Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened Friday night with a dazzling display of fireworks and soaring, made-for-TV choreography that unfolded in a near-empty stadium, a strangely subdued ceremony that set a striking tone to match a unique pandemic Games.
As their opening unfolded, 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 Games, largely without spectators and opposed by much of the host nation, are going ahead a year later than planned.
Trepidations throughout Japan have threatened for months to drown out the usual carefully 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 on, 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 widespread sentiment here.
A single stage held an octagon shape meant to resemble the country’s fabled Mount Fuji.
The protesters gathered outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building chanting “no to the Olympics” and “save people’s lives.” They held up signs reading “cancel the Olympics.”
A day earlier, Tokyo hit another six-month high in new COVID-19 cases as worries grew of worsening infections during the Games. Still, the number of cases and deaths as a share of the population in Japan is much lower than in many other countries.
Organizers held a moment of silence for those who had died of COVID; as it ticked off and the music paused, the sounds of the protests echoed in the distance.
Another moment of silence was held to honor the 11 Israeli athletes killed in the 1972 Munich Games, the culmination of a 49-year battle for the Olympics to recognize the tragedy.
Athletes marched into the stadium in their usual parade of nations, some socially distanced, others clustering together in ways utterly contrary to organizers’ hopes.
They 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.
COVID restrictions meant only some of Israel’s largest-ever 90-strong delegation marched into the stadium behind Israeli swimmer Yakov Toumarkin waving the Israeli flag.
“When you enter the stadium hoisting the Israeli flag proudly, our hearts will skip a short beat. You are our representatives in front of the whole world,” President Isaac Herzog Toumarkin in a phone call, according to a statement from the President’s Office.
“Go with your strength, and I am sure you will reach many achievements, break records and also bring medals,” Herzog said. “We are waiting and hoping to hear the ‘Hatikva’ anthem on Japanese soil,” he added.
Outside the stadium, 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 — softball and soccer, for example — and some of the focus is turning toward the competition to come.
The website Olympic Medals Predictions — which gathers data from world championships and other international competitions, in an attempt to guess the outcome of the games — has suggested Israel will take home five medals this year, while The Associated Press has predicted seven medals.
The country has taken home a total of nine medals in its history, and has never won more than two medals at the same Olympics.
Source: AP via TOI
Header: Anti-Olympic protestors demonstrate near the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan where the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics took place, Friday, July 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Kantaro Komiya)