TOKYO — The concourses at the new National Stadium gleam. The carpet in the hallways on the VIP floor is plush and has something of a new-car smell. Even the beams supporting the roof aren’t harsh metal, but instead have a beautiful faux-wood finish. It’s a very hipster roof, for a place that can hold 68,000 people.
The stadium was built, at a cost of more than $1-billion, on the site of the arena that was the showpiece of the 1964 Olympics. They knocked that one down and put the fancy new one up instead, signalling Japan’s growth and achievement in the five-plus decades since Tokyo hosted a Games.
And when Tokyo 2020 finally kicked off on Friday night, 364 days after the original plan, Japan’s new jewel was largely empty. The opening ceremony had most of the usual elements of these things: a dance number about the origin of man, a sombre message of peace and unity, a cover of John Lennon’s Imagine. What it did not have was fans.
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The days and weeks leading up to the curtain-raising have often felt somewhere between parody and farce. The director of the opening ceremony was deposed this week over a Holocaust crack he made in a comedy act in 1998. He had replaced the original director, who resigned when he made a pig joke about a woman who was to take part in the show. One of the show’s composers also resigned recently over admissions of horrible bullying of a disabled classmate and, of course, all of this has been taking place amid a COVID surge in the city, one that scuttled plans to have Olympic venues at least partially full of spectators. On Friday here came news that a typhoon is presently on track to reach Tokyo next week. Of course it is. By the weekend, locusts. Before the closing ceremony, Godzilla.
All of the difficult news, coupled with public opposition to the Games, has given local organizers a defiant attitude about the whole thing. They dispute the notion that the event shouldn’t have been held, they insist that new positive COVID cases in the bubble are merely proof that the system is working, they argue that these Olympics are perhaps just the tonic that the world needs after 18 months of pandemic-induced misery. Even the Canadian Olympic Committee, which led the way in refusing to send its team to the not-yet-postponed Games last year, has adopted the new tone. Tricia Smith, the COC president, said on Friday morning that the Olympics are “a symbol of hope for the future. Hope for what’s possible. That magic, that hope, is perhaps needed more now than ever.”
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That’s the optimistic view, anyway. But on Friday night in Japan, it wasn’t entirely the prevailing one. A moderate throng of protesters gathered on the streets outside National Stadium and, with the arena dead quiet in the minutes before the big show began, it was the noise from beyond the bowl that drifted inside. For weeks now, the idea that all the concerns about the Olympics would be forgotten once the spectacle began has been repeated a lot. These people came out to say otherwise.
Other locals, though, were just a short time earlier politely queueing for a photo in front of the Olympic rings and craning to snap shots of the stadium exterior through holes in the wire. It was proof that not all Japanese are indifferent or worse to Tokyo 2020.
The ceremony itself began on a quiet note, with an acknowledgement that the excitement of building toward the summer of 2020 had come to an abrupt halt that spring. Athletes instead spent a year often alone, as portrayed by scenes of people training, spread out on the big stadium floor. It was thoughtful and poignant. From there, another nod to the toll of COVID-19 and those many people who were lost to it, and a short reference to the victims of the Munich massacre in 1972. It felt a little like the producers, wary of projecting too much of a party vibe too soon, wanted to be a little extra sombre at the start. This had the side effect of allowing the sounds from the protests outside to be heard during the quiet parts.
The reservations were dropped — and the sounds of protest drowned out — with the parade of athletes, which went on for its usual two-plus hours even though the participating contingents for most countries were slashed dramatically by COVID protocols. (Athletes are not allowed to arrive in Japan until close to their event.) And again, the lack of crowd was noticeable. Normally, certain countries bring huge cheers when they are announced, which if nothing else is a good indication of their travelling parties. But in 2021, the athletes came out to no cheers at all, and had to wave to no one in particular and be content to take photos of each other. Even in the happiest part of the ceremony, something was missing. The parade was closed with Japan, finally a country with a full team here, and though there were a few cheers and applause, the host nation usually ends this thing with a massive roar. Instead, polite applause.
A light show with drones that created a floating and rotating globe above the stadium provided a wow factor after the parade, even if the Imagine soundtrack was not exactly inspired, and then it was over to some speeches.
Thomas Bach, the IOC president, told his Japanese audience that the event was only happening because of them. “We can only be here all together because of you,” he said, in what was surely not a line crafted with noisy outside protests in mind.
The remaining beats were hit. Flags raised, anthems sung, a cauldron lit.
Outside the stadium when it was finally over, the protesters had dispersed. The crowds of excited onlookers remained.
Despite everything, something about the Olympics endures.