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23rd Jul 2021

Tokyo’s sombre opening ceremony felt more like an apology than a celebration

Tokyo 2020’s dull opening ceremony reflected the mood of a nation struggling with rising Covid-19 cases

The Tokyo Olympic Games are finally underway following a subdued opening ceremony – and a year of delays.

Five years on from the joyous, carnival-like scenes which marked the beginning of the Rio de Janeiro Games, this was an opening ceremony which felt like it was taking place in a different world. In some ways, it was.

The near-empty stands of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium were the most visible reminder that these Games will be far from the ones first imagined when Japan was awarded them in 2013, but the turbulence of the last 16 months was referenced throughout.

Athletes on treadmills, exercise bikes and rowing machines were seen in the early moments, reflecting the disruption many of the athletes have endured with the Games’ one-year postponement. Despite the obligatory striking visuals which accompanied the dancers and performers that followed, the music and the overall feel of the ceremony remained understated and sombre.

This was an intentionally stripped-back and condensed ceremony which ended a week fraught with yet more complications for the hosts. An eleventh-hour cancellation of the Games seemed, at one stage, a genuine possibility. The sacking of the ceremony’s artistic director, Kentarō Kobayashi, on Thursday threatened to pose further problems. It felt very much as though this was an occasion taking place against the backdrop of escalating Covid cases, in a country where the majority of the population are said to be against the idea of the Games taking place at all. This was only emphasised yards outside the stadium, as a large and increasingly vocal anti-Olympics protest was staged.

Back on the inside, Japanese Emperor Narahito and IOC president Thomas Bach took their seats to a smattering of applause from the few permitted to be in attendance. Japan’s defence forces brought the country’s flag to the pole, where it was raised to the soundtrack of the national anthem, Kimi Ga Yo. A moment’s reflection for lives lost followed, with an announcement specifically referencing those who have died from the virus.

The ceremony took a marginally more uplifting tone when five Olympic rings – crafted from the wood of pine and spruce trees grown from seeds planted to commemorate the last Tokyo Games in 1964 – were wheeled out into the middle of the stadium.

The entrance of the athletes, accompanied by orchestral renditions of well-known Japanese computer games, also provided welcome respite from the gloominess that had come before. Team GB were the 28th nation to appear, gold medal-winning rower Mohamed Sbihi making history as he became the first Muslim to carry the British flag at an Olympic opening ceremony.

Only then, as the competitors gradually filled the stadium floor space, filming the occasion on their phones and cameras, did this start to feel something vaguely resembling normal.

Such a feeling was only temporary. This was a ceremony which was supposed to convey a message of hope and resilience in the wake of all that has happened. In truth, it felt more like an apology, a quiet acceptance that many believe these Games should not be taking place, but that it is too late: as is often the way in top level sport, there are too many sponsors to appease to simply pull the plug.