After a year of pandemic delays and persistent coronavirus fears, Japanese tennis sensation Naomi Osaka ignited the Olympic cauldron as the Tokyo Games opened on Friday.
In the highlight of a ceremony that was scaled back due to virus fears, Osaka hoisted the torch to the shimmering cauldron that had unfurled at the top of a ramp portraying Mount Fuji.
After COVID-19 caused organizers to exclude crowds from all but a few locations, Japan’s Emperor Naruhito officially began the Games in an eerily deserted Olympic Stadium.
“I declare open the Tokyo Olympic Games,” the monarch announced in Tokyo’s 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, wearing a white medical mask.
A group of children from the Fukushima region, which was devastated by a tsunami and a nuclear tragedy in 2011, presented the torch to Osaka.
It was a moving moment in a low-key ceremony attended by less than 1,000 VIPs and tens of thousands of athletes.
Another highlight was the formation of a revolving globe over the stadium by approximately 2,000 synchronized drones to a cover rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
A smaller parade of roughly 5,700 athletes entered the stadium, significantly fewer than normal, not all of whom were socially isolated but all of whom wore masks.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, recognized that the Games would be “very different from what all of us had imagined.”
However, he stated in an address that “today is a moment of hope.”
After the pandemic forced organizers to make this the first Games with virtually no spectators, the 16-day Games, with 339 gold medals across 33 sports, have a strange aspect.
Athletes are tested on a daily basis, but they perform on the highest platform with the constant fear that a positive test may jeopardize their Olympic goals.
Fears that the worldwide gathering of 11,000 athletes will turn into a super-spreader event have made the Games unpopular in Japan, where polls have showed opposition for months.
However, as the fireworks blazed overhead, hundreds of people gathered outside the stadium cheered and applauded.
The Games have cost Japan about $15 billion, including $2.6 billion in additional costs after they were postponed for the first time in modern Olympic history in March 2020.
Tokyo is likewise dealing with a spike in viral cases and is enacting emergency measures, albeit they aren’t as severe as a complete lockdown.