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Olympics organizers can breathe a very brief sigh of relief. Unlike virtually every other aspect of these pandemic-beset Summer Games, the opening ceremony was carried off Friday night in Tokyo without major incident.
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito declared the Games officially open and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka was the surprise athlete selected to set the Olympic Cauldron alight, one of the highest honors in world sport.
The ceremony was undoubtedly a peculiar spectacle, however, as a series of impassioned but largely abstract dance performances were staged before a vast, empty stadium — one that had been custom-built to seat 70,000 screaming Olympics fans. Instead, fewer than 1,000 people were physically present for the opening, including organizers, Olympics officials and dignitaries. Leaders from just 15 countries and international organizations made the trip to Tokyo to attend the event — including French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. first lady Jill Biden — down from the roughly 40 countries that were represented for Rio de Janeiro’s opening in 2016.
The parade of nations, always an Olympic highlight, proceeded through the same vacant expanse, with approximately 5,700 athletes waving at the empty stands (a 50 percent reduction of the usual parade headcount, a COVID-19 precaution). U.S. women’s basketball player Sue Bird, a four-time gold medalist, and baseball player Eddy Alvarez, who won silver in 2014 in speedskating, were the flag bearers for the U.S., leading a delegation of about 230 players (less than half of the 613 athletes who made the trip to Tokyo to compete for Team U.S.A.)
Much of the ceremony appeared designed for an at-home audience, with a heavy use of video montage and VFX sequences, as well as a memorable pantomime sequence late in the program that featured a human illustration of every Olympic sport. American pop signer John Legend also made an appearance as a representative of the Americas in a prerecorded global rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Like so many aspects of the troubled 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the opening ceremony overcame a succession of setbacks before showtime.
Just one day before the opening, comedian Kentaro Kobayashi, the event’s creative director, was forced to resign after video surfaced of a comedy skit he performed in the 1990s making light of the Holocaust. A prior creative director resigned from the role in March after creating a scandal by suggesting that a plus-sized Japanese female comedian should don a pig costume for the opening ceremony and perform as a character he dubbed “Olympig.” And just earlier this week, the opening ceremony’s musical director, Keigo Oyamada, better known by his indie pop stage name Cornelius, resigned after a magazine interview resurfaced in which he boasted about severely bullying classmates with disabilities during his student days. Oyamada’s original compositions for the opening ceremony were scrapped and organizers were frantically searching for a replacement just days before showtime.
The Olympic opening comes at a time when worries about the coronavirus are running high in the Japanese capital. The host city is currently under a state of emergency, with the delta variant now the locally dominant strain of COVID-19 and daily infections reaching six-month highs. Worse for the reputation of the Games, at least 110 people connected to the Olympics already have tested positive, including some inside the Olympic village. Meanwhile, just 23 percent of Japan’s population, among the world’s oldest, has been fully vaccinated.
Instead of the jovial festival atmosphere that typically engulfs the Olympic host city, Tokyo’s streets, restaurants and bars were subdued and sparsely peopled Friday evening. Any member of the Japanese public who wanted to watch the long-anticipated kick-off to the Games had to do so via television from the confines of their home.
After the pandemic delay and the various scandals and embarrassments, many in the Japanese public have taken to referring to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as “cursed.” There also is a palpable sense of public resentment toward both the Tokyo government and the IOC for forcing the country to carry on with the Games despite the ongoing public health risks. An Asahi Shimbun newspaper survey published Monday showed that 55 percent of respondents were opposed to the Games and 68 percent believed it was impossible to host the sporting event safely.
A large group of several hundred protestors gathered outside the Japan National Stadium during the opening ceremony to call for the Olympics to be suspended. In the absence of crowd noise, journalists on the scene reported that the protestors’ shouts and noisemakers were easily audible inside the stadium during quiet moments in the ceremony.
The extreme costs of hosting the Olympics — combined with the fact that Japan has lost all of the promised economic benefits, since all local and international spectators have been banned from attending — is another sore spot among the Japanese public. A recent study from Britain’s University of Oxford concluded that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are already the most expensive Summer Games ever at $15.84 billion in total disclosed spending, with several billion more expected to be added to the eventual final price tag because of the one-year delay. The Japanese government said the cost would be just $7.3 billion when it won the bid in 2013.
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