freeman, a potent symbol of Australia with her aboriginal roots. She was chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, and when she won the women's 400m sprint on day 11 of the Games, she became the first Olympian to light the Olympic flame and win a gold medal in the same Games.

And if you are a champion of the underdogs, there was the biggest upset of them all: Rulon Gardner of the US, who had won nothing of note before Sydney, stunned Russia's Alexander Karelin to win gold in the super-heavyweight class of Greco-Roman wrestling. Prior to his defeat, Karelin had not been beaten in the past 13 years. 

Truly a magical summer in Sydney.

Michael Phelps stands on the podium after winning one of his eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Michael Phelps stands on the podium after winning one of his eight golds at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. (PHOTO: Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Beijing 2008

Just like Tokyo and Seoul before, the 2008 Beijing Olympics was an opportunity for host nation China to showcase its economic growth as well as its increasing global influence. With a massive state-financed push to produce Olympic gold-medallists in every sporting discipline, China swept to the top of the medal table for the first time in its Olympic history, toppling the US with 48 golds to the Americans' 36.

The biggest star of the Games was undoubtedly American swim icon Michael Phelps, who surpassed Mark Spitz's 1972 record haul of seven golds in a single Games by winning eight, breaking seven world records along the way. A truly monumental achievement that may never be equalled.

China had hoped that Liu Xiang, who had won the 110m hurdles gold at the 2004 Athens Games, could repeat his feat in Beijing and put an icing on the cake. However, he aggravated a previously-undisclosed Achilles tendon injury and had to withdraw from the heats, sending the entire nation into deep disappointment.

Even as China and the US battled for medal supremacy, there was ample room for others to shine in Beijing. An unprecedented 87 countries won at least one medal during the Games — not least of all Singapore, which finally won its second Olympic medal after a 48-year wait, with the women's table tennis team reaching the final after beating South Korea and clinching a silver medal.

The Beijing Games is also remembered as a logistical success. Many of the worst fears about the Games failed to materialise: no terrorists struck Beijing, no athlete protested at the podium, and the air quality was not as bad as many had feared beforehand.

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