TOKYO: Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka on Friday lit the Olympic cauldron to mark the formal start of Tokyo 2020, in an opening ceremony shorn of glitz and overshadowed by a pandemic but celebrated as a moment of global hope.
Organisers also paid tribute to medical workers as athletes from across the world paraded into an almost empty stadium, their smiles hidden behind masks for the first time.
Normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, the ceremony was low-key, with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, strict social distancing rules and signs calling on spectators to “be quiet around the venue”.
“With the world in a tough situation because of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to pay my respect and express my gratitude to medical workers and all those who are working hard every day to overcome the difficulties,” said the President of the organising committee, Seiko Hashimoto.
The ceremony climaxed with a fusion of traditional kabuki theatre — with its elaborate makeup and costumes — and a jazz piano improvisation, on a stage topped with the cauldron for the Olympic flame.
After being passed from baseball legends to children, the torch was handed to Osaka, who walked to the base of the stage, which split open to reveal a set of stairs as the cauldron unfolded like a flower.
She then climbed the stairs and lit the cauldron as fireworks briefly illuminated the sky.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach acknowledged the Games would be “very different from what all of us had imagined”.
But “today is a moment of hope”, he said in an address.
The 16-day Games, with 339 gold medals across 33 sports, have a surreal air after the pandemic compelled organisers to make this the first Games with virtually no spectators.
Athletes are tested daily but they are performing on the biggest stage under the constant risk that a positive test could wreck their Olympic dreams.
Fears that the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could become a super-spreader event have made the Games deeply unpopular in Japan, where polls have shown opposition for months.
But hundreds of people gathered outside the stadium cheered and applauded as the fireworks exploded overhead.
Early in the ceremony, an ethereal blue light bathed the empty seats as loud music muted the shouts of scattered protesters outside calling for the Games to be cancelled. A single stage held an octagon shape meant to resemble the country’s fabled Mount Fuji. Later, an orchestral medley of songs from iconic Japanese video games served as the soundtrack for athletes entrances.
Mostly masked athletes waved enthusiastically to thousands of empty seats and to a world hungry to watch them compete but surely wondering what to make of it all. Some athletes marched socially distanced, while others clustered in ways utterly contrary to organisers hopes.
The Czech Republic entered with other countries even though its delegation has had several positive Covid tests since arriving.
“You had to face great challenges on your Olympic journey,” Bach told the athletes. “Today you are making your Olympic dream come true.”
The Olympic oath, recited by the athletes at the end of the parade, has been updated for the Tokyo Games, with athletes swearing their commitment to inclusion, equality, and non-discrimination for the first time at the Olympics.
The opening also featured fireworks in indigo and white, the colours of the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and gave a nod to Japanese tradition represented by giant wooden Olympic rings linked to the 1964 Games also hosted by Tokyo.
Postponed for a year, organisers were forced to take the unprecedented step of holding the Olympics without fans as the novel coronavirus is on the rise again, taking lives around the world.
The opening recapped Japan’s path to the Games and the challenges the world has faced since the selection of the Japanese capital as host in 2013.
The opening video showed how the coronavirus struck in 2020, with lockdowns forcing the unprecedented postponement only four months before the Games were due to open, setting off a roller-coaster period of preparations in isolation for the athletes.
Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Bach, both masked, cheered on the athletes after bowing to each other before sitting down socially distanced.
Unlike his grandfather who opened the 1964 Games with a Japanese word that means “congratulations,” Naruhito opted for a more neutral word in Japanese which is closer to “commemorate” , with fireworks bursting over the stadium after he spoke.
The ceremony was marked by major absences, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wooed the Games to Tokyo. Top sponsors also stayed away, highlighting strong opposition to the event in Covid-fatigued Japan.
For a night, at least, the glamor and message of hope of the opening ceremonies may distract many global viewers from the surrounding anguish and anger.
“After more than half a century, the Olympic Games have returned to Tokyo,” Hashimoto said. “Now we will do everything in our power to make this Games a source of pride for generations to come.”
Organisers will hope public opinion turns when the full sporting programme starts on Saturday, with swimming, gymnastics, road cycling and tennis among the top attractions.
Attention will focus on a new generation of Olympic stars who are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.
US swimmer Caeleb Dressel could target seven gold medals and 400 metre hurdlers Karsten Warholm of Norway and the USA’s Sydney McLaughlin are among those hoping to emerge as household names.
In gymnastics, Simone Biles will attempt to crown her dazzling career by equalling Larisa Latynina’s record of nine Olympic gold medals.
Surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate are all making their Olympic debut, while New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the Games’ first transgender athlete.
Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2021