TOKYO – AIPS: Tokyo 2020 poster girl Naomi Osaka had the honour of lighting the cauldron that signalled the start of the first-ever postponed Olympic Games in what was a largely solemn ceremony held without spectators at the 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium on July 23.

Having been delayed by 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event’s theme “United by Emotion” carried even more significance as Japan tried to offer fresh hope and encouragement through brilliant performances.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito declared the Games open, becoming the third generation of his family to do so. His grandfather Emperor Hirohito opened the Tokyo 1964 Games and Winter Games in Sapporo in 1972, and his father Akihito performed the duty at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano.

Some global leaders were in attendance, including US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was one of the high-profile absences as top sponsors also stayed away, amid strong opposition from the Japanese public.

The COVID-19 crisis was brought to the fore early on in the show with a heartbreaking demonstration of how athletes were training alone and remotely over the past year. Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata, who is also a nurse, played a starring role in the sequence. Sadly, Tsubata would not be competing in Tokyo. Her qualifying bout was cancelled due to the pandemic and her ranking was not enough to earn her a spot.

Moment of silence

A major break with tradition was the staging of a moment of silence observed for the Israeli Olympic team members killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the first time in 49 years. All previous Games have failed to mark the horror.

“We, the Olympic community, also remember all the Olympians and members of our community who have so sadly left us, in particular we remember those who lost their lives during the Olympic Games,” said an announcer during the opening ceremony.

“One group still holds a strong place in all our memories and stand for all those we have lost at the games – the members of the Israeli delegation at the Olympic Games Munich 1972,” the announcer added.

The Olympic rings displayed at the Opening Ceremony were made from trees planted by athletes more than 50 years ago.

During the 1964 Tokyo Games, athletes were asked to plant trees to commemorate the competition, and 57 years later, they were harvested to create the gleaming symbols that were wheeled out during the Olympics opening ceremony Friday.

Constructed in the traditional Japanese woodworking style of Yosegi-Zaiku, the rings were onto the stage by the light of many paper lanterns and eventually pulled to form the Olympic symbol, with fireworks in the colours of the five Olympic rings launched into the night sky.

Olympic laurel

Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Olympic Laurel via live video link. Introduced at Rio 2016, the Olympic Laurel is to be awarded at the Opening Ceremony of each Summer Games. Kenya’s Kip Keino, who won steeplechase gold at Munich 1972 and the 1500 metres at Mexico City 1968, was the first recipient.

Following the award, Greece opened the parade, which used the Japanese alphabetical order, followed by the Refugee Olympic Team. Theme songs from some of Japan’s best-selling video games such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy ushered in the teams, while country names on placards were shown in speech bubbles often used in manga cartoons.

Most countries were represented by both male and female flagbearers in line with the IOC’s bid to promote gender equality.

Some teams like Brazil came with a much smaller team than usual due to COVID-19 related reasons. Only four athletes marched into the stadium representing Brazil.

Tongan Pita Taufatofua had a barechested companion from Vanuatu,

Last in line

A new IOC rule saw hosts of future Summer Games and the USA (Los Angeles 2028) and France (Paris 2024) march in at the end before the host nation.

The Olympic motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together was boldly displayed at the centre of the stage and more fireworks were launched.

Kirsty Coventry, the outgoing chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission delivered a video message before the Olympic oath was taken.

The Olympic Oath was performed by six people – three men and three women; sprinter Ryota Yamagata, water polo official Asumi Tsuzaki, judo coach Kosei Inoue, table tennis player Kasumi Ishikawa, surfing official Masato Kato and softball coach Reika Utsugi.

With athletes still surrounding the field, another beautiful performance took place in their middle as 45 colourful boxes were rearranged to form the Tokyo 2020’s emblem.

While the emblem remained on the field, drones formed the shape of the world in the air with lights as a children’s choir sang John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s classic Imagine to promote the message of peace. On video, Angélique Kidjo, John Legend and Keith Urban also sang verses of the song. The ceremony also featured special effects doves flying around the stadium.

Hosts’ welcome

When it was time for speeches, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said: “Following the challenges of the first ever postponement in Olympic history, the Tokyo 2020 Games finally open here today. Hopes have been connected one by one by many hands, and we are now in a position to welcome this day.

“The whole world has faced immense challenges with COVID-19. I would like to express my gratitude and respect to all essential workers including those in medical services and others around the world who have shown such determination in overcoming these challenges.

“I would also like to offer my thanks to the people of Japan for hosting the Games, as well as to the International Olympic Committee, the Government of Japan, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and other organisations for working so hard to make them happen. 10 years ago, when we decided to bid for the Olympic Games, many people in Japan faced profound difficulties, and were in mourning following the massive Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Helping hand

“Many of the affected communities were losing the will to pick themselves up and move forward. People from all over the world extended a helping hand, encouraging us to “Move forward together!” Now, 10 years later, we can show you the extent of Japan’s recovery. We are most grateful to all of you.”

She went on to appreciate the athletes for their commitment in spite of all the difficulties. “Citizens of the world and the people of Japan are with us in spirit as athletes from around the globe gather here at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo under the Olympic flag. Here is a vision for the future, one that embodies  ‘Unity in Diversity’, one of peace and respect for one another.”

Tokyo 2020 pictograms were brought to life in a creative and humorous way that got many talking about it. Japanese comedian Hitori Gekidan and Pianist Hiromi also performed as Japan showcased its landmarks.

Olympic flame

After 121 days of a low-key relay, 10,000 torchbearers, 2,000 km, the Olympic Flame entered the stadium.

In the stadium it was carried by Japanese athletes including triple Olympic judo champion Tadahiro Nomura and three-times Olympic wrestling champion Saori Yoshida. Baseball players Shigeo Nagashima, Sadaharu Oh and Hideki Matsui then took their turn before passing the Flame to a doctor and nurse, Iroki Ohashi and Junko Kitagawa, to symbolise the fight against COVID-19.

Paralympic athlete Wakako Tsuchida, who has won gold at both the Summer and Winter Games, handed the Torch to six children from Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures to recognise the Great East Japan Earthquake which devastated these areas in 2011.

After it arrived in Osaka’s hands, she climbed the steps of the Mount Fuji-inspired stage to light cauldron.

Watching the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was like unboxing a surprise package, starting from the long and exhausting walk from the bus station to the Olympic Stadium amid security checks, barricades and traffic cones. But there were flowers too, the ones from the seeds planted by Japanese schoolchildren months before the Games, with heartfelt drawings and messages.


Finally the Olympic rings in front of the stadium were in view and many flocked around it for photos and videos, feeling excited to have been part of the lucky few to get high-demand tickets.

Soon, it was time. Time to see what Japan had to offer a world still grappling with a pandemic. After these Games were postponed by a year due to the coronavirus crisis, organisers had hoped it would be the light at the end of a dark tunnel, and while IOC President Thomas Bach claimed that is still the case, the present reality is far off.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will run until August 8.