Tokyo: Belated and beleaguered, the virus-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics finally opened Friday night with cascading fireworks and made-for-TV choreography that unfolded in a near-empty stadium, a colourful but strangely subdued ceremony that set a striking tone to match a unique `pandemic Games’.
As their opening played out, devoid of the usual crowd energy, the Olympics convened amid simmering anger and disbelief in much of the host country, but with hopes from organisers that the excitement of the sports to follow would offset the widespread opposition.
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. Later, an orchestral medley of songs from iconic Japanese video games served as the soundtrack for athletes’ entrances.
Athletes marched into the stadium in their usual parade, waving enthusiastically to thousands of empty seats and to a world hungry to watch them compete but surely wondering what to make of it all. Some athletes marched socially distanced, while others clustered in ways utterly contrary to organisers’ hopes. The Czech Republic entered with other countries even though its delegation has had several positive Covid tests since arriving.
Organisers 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.
Protesters’ shouts from outside the arena gave voice to a fundamental question about these Games as Japan, and large parts of the world, reel from the continuing gut punch of a pandemic that is stretching well into its second year, with cases in Tokyo approaching record highs this week: Will the deep, intrinsic human attachment to the spectacle of sporting competition at the highest possible level be enough to salvage these Games?
For now, however, it’s hard to miss how unusual these Games promise to be. The lovely national stadium can seem like an isolated militarized zone, surrounded by huge barricades. Roads around it have been sealed and businesses closed.
Inside, the feeling of sanitized, locked-down quarantine carries over. Fans, who would normally be screaming for their countries and mixing with people from around the world, have been banned, leaving only a carefully screened contingent of journalists, officials, athletes and participants.
The reality, for now, is that the delta variant of the virus is still rising, straining the Japanese medical system in places, and raising fears of an avalanche of cases. Only a little over 20% of the population is fully vaccinated. And there have been near daily reports of positive virus cases within the so-called Olympic bubble that’s meant to separate the Olympic participants from the worried, skeptical Japanese population.
For a night, at least, the glamor and message of hope of the opening ceremonies may distract many global viewers from the surrounding anguish and anger.