Mask-wearing Tokyo Olympic athletes paraded Friday night into the opening ceremony in a nearly empty National Stadium, at a time when many Japanese are questioning the value of staging the games amid unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic while still craving inspiration from the world’s biggest sports stars.
The ceremony raised the curtain on the biggest sporting spectacle held since the virus took hold early last year and following a one-year postponement. Involving about 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries and regions, venues will be without spectators for the first Olympics in history.
Although organizers hope the Olympics will symbolize global solidarity and victory over the virus, the games will be staged with the host city seemingly losing the fight. Tokyo has been wrestling with COVID-19 infection numbers at their highest in six months with the city under its fourth state of emergency.
Emperor Naruhito is set to declare the games of the 32nd Olympiad open in the ceremony at the newly built stadium which only a limited number of VIPs such as International Olympic Committee officials and foreign dignitaries were allowed to enter.
To the sound of popular Japanese video game tunes, including from the title “Dragon Quest,” athletes entered a stadium full of empty seats. They waved to cameras rather than a crowd while led by manga-themed country name placards carried by people from across Japan.
Marching in the order determined by the countries’ Japanese-language name, most delegations were led by a male and female flagbearer for the first time after the IOC changed its rules last year in a push for equal gender representation.
The ceremony featured Japanese tradition, highlighting fine craftsmanship with modern culture, while also celebrating athletes who have trained for the Olympics through the global health crisis, giving special mention to a female boxer who also worked as a nurse.
The cauldron will be lit by the Olympic flame that has traveled to all of Japan’s 47 prefectures since late March.
The 17-day Olympics through Aug. 8 will begin after numerous scandals and missteps, including the dismissal Thursday of a ceremony director over a past joke he made making light of the Holocaust.
Amid renewed worries that the Olympics and Paralympics could turn into a super-spreader event that heaps strain on the medical system, there are questions about whether anti-COVID-19 rules will be fully observed.
Already COVID-19 cases have been detected almost every day since the start of July among athletes and staff in and outside the athletes’ village, while the impact of Japan’s extreme heat also remains a concern with temperatures for the first days of the games forecast to regularly top 30 C.
Japan’s roughly 860,000 reported cases of the virus, with 15,000 deaths, are relatively low compared with many other countries, but public concern remains strong.
Tokyo, home to more than one-10th of the country’s population of around 125 million, has seen another wave of infections at a time when many Japanese remain unvaccinated. The capital reported 1,359 infections on Friday, a day after logging 1,979 cases, the highest since mid-January.
Hours before the opening ceremony, the Japanese air force’s Blue Impulse aerobatics team drew Olympic rings over the National Stadium, the 68,000-capacity main venue of the games.
Meanwhile, the torch relay quietly concluded its journey through the Japanese capital, having spent most of the 15-day final leg of its nationwide tour off roads and away from the public due to the pandemic.
The Tokyo Games, the second in the capital following the 1964 edition, will feature a record 33 sports comprised of 339 events. Karate, a martial art that originated in Okinawa, will make its Olympic debut along with surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing.
Choosing “Unity in Diversity” as one of its themes, the Olympics will have nearly an equal ratio of male and female athletes in what the IOC says will become the most gender-balanced games in history. The Refugee Olympic Team will be about three times larger than the first-ever contingent that competed at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Meanwhile, Russian athletes will participate under a neutral flag as a result of their country’s state-sponsored doping scheme, while North Korea has not sent any athletes due to the pandemic.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose public approval ratings have fallen as a consequence of his perceived poor handling of the pandemic, will find it difficult to pursue active diplomacy during the Olympics because very few foreign leaders have decided to visit Japan.
Since IOC President Thomas Bach and then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made the historic decision in March 2020 to push back the Olympics, the organizers and the government have repeatedly pledged to host a “safe and secure” games.
Organizers agreed in March this year to bar spectators from overseas. Then, in a decision earlier this month, they said fans will not be allowed at most of the 42 sites.
Japan won the bid to host the Olympics eight years ago, saying it wants to showcase the northeastern region’s reconstruction from the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011 and express its appreciation to the rest of the world for the support given during those difficult times.
The cost of hosting the Olympics and Paralympics has drastically increased from 734 billion yen ($6.67 billion) at the time of the bid to 1.64 trillion yen noted in the most recent budget report in December 2020.