By Talek HARRIS
TOKYO, Aug 8, 2021 (AFP) - Eliud Kipchoge produced a marathon masterclass and the USA edged China at the top of the Olympics medals table as the curtain was set to fall on the biggest sports event since the pandemic on Sunday.
After Kipchoge's marathon win for Kenya, volleyball, track cycling and basketball wins put the United States top of the medals tally with 39 golds, just one ahead of China in a battle for bragging rights.
With just handball and water polo finals still to come, the 2020 Games were all but done after defying an extraordinary build-up when they were postponed last year and veered close to the first cancellation since World War II.
Thirty-three sports have been contested across 16 days in largely empty stadiums, with fans barred over coronavirus risks and athletes living in strict biosecure conditions.
"Some were already speaking of 'Ghost Games'," Olympics chief Thomas Bach told an International Olympic Committee session on Sunday.
"What we have seen here is that on the contrary the athletes have brought soul to the Olympic Games."
A succession of big names have failed to perform in Japan but marathon world record-holder Kipchoge showed his class, kicking in the closing stages and clocking 2hr 08min 38sec to retain his 2016 title.
The Games have been plagued by low Japanese support over super-spreader fears and the marathon, moved north to Sapporo to avoid Tokyo's summer heat, was one of the few events to allow spectators.
"I know there were a lot of people against holding this Olympics due to the coronavirus," said a flag-waving, 47-year-old fan on the marathon route who gave his name as Tsujita.
"But I am glad it took place. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for everyone."
However, Sunday's closing ceremony will take place at a largely vacant Olympic Stadium, rounding off an extraordinary Games conducted mostly without live spectators but in front of a TV audience of billions.
- Trans athletes and 'twisties' -
Athletes, ordered to wear masks when not competing, training, eating or sleeping, have endured the extra psychological strain of strict "bubble" conditions in Tokyo.
Victory celebrations have been low-key, with lonely laps of honour and sparsely attended medal ceremonies. But the emotions of the competitors have been on full view.
Superstar gymnast Simone Biles provided the most jaw-dropping moment when she abruptly pulled out of competition over a bout of the "twisties", a disorientating mental block.
Biles, widely acknowledged as the greatest gymnast in history, recovered sufficiently to return for the final event, the beam, claiming a redemptive bronze.
Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender woman to compete at the Games and Canada's Quinn became the first openly transgender Olympic medallist, with gold in the women's football.
In other highlights, the US men's team won their fourth consecutive men's basketball crown and US swimmer Caeleb Dressel took over the mantle of Michael Phelps with five gold medals in the pool.
Among the final events on Sunday, Canadian cyclist Kelsey Mitchell took gold in the women's sprint while Jason Kenny won the men's keirin to become the first Briton to win seven Olympic titles.
The Americans started the day two golds behind China but the women's basketball and volleyball titles and US track cyclist Jennifer Valente's omnium victory put them top of the final table.
Uzbekistan's Bakhodir Jalolov beat US fighter Richard Torrez in the super-heavyweight boxing final, while Britain's Lauren Price and Ireland's Kellie Harrington also boxed their way to gold.
The Olympic flag will pass to 2024 hosts Paris at the closing ceremony. But the circus will reconvene in just six months' time when Beijing, faced with boycott threats and a renewed coronavirus emergency, holds the Winter Games in February.