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Olympic Opening Ceremony Is A Delicate Mix Of Celebration and Solemnity

The Olympic Rings are included at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Friday.
Laurence Griffiths
Getty Images
The Olympic Rings are included at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Friday.

Updated July 23, 2021 at 4:01 PM ET

TOKYO — In some ways, the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics looks very normal. Delegations of athletes decked out in clothes representing their countries march triumphantly into the stadium, waving flags. A beautifully choreographed spectacle from the host country, Japan, celebrates its art and traditions.

But these are not normal times. The fanfare and celebration are unfolding in a virtually empty stadium, as Japanese protesters gathered nearby to register their discontent over the world's largest sports event happening amid a raging pandemic.

The organizers faced a challenge in striking the right tone at the official start of these postponed Games.

The ceremony is an effort to inspire people around the globe by celebrating the world's best athletes coming together, while also acknowledging the trouble and anxiety these Games have caused.

It featured a moment of silence for lives lost to COVID-19. Health care workers were honored, and an elaborate dance and lights routine acknowledged the isolation the athletes — and everyone else — have faced during the pandemic.

The honor of lighting the Olympic torch went to Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, a Grand Slam winner who has advocated for social justice and for athletes' mental health.

The majority of the program was made up of the "Parade of Athletes," which welcomed competitors arriving from around the globe. They're coming from very different realities, and with varying access to vaccines. In Japan, less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated.

The ceremony preached a message of unity in adversity while showcasing Japanese traditions and culture — traditions that include anime and video games. Japanese celebrities performed and the emperor of Japan also appeared.

Fireworks go off during the opening ceremony on Friday.
Carl Court / Getty Images
Getty Images
Fireworks go off during the opening ceremony on Friday.

The ceremony highlighted Japanese traditions and culture

From manga to Mount Fuji, Japanese art and culture was on full display during the ceremony.

When the athletes entered the stadium, the sound of video game theme music played, and placards featuring the names of their countries in manga-style designs announced them.

The main stage is meant to symbolize Mount Fuji, an active volcano that has been a feature of Japanese art. The podium is reminiscent of a fan, with a pattern meant to symbolize a prayer for growth and prosperity.

A percussion and tap-dancing performance highlighted a traditional work song used by firefighters in old Tokyo. The ceremony also showcased a famous performer of kabuki, a style of theater famous in Japan.

A kabuki performer takes part in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Clive Rose / Getty Images
Getty Images
A kabuki performer takes part in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The Olympic rings used in the ceremony were wheeled in surrounded by softly lit paper lanterns. They are made out of wood, using a traditional Japanese style of craftsmanship called yosegi-zaiku. The wood comes from trees planted by athletes when Japan last hosted the Olympics, in 1964.

The ceremony also featured a wacky skit where actors reenacted pictograms of Olympic sports, first used during the 1964 Games.

A nearly empty stadium for the start of the pandemic Olympics

The audience for the show is almost entirely virtual – the massive Olympic Stadium, which can accommodate 68,000, had fewer than 1,000 people in the stands. Those were largely journalists, Olympic officials and dignitaries such as first lady Jill Biden.

To get into the stadium, guests sanitized their hands, scanned their credentials and presented their ticket.

The entrances and stairs leading to the national stadium were lined with hydrangea plants. In Japan, the plant represents understanding, emotion and apology. Each plant was affixed with a note written by elementary students from schools nearby.

"Welcome to Tokyo! Let's support each other!" one read. Another said, "Good luck in the world."

On the stadium grounds, a small gaggle of journalists and other spectators took pictures of one another with the Olympic rings. Only a couple snack stands were open. The red, white and green seats were almost entirely empty.

Outside, a small group of Japanese fans filmed and took pictures of the dribble of guests headed inside. Some wore surfing shirts, a new sport for the Tokyo Olympics.

The ceremony was met with protests in Tokyo

The messages of hope from inside the stadium stood in stark contrast to the sentiment of hundreds of Japanese protesters who gathered in central Tokyo at Harajuku station shortly before the ceremony started.

Demonstrators gather in Tokyo on Friday to protest the start of the Olympic Games.
Tom Goldman / NPR
Demonstrators gather in Tokyo on Friday to protest the start of the Olympic Games.

The majority of Japanese people see the Olympics as an unnecessary danger that puts the population's health at risk while depriving them of any of the joy of hosting the Games — namely attending and showcasing the beauty of their country.

A demonstrator held up a sign that said, "No Olympics 2020! Use that money for COVID-19!" An older man in a pageboy hat clutched a large banner that said, "Bread Not Circuses."

Rows of police escorted the demonstrators as they marched through town, chanting and banging on drums.

The protesters said they're angry about the money and the attention being poured into the Olympics. They think that money should be used to battle COVID-19. They vowed to continue fighting.

The ceremony organizers nod to the anxiety that these Games are causing

The program acknowledged the deep anxiety of the moment — not just because of the coronavirus, but also from the decision to hold the Games at all.

The very first images of the ceremony were short videos of athletes practicing at their homes, alone — then a countdown showed athletes coming together and competing, as fireworks exploded above the stadium.

"Everyone has different feelings about holding a Games in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic," the organizers said. The opening segment of the ceremony is designed to "be modest and intimate, in the hope that it will reach every single person."

Another segment, titled "apart but not alone," is meant to acknowledge the difficulty of the often solitary training athletes had to go through to be in shape for these Games.

That performance opened with a lone athlete — Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata — working out on a treadmill. Other athletes joined her on different parts of the field, and a light show and dancers symbolized individuals making connections, even though they are apart.

The ceremony ended stressing global unity. An array of drones rose high over the stadium in the shape of the emblem for these Games — then morphed into the shape of a globe.

Singers from around the world sang "Imagine" by John Lennon, each representing a continent. Angélique Kidjo from Benin represented Africa, for example, and John Legend appeared for North America.

"Let us cherish this moment," International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. "Finally, we are all here together." He thanked the Japanese people for allowing the Games to happen.

A lone athlete runs during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on Friday in Tokyo.
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
A lone athlete runs during the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium on Friday in Tokyo.

Athletes celebrate in a scaled-back parade

About 5,700 participants were expected to march in the parade — a small fraction of the number of athletes that would typically appear at an opening ceremony.

Still, despite the lack of roaring crowds, the athletes were jubilant and waved to TV cameras and empty seats. Many were decked out in clothing showcasing the traditions and fashion of their nations. For example, Afghanistan's flag bearers wore intricately embroidered clothing; Ghana's team had on crisp white suits with colorful patterned accents. The flag bearers from the tiny island nation of Tuvalu marched barefoot in colorful skirts, flower crowns and leafy arm bands.

Argentina's team bounced excitedly in unison together, and the Irish delegation made a respectful bow to the Japanese cast members as the athletes entered the stadium.

And the oiled-upflag bearerfrom Tonga, Pita Taufatofua, is back for his third consecutive Games.

In a shift for this Olympics, two flag bearers are allowed to represent each country — one male athlete and one female athlete.

Team USA expected approximately 200 of its athletes to march in the Opening Ceremony — about a third of the total group. The athletes were able to choose whether they would participate, and much of the team is not yet in Japan.

The U.S. flag bearers were U.S. basketball star Sue Bird, who is taking part in her fifth Olympics, and Olympic speed skater-turned-baseball player Eddy Alvarez.

At least one large delegation decided to skip the opening ceremony, only sending its flag bearers and two other representatives. Brazil announcedbefore the ceremony that it decided participating in the parade was too risky for its athletes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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