TOKYO – Belated and harassed, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened on Friday evening with cascading fireworks and television-conceived choreography that took place in an almost empty stadium, a colorful but strangely muted ceremony that had an eye-catching tone stated unique pandemic games.
When their opening took place without the usual mass energy, the Olympics took place amid sizzling anger and disbelief across much of the host country, but with organizers hoping that the excitement of the following sports would offset widespread opposition.
“Today is a moment of hope. Yes, it is very different from what we all had imagined, ”said IOC President Thomas Bach. “But let’s cherish this moment, because finally we’re all here together.”
“This feeling of togetherness – that is the light at the end of the dark tunnel of the pandemic,” said Bach. Later, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka received the Olympic flame from a torch relay through the stadium and lit the Olympic cauldron.
For months, fears across Japan have threatened to drown out the usual wrapped glamor of the opening. However, at the stadium after dark on Friday, a carefully calibrated ceremony should show that the games – and their spirit – go on.
Athletes arrive despite protesters shouting outside the stadium
At the start of the ceremony, an ethereal blue light bathed the empty seats while loud music muffled the calls of the scattered protesters outside calling for the Games to be canceled. A single stage was octagonal in shape to resemble the country’s fabled Mount Fuji. Later, an orchestral medley of songs from iconic Japanese video games served as the soundtrack for the athletes’ performances.
Most masked athletes waved enthusiastically to thousands of empty seats and to a world that was hungry to watch them compete but certainly wondered what to make of it. Some athletes marched in a socially distant manner while others gathered in a way that completely contradicted the hopes of the organizers. The Czech Republic has entered with other countries despite the fact that their delegation has had several positive COVID tests since arriving.
“You had to face great challenges on your Olympic path,” said Bach to the athletes. “Today you will make your Olympic dream come true.”
The organizers observed a minute’s silence for those who died from the pandemic; when it hung up and the music paused, the sounds of protests echoed in the distance.
The cries of the protesters gave voice to a fundamental question about these games as Japan and much of the world suffer from the sustained bellybeat of a pandemic that extends well into its second year, with cases hitting record highs in Tokyo this week: Will the deep, intrinsic human connection with the spectacle of sporting competition at the highest level are sufficient to save these Olympic Games?
Can the Olympic flame burn up the effects of the pandemic?
Earlier opening ceremonies always conjured up something. Scandals – bribery in Salt Lake City, censorship and pollution in Beijing, doping in Sochi – take a back seat when the sport starts.
But with people still getting sick and dying from the coronavirus every day, the question is whether the Olympic flame will burn up fear or a level of catharsis – and even awe – after a year of suffering and uncertainty in Japan and around the world .
“Today, as the world is facing great challenges, some are again questioning the power of sport and the value of the Olympic Games,” said Seiko Hashimoto, President of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, in a speech. But she said of the possibilities of the games: “That’s the power of sport. … That is its essence. “
The Japanese Emperor Naruhito declared the games were open and fireworks exploded over the stadium after his speech.
Outside, hundreds of curious Tokio people lined a barricade that separated them from those entering – but only just: some of those who went in took selfies with the onlookers over the barricades, and there was an excited carnival atmosphere. Some pedestrians waved enthusiastically to the approaching Olympic buses.
A different look as fans are barred from participating
The sport has already started and some of the focus is on the upcoming competition.
For example, can the US women’s soccer team be the first female Olympic champion after a World Cup victory after an early, shocking loss to Sweden? Can the Japanese Hideki Matsuyama win gold in golf after becoming the first Japanese player to win the Masters? Will the Italian Simona Quadarella challenge the outstanding American Katie Ledecky in the 800 and 1500 meter freestyle swimming?
At the moment, however, it is hard to miss how unusual these games promise to be. The beautiful national stadium can seem like an isolated militarized zone, surrounded by huge barricades. Streets around were sealed and shops closed.
Inside, the feeling of a disinfected, locked up quarantine is transmitted. Fans who normally shout for their countries and mingle with people from all over the world have been banned, leaving only a carefully screened contingent of journalists, officials, athletes and participants.
Olympic Games are often met with opposition, but there is usually a pervasive sense of national pride as well. Japan’s resentment centers on the belief that it was heavily armed to host – forced to pay billions and risk the health of a largely unvaccinated, deeply tired public – for the IOC to generate its billions in media revenue.
“Sometimes people ask why the Olympics exist and there are at least two answers. For one thing, they are an unparalleled global showcase of the human spirit in relation to sport, and secondly, they are an unparalleled global showcase of the human spirit in providing aristocrats with luxurious hotel rooms and generous subsistence allowances, ”Bruce Arthur, a sports columnist for the Toronto Star, wrote recently.
The trip to the Tokyo Olympics
How did we get here? A brief look back at the last year and a half has an operatic effect in its twists and turns.
A pandemic of the century is forcing the 2020 version of the games to be postponed. A flood of scandals (sexism and other allegations of discrimination and bribery, overspending, inability, bullying) unfolds. Meanwhile, people in Japan watch in amazement as an Olympiad, considered a bad idea by many scientists, actually takes shape.
Japanese athletes who are freed from pesky travel rules and able to train more normally can in some cases enjoy a nice boost over their rivals even without fans. Judo, a sport in which Japan has traditionally been a powerhouse, starts on Saturday and gives the host country the chance for early gold.
The reality for now is that the delta variant of the virus is still on the increase, straining the Japanese medical system in places and raising fears of an avalanche of cases. Only a little over 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. And there have been almost daily reports of positive cases of the virus within what is known as the Olympic bubble, which is said to separate Olympians from the concerned, skeptical Japanese population.
For at least one night, the glamor and message of hope of the opening ceremonies can distract many global viewers from the surrounding fear and anger.
“After more than half a century, the Olympic Games have returned to Tokyo,” said Hashimoto. “Now we will do everything in our power to make these games a source of pride for generations to come.”