Tokyo Olympics begin with muted ceremony and empty stadium
Published : Friday, 23 July, 2021 at 10:40 PM Count : 388
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, reports AP.
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.
"Today, with the world facing great challenges, some are again questioning the power of sport and the value of the Olympic Games," Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, said in a speech. But, she said of the Games' possibilities, "This is the power of sport. … This is its essence."
Japanese Emperor Naruhito declared the Games open, with fireworks bursting over the stadium after he spoke.
Outside, hundreds of curious Tokyo residents lined a barricade that separated them from those entering — but just barely: Some of those going in took selfies with the onlookers across the barricades, and there was an excited carnival feeling. Some pedestrians waved enthusiastically to approaching Olympic buses.
The sports have already begun, and some of the focus is turning toward the competition to come.
Japanese athletes, freed from onerous travel rules and able to train more normally, may enjoy a nice boost over their rivals in some cases, even without fans. Judo, a sport that Japan is traditionally a powerhouse in, will begin Saturday, giving the host nation a chance for early gold.
The reality, for now, is that the delta variant of the virus is still rising, 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 near daily reports of positive virus cases within the so-called Olympic bubble that’s meant to separate the Olympic participants from the worried, skeptical Japanese population.