An Olympics like no other finally got underway on Friday evening, July 23, in Tokyo. After months of anxiety, bickering and speculation — some even called it the Anger Games — Japan finally rolled out the Games of the 32nd Olympics in a muted yet meaningful opening ceremony witnessed in real time by millions of spectators worldwide.
Emperor Naruhito declared the Games open, sidestepping the use of the word “celebrate,” while Naomi Osaka, the top-ranked Japanese tennis sensation, lighted the Olympic flame cauldron.
A moment of silence was dedicated to those lost during the pandemic — and to the memory of the members of the Israeli delegation who were killed at the 1972 Munich Games.
A lone runner was shown entering the near-empty National Stadium to depict the loneliness of athletes training while locked down by the pandemic. A female athlete running on a treadmill was spotlighted: Akira Tsubata, a boxer who is also a nurse who has treated COVID-19 patients.
Workers brought in tools and materials to simulate the assembly of the five rings of the Olympic logo made of wood taken from trees planted during the Tokyo Games in 1964. Dancers depicted the people’s struggle versus the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Only three times previously were the Olympic games cancelled: Berlin 1916 due to World War I; Tokyo 1940 and London 1944 due to World War II. But while London staged the Olympics in 1948, it was not until 1964 that Tokyo regained the right to host that it forfeited in 1940 after it went to war against China in 1937.
Japan’s hosting was meant to demonstrate the country’s resilience in bouncing back from the catastrophic earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011 that killed more than 20,000 persons — and to thank the world for the support it received.
But the coronavirus pandemic struck a few months before the opening of the summer games last year, prompting then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to seek an unprecedented postponement. A long period of uncertainty ensued as even some major Japanese sponsors expressed serious doubts or suggested that it be cancelled.
Observers point out that Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chair, arrived in Tokyo on July 8, 2021, “a hundred and sixty-eight years to the day since an American naval fleet sailed into Edo harbor unannounced, forcibly ending more than two centuries of Japanese isolation.” They said Bach’s appearance “portends an eerily similar moment of high anxiety for the people and politicians of Japan.”
Japan’s quarantine has been broken, not by a foreign naval fleet, but by thousands of foreign Olympians out to demonstrate their grit and determination to achieve the Olympic motto. As announced by Bach, the IOC has modified the motto into “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together,” underlining global solidarity to overcome the coronavirus scourge.
The theme song United by Emotion — rendered to the tune of the iconic song “Imagine,” co-written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono — was played during the parade of country delegations led by male and female flag bearers signifying gender equality in sports.
Amid intense competition in the Games and against a backdrop of desolation, the staging of the Tokyo Olympics demonstrates the power of global solidarity: humanity that is linked by compassion, empathy and hope for a brighter future.