Tokyo Olympics open to a sea of empty seats

The Olympic flag is carried into Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo on Friday, July 23, 2021. (Photo: NyYTimes)
TOKYO — The opening ceremony of the 32nd Summer Olympics unfolded in subdued fashion Friday night inside a nearly empty Tokyo stadium, inaugurating a Games delayed by a year and diminished in atmosphere by a tenacious pandemic.اضافة اعلان

With attendance limited to fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and other invited guests in an Olympic Stadium built to seat 68,000, the ceremony’s centerpiece — the athletes’ procession — was staged entirely for television.

Masked athletes, many in reduced contingents to preserve social distancing, waved at nonexistent fans as they marched in. Dancers in pastel costumes and hats provided the only live encouragement during what is normally an exuberant parade before a wildly cheering audience.

Just as notable as the missing supporters were the prominent political and business leaders who decided not to attend, worried about being seen as endorsing an event that has lost much of its meaning among a Japanese public exhausted by the pandemic and widely opposed to the Games.

Although some competitions started earlier this week, the ceremony Friday represented the official start of the Olympics, with more than 11,000 athletes from 205 countries expected to participate in 33 sports over the next two weeks.

Nearly all of the events, like the opening ceremony, will be held without spectators, and the athletes will compete under strict protocols that limit their movement.

Usually it is the Olympians who face considerable odds, but this time it was also the organizers who waged an uphill battle to get to this moment. What was meant to be a showcase of Japan’s gleaming efficiency, superior service culture and appeal as a tourist destination has instead been swamped by infection fears and host committee scandals.

The opening ceremony is often the host nation’s chance to show itself off — think of Beijing’s regimented drummers in 2008 or London’s dancing National Health Service nurses four years later. But the Tokyo organizers put on a simpler show.

In a moment of silence, an announcer asked those watching around the world to remember those lost to COVID-19 and the athletes who had died in previous Olympics, including the Israeli athletes killed during a terrorist attack at the Munich Games in 1972.

Although it was not explicitly mentioned until the organizers gave their speeches, the ceremony invoked the original framing of Tokyo’s Olympic bid — as a symbol of the country’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011. A sole figure dressed in white and in ghostly makeup danced on a platform in the middle of the field as waves of light coursed around the stadium.

And with lighted drones above the stadium forming a giant rotating globe; a rendition of “Imagine” sung on the Jumbotrons by performers like Angélique Kidjo, John Legend and Keith Urban; and confetti doves falling from the sky, the organizers were clearly trying to divert the message of the Games away from the pandemic and scandals and toward the more anodyne themes of peace and global harmony.

But that messaging may have little resonance with the Japanese public, as coronavirus infections in Tokyo have risen to a six-month high and the domestic vaccine rollout has proceeded slowly.

In quieter moments throughout the ceremony, protesters outside the stadium could be heard yelling, “Stop the Olympics!” through bullhorns.

Just a day before the opening festivities, the organizing committee dismissed the ceremony’s creative director after it emerged that he had made jokes about the Holocaust years ago during a television comedy skit.

His firing came just days after a composer for the ceremony resigned — and organizers withdrew a four-minute piece he had written — in response to a vociferous social media campaign criticizing him for severely bullying disabled classmates during his school years.

These were only the latest scandals in a long line of setbacks. Two years after winning the bid, the government abandoned a sleek stadium design by a famous architect, Zaha Hadid, because of ballooning costs. The organizers had to scrap their first logo after plagiarism accusations. French prosecutors indicted the president of Japan’s Olympic Committee on corruption charges related to the bidding process. Fearing extreme heat in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee moved the marathon to Sapporo, on Japan’s northern island, 500 miles from the Olympic Stadium. And the president of the Tokyo organizing committee was forced to resign after making sexist comments.

Still, now that the Games have finally arrived, the sheer spectacle of the world’s largest sporting event started to push those issues aside.

The night before the opening ceremony, Aya Kitamura, 37, a traditional Japanese musician, biked to the Olympic Stadium to stake out the best viewing spot from outside the venue.

“Of course, I understand that there are many opinions about the Olympics,” said Kitamura, who said her parents had often told stories about watching the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “But as the Games get closer, I think everyone is getting a little more excited day by day.”

Among the several hundred people who sat in the $1.4 billion Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony Friday were Japan’s emperor, Naruhito, who officially opened the Games; first lady Jill Biden of the United States; President Emmanuel Macron of France, whose capital city, Paris, will host the next Summer Games, in 2024; and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.

But several high-profile prospective attendees declared that they would not be present, including Akio Toyoda, chief executive of Toyota, a prominent Olympics sponsor that had decided against running Olympics-themed television advertisements in Japan. Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister who helped Tokyo secure the bid for the Games, also decided to stay away.

Several overseas dignitaries, including Princess Anne of England and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres decided not to come, citing coronavirus restrictions. President Moon Jae-in of South Korea canceled a planned visit after being insulted by a Japanese diplomat.

Marching into the stadium as the flag bearers for Japan were Rui Hachimura, the multiracial basketball star who plays for the Washington Wizards, and Yui Susaki, a female wrestler. Hachimura is just one of several multiracial athletes — Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron, being the most prominent — who are representing a largely homogeneous Japan at the Olympics.

Still, the fanfare can go only so far with a wary public. Kentaro Tanaka, 28, a consultant in Tokyo who was walking his dog near the Olympic Stadium the night before the opening, said he liked soccer and planned to watch the matches but questioned authorities’ priorities.

“Isn’t there some other stuff the government has to work on?” Tanaka said, before wondering aloud when he might finally be able to get a vaccination appointment.

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