With no fans in attendance and a reduced number of athletes joining the parade, the Tokyo Olympics‘ Opening Ceremony officially kicked off the Summer Games on Friday as tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron.
Earlier on Friday, a request from Tokyo 2020 organizers to push back Osaka’s opening match of the Olympics from Saturday to Sunday was granted ahead of the opening ceremony, fueling speculation that the four-time grand slam champion, who is making her Olympic debut on home soil, might light the cauldron.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and Haitian-American father, Osaka was born in Japan but moved to the US when she was three years old.
Earlier this month, citing her mental health, Osaka withdrew from the French Open, revealing afterwards that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first grand slam title in 2018. She later also withdrew from Wimbledon.
The ceremony drew to a close around midnight in Japan as a spectacular firework display illuminated the Tokyo night sky.
The surreal circumstances of the Games’ curtain raiser — unlike any other previous opening ceremony — provided a glimpse of what is to come over the next 16 days with the coronavirus pandemic set to loom large over proceedings.
While opening ceremonies of the Olympics are usually staged in front of packed stands, spectators were kept away in Tokyo. Instead, many lined the fences around the city’s National Stadium throughout the day, while others gathered outside the venue to protest.
According to Tokyo 2020 organizers, 950 people attended the opening ceremony — only a handful in a venue with a capacity of 68,000 — as the 206 delegations competing were officially welcomed to the Games. US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron attended the event.
With athletes expected to arrive in the Olympic Village five days prior to their competition and depart a maximum of two days after, fewer took part in the parade of nations compared to previous Olympics.
READ: US marathon runner’s remarkable journey to Tokyo 2020
Team USA, for example, had more than 200 athletes walking through the stadium out of a team that is over 600 strong, while 63 of Australia’s 472 athletes took part.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” American triple jumper Will Claye told reporters about some athletes not being able to attend the opening ceremony due to restrictions.
“My first Olympics in 2012, I walked and I was able to meet and take pictures with some of my idols in sport, some of the athletes that I look up to like Kobe (Bryant), LeBron (James) and actually being able to spend time with these people while we were preparing to do Opening Ceremonies,” said Claye, referring to the NBA greats.
“And those are the memories that last a lifetime … For someone who this may be their first Olympics, it’s a once in a lifetime thing. You never know if you’ll be able to get back to that stage.
Traditional Tongan dress
If this was an opening ceremony like no other, one thing remained unchanged compared to past Olympics: the shirtless Tongan Pita Taufatofua made a return.
Taufatofua first caught the attention of Olympic spectators in Rio five years ago when he appeared wearing traditional Tongan dress and covered in oil. He then repeated the act at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics two years later.
However, Taufatofua had competition this time around, with Vanuatu’s flag-bearer, rower Riilio Rii, also coming out shirtless and oiled.
Many of the athletes remained socially distant as they walked through the stadium, but others — such as Argentina and Portugal — were exuberant, breaking into cheering and dancing
The procession began with Greece, the first nation to host the modern Olympic Games, whose athletes were followed by those from the 29-strong Refugee Olympic Team, which debuted at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It concluded with the US and France — the two countries hosting the next two editions of the Games — and finally Japan.
Legendary basketball player Sue Bird and baseball star Eddy Alvares carried the flag for the US, which was cheered on from the stands by First Lady Jill Biden.
The ceremony was attended by Japan’s Emporor Naruhito and included performances that paid tribute to the country’s culture and history. A model of Mount Fuji, the iconic peak that towers over Tokyo, was placed in the stadium and presided over the dancers and singers who took to the stage at the start of the event.
There were also tributes to those who have lost their lives during the pandemic, as well as to the 11 Israeli athletes killed in a terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
How the coronavirus pandemic has affected athletes over the past 18 months was also acknowledged. Japanese boxer and nurse Arisa Tsubata — whose Olympic dreams were dashed when a qualifying event was canceled — was seen running alone on a treadmill in darkness at the start of the opening ceremony.
“Today is a moment of hope,” said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.
“Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined. But let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together: the athletes from 205 National Olympic Committees and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, living under one roof together in the Olympic Village.
“This is the unifying power of sport. This is the message of solidarity, the message of peace and the message of resilience. This gives all of us hope for our further journey together.”
This is the second time that Tokyo has hosted the Games having previously done so in 1964, but the buildup to the opening ceremony in 2021 was mired in controversy
Director Kentaro Kobayashi was dismissed Thursday following past comments that “ridiculed the painful facts of history,” according to Tokyo 2020 organizers. Local media reports said he made anti-Semitic comments in a 1998 comedy act about the Holocaust. Kobayashi later apologized for his comments.
That was after musician Keigo Oyamada, the composer for both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies — announced his intention to step down this week after old interviews of bullying behavior resurfaced.
Several sports have already got underway in Tokyo in advance of the opening ceremony: archery, baseball, softball, equestrian, football, rowing and shooting.
But Friday’s event — a unique occasion for what is set to be a unique Games — marks the official beginning of the Tokyo Olympics, albeit a year later than originally planned.
From Saturday, the first medals of the Games will be distributed; after months of challenges and uncertainties, Olympic organizers will finally be able to let sport do the talking.