Olympic Games Open With Modified Pomp in COVID-Struck Tokyo

The Tokyo Olympic Games got underway on Friday a year late and after much rethinking — not to mention behind the scene drama and protests. Its opening ceremony, without spectators in the stadium, began in both spectacular and ethereal fashion.

With a mixture of pre-recorded and live performances in the stadium, the ceremony opened with fireworks around the top of the roof-less stadium in indigo, blue and white in the shape of a fan, an auspicious symbol in Japan.

As well as interpretative dances enacting traditional practices from Japanese culture such as woodwork, there was also a sequence with athletes, dressed in white, practising alone across the stadium on exercise equipment including treadmills, rowing machines and stationary bikes with some athletes even working out on imaginary equipment, representing the isolation and challenges represented by the last eighteen months.

Naruhito, the Emperor of Japan, joined Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympics Committee, along with U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron, President Guy Parmelin and the Prince of Monaco Albert II, in a 68,000-seat stadium almost entirely empty of spectators, due to COVID-19. Instead, a dappled light technique was enacted on the vacant seats to soften the effect of an otherwise empty stadium. Only about 1,000 dignitaries are expected to be on the ground at the stadium, according to the Associated Press.

Much of Japan remains under ‘state of emergency’ conditions which necessitate multiple layers of health precautions. Both the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government have pressed ahead, mindful of the loss of face and the contractual penalties they would incur had the Games been called off.

“After a long tunnel, an exit is now in our sight,” Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide said. “The world is faced with great difficulties. Now is the time that we have to learn to unite. And, with the efforts and wisdom of mankind, we will have to deliver the Games so we can do that.”

Nevertheless, the restrictions and cost have made the Games particularly unpopular among the Japanese public. Late changes, including the decision earlier this month to exclude spectators from many venues, and more than 90 confirmed COVID cases among accredited Olympic officials and athletes, have made this a high-risk affair.

Local reports said that anti-Olympic protesters had gathered in the Harajuku area, and that police were moving aside passers-by in order to let the demonstrations proceed. According to different local polls, some 50%-80% of the Japanese population are against holding the Games under the current circumstances.

“Olympic protesters have shut down one of the busiest roads in Tokyo, in Harajuku. Police are clearing the road for them and yelling into megaphones asking passersby to make way for protesters,” tweeted Washington Post reporter Michelle Ye Hee Lee while CBC’s Thomas Daigle posted that protestors could be heard from within the stadium:

“Extraordinary scenes here at the #Tokyo2020 opening ceremony. While the show is spectacular, whenever there’s a quiet moment, protesters outside can be heard demonstrating against holding the Olympic Games here during the pandemic. Impressive but unpopular.”

Before the 205 national teams began entering the stadium, Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Olympic Laurel for his philanthropy and his work with training retired athletes to run their own businesses. He accepted the Laurel remotely due to being unable to travel to Tokyo for the ceremony.

The ceremony also held a moment’s silence for the many lives lost over the past eighteen months and, specifically, for the lives lost during the Munich Olympics 1972 massacre, when 11 members of the Israeli delegation were tortured and murdered by a Palestinian terror group. Families of the victims, who have long campaigned for public recognition of the bloodbath by the International Olympics Committee, welcomed the gesture. (Steven Spielberg directed “Munich,” a film based on the tragedy, in 2005).

When each country’s delegates finally entered the stadium they waved their flags over a medley of orchestral arrangements of video game music, including “Kingdom of Hearts,” “Final Fantasy” and “DragonQuest,” in a nod to Japan’s leading video games industry.

One bizarre exception, however, was the Russian Olympics squad, who are banned from competing as ‘Russia,’ wielding the Russian flag or even singing the national anthem during the Games due to a long-running dispute over doping.

India, meanwhile, boasted their largest ever delegation, made up of 127 members, while Australia fielded its first ever Aboriginal flag carrier. Dr Jill Biden could be seen standing and clapping in the almost empty stands when the U.S. team entered the stadium.

The Tokyo Olympic Stadium has been heavily and expensively renovated. At 8pm local time the Japanese capital was cloaked in darkness and the stadium was surrounded by skyscrapers that were only partially lit up.

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Tokyo Olympics 2020 Fireworks AP

The re-scheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games comprise 46 sports and will play out with some 11,000 athletes at 42 venues across Japan. In total, 206 national Olympic Committees are represented at the Games.

In the U.S., viewers were as split as their screens over NBC’s approach to advertisements, with the network at times refusing to choose between much-welcome advertising revenue and uninterrupted coverage of the 205 countries’ delegates entering the stadium — instead, they simply split viewers’ screens, with 60% given over to adverts and the remaining 40% showing an uninterrupted feed of the coverage from the stadium in Tokyo before cutting to full commercials.

At one point viewers were subjected to advertisements for Hershey’s chocolate while Sri Lanka’s delegates entered the stadium. Some described it on Twitter as a “fair way to do it” and a “good idea” while others were displeased.

Although NBC is of paramount importance among overseas broadcasters, it is far from the only one. The Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) — the Asian equivalent of Eurovision organizers the European Broadcasting Union — is a direct partner of the IOC.

Its ABU Sports wing signed a contract with the IOC in 2018 to distribute the Games to six countries in South Asia – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It also struck a deal with Japanese media giant Dentsu to distribute the Games to five other countries in Southeast Asia: Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Timor Leste and Afghanistan. With its own broadcast center in Tokyo the ABU is also providing transmission and logistics to its members.

On top of protests, the Olympic Games, which will run until Aug. 8, was hit by a string of high-profile scandals leading up to the opening ceremony. The ceremony’s director, Kentaro Kobayashi, was ousted on the eve of the show because of a sketch he had done in 1998 that referenced the Holocaust; while Hiroshi Sasaki, the creative director for the opening and closing ceremonies had resigned in March after suggesting that Naomi Watanabe, a plus-size celebrity, dress up with pig ears for a performance during the show. Weeks before, Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee had stepped down after making a sexist remark.