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The Tokyo Olympics have begun one year late with an opening ceremony that built from a subdued start to a stunning drone display, visual comedy and a powerfully symbolic lighting of the cauldron by tennis star Naomi Osaka.
While the ceremony at National Stadium on Friday strived to stress the huge differences between Tokyo 2020 and all previous Olympic Games, the message was barely necessary: for the first time in the history of the Games, the spectacle unfolded before an almost empty stadium.
The four-hour ceremony, which occasionally struggled to generate a sense of atmosphere, sets the stage for 14 days of competition between 11,000 athletes against the backdrop of the world’s biggest metropolis, after an unprecedented delay because of coronavirus.
“Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined, but let us cherish this moment. Finally we are all here together,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, before Emperor Naruhito declared the Games open.
About 1,000 officials and other guests filled a small segment of a central grandstand while the remaining tens of thousands of seats remained unoccupied and dark.
Absent was the twinkling constellation of camera flashes and mobile phone lights so familiar in night-time stadiums in the years before the pandemic.
The ceremony began with a sombre tribute to the victims of Covid-19. Emperor Naruhito entered the stadium early, then watched as a team of tap dancing carpenters constructed the Olympic Rings, struggling to stir a stadium that was at one point so quiet that the voices of people in the streets outside were audible.
Then to the delight of video gamers across the world, a two-hour parade of national teams — most of them pared down to about a third of their normal size — took place to a soundtrack of some of the most famous Japanese games titles, including the music to Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Sonic the Hedgehog.
In a break with tradition, the athletes of some of the larger teams quietly left the stadium shortly after parading through the central area.
Once the parade was complete, however, the ceremony changed gear. A co-ordinated array of 1,824 drones formed a globe in the skies above the stadium, rotating around the Tokyo 2020 logo, and satisfying hopes that Japan would, at some point, showcase its formidable reputation for technology.
The mood then shifted into slapstick as a team of performers formed themselves in a dizzying six minutes into each of the 50 pictograms representing the different disciplines that will be contested in the coming days.
The pictograms were followed by a display of traditional kabuki by popular star Ebizō Ichikawa XI, heir to one of the greatest names in kabuki theatre and an acknowledged heart-throb to armies of fans.
Then the Olympic flame arrived, passing around the stadium until it arrived in the hands of Osaka, whose selection to light the cauldron follows a run-up to the Games in which Japan confronted some of its own issues with diversity amid other controversies.
Rising coronavirus cases led to an ongoing state of emergency in Tokyo, demands for cancellation from leading doctors and a belated decision to stage the Games behind closed doors.
But now that the Games have begun, organisers hope the sporting action — ideally aided by some early gold medals for the host nation — will become the centre of attention.
“As the world faces difficulty, the power of sport and the meaning of the Olympics are being called into question,” Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020, said as she held back tears. “Now is the time to show that power that athletes and sport hold.”
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