Tokyo opening ceremony clings to traditions on a backdrop of humility

David Wharton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

TOKYO — Dozens of men and women run across the field in a darkened stadium, keeping their distance from each other. They symbolize all the athletes who have trained in solitude during the pandemic.

The Japanese flag comes into view, borne by a small group of young people and health care workers. The national anthem is sung as if in prayer.

The Tokyo Olympics began Friday night the only way they could have, with an occasionally somber opening ceremony acknowledging the ravages of COVID-19 that forced this global sports event to be postponed a year.

With new cases surging throughout Japan and much of the country in a state of emergency, there were few spectators in the stands, mostly just broadcast cameras, officials and reporters watching from the upper deck of Olympic Stadium, a gleaming if largely deserted venue in this city's fashionable Shinjuku district.

"It was a very challenging year," Toshiro Muto, director general of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said a few days earlier. "How can we make the Games something acceptable to the people? This is indeed a true test."

For the next 16 days, local officials and the International Olympic Committee will conduct what amounts to a carefully monitored, made-for-television event.


Athletes will be tested daily and yanked from competition at the first hint of infection. Masks and social distancing will be enforced away from the field of play.

Crowd noise recorded at previous Olympics will be played over the public-address system at arenas, taking the place of real fans who have been barred from attending.

"No spectators is disappointing," said Yukiko Ueno, a softball pitcher who led Japan to victory over Australia in a preliminary game earlier this week. "It's definitely sad that they won't be in attendance to support us in this Games."

None of this quite elicits the joyous and often raucous celebration that has marked opening ceremonies of the past. On Friday, the Japanese were forced to strike a different chord.


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