Tokyo Olympics Begin with Muted Ceremony and Empty Stadium

tokyo olympics
Lanterns illuminated during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

TOKYO (AP) — Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened Friday night with cascading fireworks and made-for-TV choreography that unfolded in a near-empty stadium, a colorful but strangely subdued ceremony that set a striking tone to match a unique pandemic Games.

As their opening played out, devoid of the usual crowd energy, the Olympics convened amid simmering anger and disbelief in much of the host country, but with hopes from organizers that the excitement of the sports to follow would offset the widespread opposition.

“Today is a moment of hope. Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “But let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together.”

“This feeling of togetherness — this is the light at the end of the dark tunnel of the pandemic,” Bach declared. Later, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka received the Olympic flame from a torch relay through the stadium and lit the Olympic cauldron.

Trepidations throughout Japan have threatened for months to drown out the usual packaged glitz of the opening. Inside the stadium after dusk Friday, however, a precisely calibrated ceremony sought to portray that the Games — and their spirit — are going on.

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 canceled. 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 organizers’ 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.”

Organizers held a moment of silence for those who had died in the pandemic; as it ticked off and the music paused, the sounds of the protests echoed in the distance.

Protesters’ shouts gave voice to a fundamental question about these Games as Japan, and large parts of the world, reel from the continuing gut-punch of a pandemic that is stretching well into its second year, with cases in Tokyo approaching record highs this week: Will the deep, intrinsic human attachment to the spectacle of sporting competition at the highest possible level be enough to salvage these Olympics?

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