Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron and Emperor Naruhito officially declared the Tokyo 2020 Games open on Friday in front of a nearly empty Olympic Stadium, one year after the Games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Osaka received the Olympic torch after it was carried through the stadium by athletes including baseball legends Sadaharu Oh and Hideki Matsui, a doctor and nurse, and children from the Fukushima region devastated by a 2011 tsunami and earthquake.
“Today is a moment of hope,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said in an address at the Opening Ceremony.
“Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined,” Bach said. “But let us cherish this moment. Finally, we are all here together.”
The subdued tone of the ceremony reflected the challenging circumstances under which the Games are being held, with no public spectators allowed at events due to a state of emergency in Tokyo as it struggles to contain a spiking number of COVID-19 cases.
Despite the challenges, the ceremony was able to deliver some memorable moments using a blend of technology and artistry.
In one sequence, 1,800 synchronized drones hovered over the stadium, transforming from the OIympic rings into an enormous planet Earth, while a children’s chorus sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” joined by singers from around the world over a video feed, including John Legend, Keith Urban and Angelique Kidjo.
And little could dim the enthusiasm of the athletes making the way through the stadium in the Parade of Nations.
The parade began with Greece, the birthplace of the Olympics, leading the way, followed by the team of refugee athletes. The remaining nations entered the stadium in order according to their names in Japanese.
American athletes came in third to last, just ahead of France and host country Japan, chanting “USA! USA!”
The delegation was led by four-time Olympic basketball champion Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez, a member of the U.S. baseball team who won a silver medal as part of the 5,000-meter, four-man, short-track speedskating team at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014.
The pair wore microphones and were able to speak to NBC hosts Savannah Guthrie and Mike Tirico during the procession
“The energy’s insane,” Bird said. “I know our country’s going through a tough moment, but we all feel unified.”
“I’m freaking out a little bit,” Alvarez said. “It’s so emotional. I’m feeling the energy from my team.”
Team USA athletes wore outfits designed by Ralph Lauren, featuring navy blazers, jeans, striped T-shirts, flag-print scarves and cotton face masks.
Olympic organizers encouraged teams to have two flag bearers this year, in an effort to create a more equitable balance for female athletes. The IOC said that these will be the first Games in history to have almost equal gender representation, with women’s participation at 48.8%.
Russian athletes marched under the name ROC, for Russian Olympic Committee. They are unable to compete under the country name or use their national anthem due to continuing sanctions for running a state-sponsored doping program.
Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless flag bearer for Tonga who rose to social media stardom during the Opening Ceremony at the Rio 2016 Games, made his third appearance for the Polynesian nation.
South Korean athletes entered under very different circumstances from when their country hosted the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018. At those Games, athletes from North and South Korea marched together under a unified peninsula flag, kicking off a period of diplomatic engagement. This year, North Korea is not participating, citing the coronavirus pandemic, while its relations are at a low ebb with the United States and South Korea.
Before the ceremony, U.S. first lady Jill Biden published an open letter in support of the members of Team USA on the NBC News website.
“Your entire nation is cheering you on, and we are grateful for what you’ve given us: the chance to come together in common awe and appreciation for your accomplishments and the shared joy of rooting for our country on the edge of our seats,” she wrote.
Biden is leading the Team USA delegation.
The theme of the Opening Ceremony was “United by Emotion,” and the organizers said they hoped the event would will “be an experience that conveys how we all have the ability to celebrate differences, to empathize and to live side by side with compassion for one another.”
The Opening and Closing Ceremonies are being held at Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, a site used as the main stadium for the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games and was rebuilt as a new stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Games. Athletics events and soccer matches will be held there during the Games.
The ceremony has been hit with a round of scandals in the closing hours of its preparation.
The director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, comedian Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired Thursday after a video from a 1998 skit surfaced in which he made jokes about the Holocaust.
Kentaro’s dismissal came on the heels of the resignation Monday of Keigo Oyamada, the musician also known as Cornelius, who was in charge of composing music for the Opening and Closing ceremonies. An outcry emerged around interviews that surfaced in which he admitted to torturing and sexually abusing special needs classmates when he was a student.
Just a handful of world leaders attended the ceremony Friday, including Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
Notably absent was former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who had been instrumental in securing the Olympics for Tokyo before stepping down last year due to health issues.
A number of Japanese business leaders also distanced themselves from the ceremony, with the heads of major sponsors Panasonic and Toyota deciding not to attend.
The Games have been deeply unpopular with the Japanese public, with 55% saying they opposed holding the Olympics and 68% doubting they can be held safely, according to a poll this week by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.