Athletes parade in empty stadium as Tokyo Games open in shadow of pandemic

The Olympic flag is carried towards the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
The Olympic flag is carried towards the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Image: GETTY IMAGES/ LAURENCE GRIFFITHS

In an opening ceremony marked by simplicity, one tradition held on Friday — athletes from all over the world paraded into the Olympic stadium to represent their nations, for the first time their smiles hidden behind masks and most countries represented by both male and female flagbearers.

But the opening ceremony, normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, lacked the usual glitz with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, strict social distancing rules and signs calling on spectators to “be quiet around the venue.” Regardless, it marked a coming together of the world, with an audience of hundreds of millions around the globe and at various stages of the pandemic tuning in to watch the start of the greatest show in sport.

Members of the Canada delegation wore patches in the colour of the rainbow, the symbol of the LGBT community, on their uniform jackets.

Other athletes were also expected to make statements about equality and justice and most nations were represented by a man and a woman after the organisers changed their rules to allow two flagbearers.

The opening also featured fireworks in indigo and white, the colours of the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and gave a nod to Japanese tradition represented by giant wooden Olympic rings linked to the 1964 Games.

A vastly smaller number of athletes, about 20 per nation, marched in the teams’ parade, with many flying in just before their competitions and due to leave shortly after to avoid infections.

Delegations tried their best to liven the mood. Uganda, wearing bright traditional costumes, did a few measures of a dance, while the Argentine delegation jumped up and down on entering.

There were also a variety of masks, from plain blue or white surgical masks to others in the colours of the national flags or emblazoned with national seals.

But several groups, including Kyrgyzstan’s Olympians, paraded maskless, marking an awkward contrast with the majority and sparking an angry reaction on Japanese Twitter.

Athletes marched to the music of some of Japan’s best-selling video games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, as country names on placards were shown in speech bubbles often used in manga cartoons.

PANDEMIC IMPACT

Japanese Emperor Naruhito and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, both masked, entered the stadium and bowed to each other before sitting down socially distanced.

The giant wooden rings were carried onto the field on a platform, guided by the light of many paper lanterns. They were made of lumber from trees that grew from the seeds borne by athletes from nations participating in the 1964 Games.

Only 15 global leaders are in attendance, along with Emperor Naruhito, who will formally open the Games as his grandfather Hirohito did in 1964, and US First Lady Jill Biden.

The ceremony was marked by high-profile absences, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wooed the Games to Tokyo. Top sponsors also stayed away, highlighting strong opposition to the event in Covid-fatigued Japan.


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