SSetting the right emotional tone for the precursor to an Olympic Games being held in such extraordinary circumstances was always going to be a dangerous exercise to avoid offending a world traumatized by a pandemic and a host nation deeply unsettled by its moment of prominence.
An opening ceremony that exaggerated its tragic backdrop would have sent a curious message to thousands of athletes, confined within an Olympic bubble, as they begin their search for medals. Yet one who seemed to openly celebrate the start of the world’s biggest sporting event would have been callous, even callous, in a week in which daily Covid-19 cases in Tokyo reached their highest level for six months.
In the end, Japan played it safe. There was a medley of video game-inspired music, echoes of the more optimistic around the Rio Games when then-leader of Japan, Shinzo Abe, made a cameo as Super Mario. Traditional music mixed with tap dancing during a segment based on traditional firefighting and woodworking that must have shaken visitors – their freedom of movement severely curtailed – as they realized that, yes, these Olympics they are taking place in one of the great cities of the world and not in a cultural vacuum.
Many of the 950 dignitaries in an otherwise empty main stadium will have headed into the heavy night air with fond memorabilia of pyrotechnics, swarms of drones in the shape of planet Earth, and a community rendition of Imagine. But there were times when the absolute need to refer to the coronavirus, both the people who have succumbed to it and those who have bravely fought it on our behalf, bordered the funeral.
Even the perfect rendition of Misia de Kimigayo, the national anthem that helped inspire the heroic deeds of the national rugby team two years ago, had a weird and unnerving melancholy about it. To the left of the broadcast stations and the press box, the Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, watched from behind a mask, as did his partner, the president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, who then declared, without irony , to the rows of empty seats that “We are all here together.”
The light applause that greeted at the end of each act and the constant hum of police helicopters were not enough to drown out the distant shouts of the protesters who had gathered at dusk to repeat their calls for the suspension of the Games. But most of the people who lined the streets outside the stadium were not there to object, but simply to watch and listen, to be present at the start of the most controversial Olympics in memory.
In a sign of things to come elsewhere over the next fortnight, police had turned the stadium into a citadel, forming a sixth Olympic ring, one of steel, around the Games’ architectural centerpiece and redirecting passersby towards back streets at a safe distance. of “dangerous” protesters. While the protesters’ anger was palpable, residents living in the shadow of the $ 1.4 billion Kengo Kuma stadium seemed resigned to a Games that, on opening night, had little emotional investment.
“I’m not that excited because there is no atmosphere and no sense of fun in the audience,” Tetsuya Imai told Kyodo news agency hours before the ceremony began. “I can hear the protesters screaming every morning. It’s sad that people are so divided about the Olympics. “
Ken Kawakita, a Tokyo resident who watched most of the ceremony on television, said seeing the athletes wearing masks as they entered a practically empty stadium was “very strange.” He told The Guardian: “I’m not just talking about his looks. We are exhausted by the whole thing … the scandals that have had a negative effect on the backlog and the fact that it is happening as Tokyo enters a fifth wave of coronavirus infections.
“I am so sorry for all the athletes, artists, musicians, and dancers who worked so hard to prepare. I have seen many Olympic opening ceremonies and this was the first time that I could not bring myself to enjoy it. And that makes me sad.”
Akino Yoshihara, who was watching from his home in Kyoto, was more optimistic. “I don’t know if the opening ceremony helped the organizers overcome their recent mistakes, but it showed that Japan is doing the best it can under the Covid-19 restrictions. Whether it was a success or not is up to the individual people to decide, but I really hope it was the start of a memorable Tokyo Olympics.
After a year in which, despite the pandemic, many things have gone wrong for the Tokyo 2020 organizers, the climax of the ceremony may have sent them home in a more optimistic mood.
After Emperor Naruhito, the head of a former hereditary monarchy, officially declared the Games open, it was up to Naomi Osaka, the face of a modern and more diverse Japan, to light the Olympic cauldron placed on a conical spout that confirmed that that day Like all other days, all spiritual roads in Japan lead to Mount Fuji.
It’s easy to forget that they were originally intended to be the “Recovery” Games, proof that Japan was rebuilding and reviving communities devastated by the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear collapse that hit its northeast coast in March 2011. Instead, these have become and will continue to be the Pandemic Games.
As the ceremony drew to a close, John Legend and Keith Urban led the singers to implore the global television audience to imagine, in John Lennon’s words, a better world. It is impossible to argue with sentiment, but on the opening night of an Olympic Games that were held a year late, and a year too early, many Japanese were only imagining what might have been.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism