Tennis star Naomi Osaka has lit the Olympic cauldron at an opening ceremony that no-one could have imagined before COVID, officially kickstarting a Games that will also be unlike anything in history.
In a dark and empty stadium which would normally seat 68,000 people, Tokyo marked a milestone with no cheering or roaring crowds, a thin parade of athletes in masks and performances that were reflective rather than celebratory.
Normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, the event was sombre and low-key, with strict social distancing rules and the world’s best athletes waving to empty seats and some 900 VIPs including US First lady Jill Biden.
Yet this long-awaited and controversial coming together of the world was also an example of resilience and shone as a beacon of hope in a time that has been overshadowed by a global pandemic.
And despite the controversies, protests and dramatically different vibe, it is still considered the greatest show on earth with the world’s fastest, strongest and most determined athletes continuing the ancient sporting tradition.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, masked and cheering the athletes, said it had taken a lot of work and determination for everyone to get to this point.
“Today is a moment of hope. Yes it is very different from what all of us imagined. But finally we are all here together,” said Mr Bach.
“You struggled. You persevered. You never gave up. Today you are making your Olympic dreams come true,” he told the athletes.
Unlike his grandfather who opened the 1964 Games with a Japanese word that means “congratulations,” Emperor Naruhito opted for a more neutral word in Japanese which is closer to “commemorate”.
Organisers also paid tribute to medical workers and there was a moment of silence “for all those family and friends we have lost” — especially to COVID-19 — with mention of the Israeli athletes slain at the 1972 Munich Games.
Yet the ceremony was still climaxed by a superstar appearance, with four-time grand slam champ Osaka bestowed the honour of lighting the cauldron.
After being passed from baseball legends to children, the torch was handed to the Australian Open champion who walked to the base of the stage, which split open to reveal a set of stairs as the cauldron, representing Mount Fuji, unfolded like a flower.
She then climbed the stairs and lit the cauldron as fireworks briefly illuminated the Tokyo night sky.
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) July 23, 2021
At the parade, most countries were represented by both male and female flagbearers in an Olympic first.
Patty Mills and Cate Campbell led the Australian team with 63 of the 472 at the ceremony while hundreds more teammates watched from around the world because of strict fly-in fly-out rules at the Games.
NBA champion Mills became the first Indigenous Australian to carry the flag and said it was “a special moment and a massive privilege to represent a certain group of people, but at the same time be representative of all Australia”
“It feels great. All the emotions are running through me right now and I think they’ll come flooding out soon,” said Mills.
Frontline medical worker and Australian pistol shooter Elena Galiabovitch was given a special honour, chosen as one of the elite half-dozen athletes to bring the Olympic flag into the arena.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would ever help carry the Olympic flag at an opening ceremony,” said the 31-year-old doctor.
“Not only am I representing the continent of Oceania and all its athletes, but I’m privileged to represent Australia’s Olympic Team, the 15-member Australian shooting team, and all frontline medical workers who’ve done such a magnificent job under very difficult circumstances over the past 18 months.”
The opening recapped Japan’s path to the Games and the challenges the world has faced since the selection of the Japanese capital as host in 2013.
It also featured fireworks in indigo and white, the colours of the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and gave a nod to Japanese tradition represented by giant wooden Olympic rings linked to the 1964 Games also hosted by Tokyo.
Celebrities including Australia’s Keith Urban performed a pre-recorded rendition of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 classic, ‘Imagine’.
The Olympic oath, recited by the athletes at the end of the parade, was updated for the Tokyo Games, with athletes swearing their commitment to inclusion, equality, and non-discrimination for the first time at the Olympics.
Postponed for a year, organisers were forced to take the unprecedented step of holding the Olympics without fans as the novel coronavirus is on the rise again, taking lives around the world.
Australia joins Parade of Nations
Boomers star and NBA title winner Patty Mills has become the first Indigenous Australian to carry the flag.
Wearing shorts and short-sleeve button-up shirts with ties, the Australian team walked into a near-empty stadium.
Australia’s chef de mission Ian Chesterman, deputy chef de mission and three-time Olympian Susie O’Neill walked behind them, along with Sam Stosur competing in her fifth Olympics and Melissa Wu and Joe Ingles in their fourth.
They were followed by Olympians in order of their Olympic appearances, with Mills’ Boomers teammates and the Opals forming a bulk of the marching squad.
Athletes who remained at the village performed their own march before watching the ceremony from the stadium on a big screen, like their fellow athletes already based in other event cities throughout the country.
Athletes can only arrive five days before their event, meaning some Australian athletes are yet to touch down in Japan.
“We have always prioritised performance first and the athletes understand that,” Chesterman said.
“For many it is simply not possible to take part in the ceremony (due to competition logistics), but to have so many march is wonderful.
“This is a special team. Each athlete has endured a difficult path to these Games – and they have responded.
“To have so many march and so many others participate in a special ceremony back in our allotment where they will march around the Village as a group, shows how proud they are as Australians to march behind those Australian flags.”
Australia was 36th in the running order of 206 countries marching, sliding down the order due to the differences in the Japanese language.