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After 16 months unlike any other, and as we begin a Summer Olympics unlike any other, it was reassuring that the 2020 — or “2020” — Tokyo Olympics kicked off on Friday (July 23) morning with at least some things remaining the same.
Over the course of the two-plus-hour Parade of Nations, NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremonies alternated between edifying trivia (Kiribati is the world’s only nation to occupy all four cardinal hemispheres!) and America-centric jingoism (leaving marching international athletes behind to talk to American athletes; predictable upstaging of “smaller” countries with split-screen commercials or entire ad breaks). It isn’t the first time NBC has treated the Parade of Nations this way, it won’t be the last time and, in this tumultuous moment, it was almost comforting. You need something to count on, and international audiences reacting to American Olympics coverage on Twitter with exhortations of, “Wow, that’s not the way the Opening Ceremonies are covered here!” is something to count on.
See, it’s partially a Parade of Nations and partially a Parade of Peacock Commercials.
Friday marked the formal opening — some sports have been doing preliminary competitions for a few days — of an Olympics that many in Japan and many worldwide think shouldn’t be happening at all. COVID-19 has Tokyo in a state of emergency, positive tests in the Olympics village are rising, and the Delta variant has everybody on edge.
But resilience was always the name of the game when it came to these Olympics, which were announced in 2013 as an opportunity to showcase Japan’s recovery from 2011’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, only to pick up more gravity with the passing of time.
“Solidarity means much more than just respect or non-discriminating,” IOC president Thomas Bach said as part of his opening remarks. “Solidarity means helping, sharing, caring.”
Solidarity and togetherness were the themes of the opening ceremony, which relied less heavily on celebratory nationalism than your typical opening. Or maybe my point of comparison for such things is always the epic preamble to the 2008 Beijing Games, a standard by which almost anything would be muted.
Friday’s opening featured a lively tap-dancing tribute to Japanese carpentry, a stunning performance by pianist Hiromi (transitioning out of a Kabuki showcase) and, as a culmination, the lighting of a lovely Olympic cauldron that resembled an iconic rising sun before flowering to be set aflame by Naomi Osaka. Giving this tremendous honor to the tennis star, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father and then raised largely in the United States, felt like an acknowledgment of the unifying message of a ceremony in which we spent literally hours going through the 205 competing nations (plus the IOC Refugee squad) before immediately launching into a performance of “Imagine,” that song in which John Lennon mused, “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do.”
If nothing else, The Spirit of John Lennon should be relieved that “Imagine” has recovered from its early-pandemic celebrity mangling.
Once again, it’s acceptable to peacock “Imagine”!
“Imagine” was meant to be unifying, as were several other parts of what the NBC announcers described as the “artistic” piece of the program (in contrast to the less artistic “people walking in wide circles” segment). There was an interpretative dance in which participants were joined together by stringy red elastic meant to represent connective tissue or our shared blood, or just everybody getting entangled in rubbery rope and metaphorical goop. Then later, 1,800 drones mobilized to form a globe, which I think was meant to represent the globe that we all share and where we’re all under constant surveillance by drones.
There were big moments — though Savannah Guthrie really oversold those drones, which surely were more astonishing in person — but there was no denying that this was, at times, an unnervingly small and intimate opening, “small” and “intimate” being two words that have never been used previously to describe an Olympics opening. The empty stadium gave the impression of a black box theater housing a one-man show that everybody found excuses not to attend. The silence was strange. The lack of ambient crowd energy was strange. The NBC director’s resistance to wide shots capturing the full venue was understandable, but still strange.
Add “somber” to the list of adjectives that could be applied to this opening ceremony that have never been applied to an Olympics opening before. First responders played a major role in several steps of the opening, and there were multiple references to the lives lost from COVID, including a standing moment of silence. Sensing the tone might be appropriate, organizers also gave the first recognition of its type to the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
There were limitations to the sobriety, mind you. Reporters on Twitter tell me that there were anti-Olympics protests taking place outside the stadium. That definitely is not something you’d know from watching NBC. Maybe that unrest will be a part of later Olympics coverage, but for tonight or this morning, or whatever it is, the decision was made that it wasn’t befitting the mood.
But “less joyful” doesn’t mean “joyless.” The Parade of Nations, as frequently interrupted by commercials as it was — sorry, North Macedonia, but NBC has a Dune trailer to run — is always a marathon of colorful outfits, jubilant young people experiencing a life’s dream and, as I mentioned before, factoids. So many factoids!
Having all the athletes wearing masks took away some of the expressions of enthusiasm, and the conspicuous absence of countless athletes — Brazil, for example, had only four out of 300-plus participants marching — was a slight wet blanket as well. NBC’s cameras stayed almost exclusively in close-ups and medium shots of the marchers, because every time the camera pulled back you were reminded of how sparsely the stadium grounds were filled. But as long as you have American athletes dressed like they just strolled in from a yacht party, African delegations in vibrant matching gear, and a greased-up, flag-waving Tongan, everything can seem right with the world, even if we know it isn’t.
That’s something we all can peacock!
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