Pandemic-hit Tokyo Olympics open in low-key ceremony without fans

The opening ceremony marks the beginning of the Summer Games, delayed by a year and held under unprecedented restrictions.

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka stands after lighting the flame of hope in the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games [Franck Fife/AFP]
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka stands after lighting the flame of hope in the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games [Franck Fife/AFP]

The virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics have finally opened on Friday with cascading fireworks and made-for-TV choreography that unfolded in a near-empty stadium, a colourful 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.

The number of Olympic-related infections since July 1 stood at 106, while the Japanese capital logged 1,359 new infections.

“Today is a moment of hope,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said in his welcome speech before the emperor formally declared the Games of the 32nd Olympiad open.

“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,” he
said, naming solidarity “the light at the end of the dark tunnel of this pandemic”.

Bach also praised the Japanese people, saying in Japanese, “Thank you to all the Japanese people” for making the Games possible.

Drones are seen above the stadium during the opening ceremony [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

The organisers also sent the traditional message of peace as global pop stars sang the John Lennon and Yoko Ono hit “Imagine” while drones formed the shape of the Olympic emblem in the sky above the stadium and transformed into the shape of the globe.

“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.

A reduced parade of about 5,700 athletes, far lower than the usual numbers, filed into the stadium.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron to mark the formal start of Tokyo 2020.

Most countries were represented by both male and female flagbearers in an Olympic first, but not everybody took pandemic measures.

Teams from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Pakistan flagbearers paraded maskless in awkward contrast to protocol and the vast majority of other athletes at the ceremony.

Regardless, it marked a coming together of the world, with an audience of hundreds of millions around the globe and at various stages of the pandemic tuning in to watch the start of the greatest show in sport.

Members of the Canada delegation wore patches in the colour of the rainbow, the symbol of the LGBTQ community, on their jackets. US First Lady Jill Biden clapped at the Americans as did France President Emmanuel Macron for the French team.

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.

A vastly smaller number of athletes marched in the teams’ parade, with many flying in just before their competitions and due to leave shortly after to avoid infections.

A moment of silence was held “for all those family and friends we have lost” especially to the coronavirus, and mention was made of the Israeli athletes slain at the 1972 Munich Games.

International and domestic fans were banned from all venues in Tokyo.

Top sponsors, including Toyota and Panasonic, also opted not to send their representatives to the opening event, with polls showing the Japanese public remaining largely against moving forward with the sprawling gathering in which about 11,000 athletes will contest 339 medal events across 50 disciplines in 33 sports over two weeks.

Reporting from outside the ceremony, Al Jazeera’s Andy Richardson said, “There’s a sense of almost disbelief hanging around this stadium.”

“There has been so much talk about this over the last 12 months – but here we are,” he said, adding that the planners of the event have said the programme would be “sombre and in sync with the sentiment of today, what this country and the world is going through with the pandemic”.

“The opening ceremony has always been a pretty integral part of the Games in showcasing the country’s national identity, but I don’t think many host cities have had to pull off quite such a balancing act to win over such a sceptical public,” he said.

Flagbearers Musa Bwogi and Kirabo Namutebi of Uganda lead their contingent in the athletes’ parade during the opening ceremony [Phil Noble/Reuters]

Japanese Emperor Naruhito cheered on the athletes. 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”.

The ceremony was marked by major absences, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wooed the Games to Tokyo.

Hundreds of people also protested around the venue yelling “Stop the Olympics”. Only a third of the host nation have had even one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, prompting worries the Games could become a super-spreader event.

Japan has spent nearly $15bn on the Games, including $2.6bn in extra costs after they became the first to be postponed in modern Olympic history in March 2020.

Tokyo is also battling a surge in virus cases and is under emergency measures though they fall short of a strict lockdown.

The pandemic has not been the only hiccup, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo.

The controversies kept coming right up to the eve of the Games, with the opening ceremony’s director sacked on Thursday for making a joke referencing the Holocaust in a video from 1998.

Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for about $1.5bn in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been cancelled.

Fireworks go off after the Olympic cauldron is lit during the opening ceremony [Marko Djurica/Reuters]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies

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