In a virtually empty stadium, the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics is happening on a global stage as the world still grapples with the grief and anxiety brought on by a pandemic that continues to rage.
Olympic organizers are attempting to reflect that universal struggle by putting on a more subdued affair than usual, celebrating the world’s top athletes coming together to compete and sending a message of hope at a time of isolation.
It will be tricky to strike the right tone.
The ceremony marks the official start of the Games, which were postponed due to the pandemic.
But a year on, 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. Protesters have gathered today on the streets of Tokyo.
The majority of the program is made up of the “Parade of Athletes,” which will welcome competitors arriving from across 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 elaborate ceremony will preach a message of unity in adversity while showcasing Japanese traditions and culture recognized across the globe — traditions that include anime and video games. Japanese celebrities will perform and the Emperor of Japan will appear.
The ceremony highlights Japanese traditions and culture
From manga to Mt. Fuji, Japanese art and culture will be on full display during the ceremony.
When the athletes enter the stadium, the sound of video game theme music will play, and placards featuring manga designs will announce them.
The main stage is meant to symbolize Mt. Fuji. 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 highlights 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.
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 will also feature pictograms symbolizing different sports that were 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, will have less than 1,000 people in the stands. Those are largely journalists, Olympic officials and dignitaries such as First Lady Jill Biden.
To get into the stadium, guests sanitize their hands, scan their credentials and present their ticket.
The entrances and stairs leading to the national stadium are lined with Hydrangea plants. In Japan the plant represents understanding, emotion and apology. Each plant is 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 each other with the Olympic rings. Only a couple snack stands are open. The red, white and green seats are virtually empty.
Outside, a small group of Japanese fans film and take pictures of the dribble of guests headed inside. Some wear surfing shirts, a new sport for the Tokyo Olympics.
The ceremony is 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.
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, and chanting and banging on drums.
The protesters said they’re angry about the money and the attention being poured into the Olympics, when they think that money should be used to battle against COVID-19. They vowed to continue fighting.
The ceremony organizers nod to the anxiety that these Games are causing
The program will acknowledge to 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.
The performance opened with a lone athlete — Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata — working out on a treadmill. Other athletes joined her, and a light show and dancers symbolize individuals making connections, even though they are apart.