Olympics begin with grim opening ceremony at nearly empty Tokyo stadium


Stacy Sainte-Claire

TOKYO – Here’s what you need to know about Arisa Tsubata, the woman who ran on a treadmill at the start of the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday.

She is a nurse who worked in a Tokyo hospital throughout the pandemic.

She is also a boxing champion who was on track to be part of the Japanese squad when COVID-19 hit and organizers postponed the Games. When the delay forced his sport to change its qualifying criteria, his dreams of being on the team came to an end.

Tsubata has had a difficult year.

So it seemed entirely fitting that she was the star of the darkest opening ceremony in recent history.

Tsubata’s personal story, like the Opening Ceremony, reflected the melancholy that threatens to envelop these Olympics. This is a sadness unique to these Games and to the world as a whole, neither of which is easy to rectify.

The International Olympic Committee insists on calling this event Tokyo 2020, as if last year never happened. There is no erasing the devastating impact of a pandemic, especially in a largely unvaccinated country where the number of confirmed cases continues to rise.

Since organizers postponed the competition last year, more than 4 million people worldwide have died from the coronavirus. Reminders of the deadly impact of COVID-19 were seen throughout the opening ceremony, empty seats and signs prohibiting singing for athletes entering the stadium with masks on.

First responders played a key role throughout the ceremony. In addition to Tsubata, frontline workers carried the Olympic flag around the stadium and helped carry the torch inside.

On the morning of the ceremony, one of Japan’s most respected newspapers ran an op-ed denouncing the Japanese government and the IOC for organizing the competition as polls show up to 68% of the public doubted the event can take place in complete safety. The title didn’t fire any punches, referring to “sadness and unhappiness” in the air.

“There is no feeling of euphoria or a festive mood in the capital,” the editorial read. “A lot of people just have to want the event to end without suffering serious problems.”

July 23, 2021;  Tokyo, Japan;  Naomi Osaka lights the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

At least one man stood outside the Olympic stadium, holding up the newspaper for passing reporters as they entered the building. And at the start of the ceremony, protesters could be heard outside the arena chanting “Cancel the Olympics” in Japanese.

IOC President Thomas Bach did not mention the opposition in his remarks, instead describing the Olympics as a balm for the world’s bruised soul.

“This Olympic experience makes us all very humble because we realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” Bach said. “We are part of an event that unites the world. United in all our diversity, we become greater than the sum of our parts. We are always stronger together.”

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Bach acknowledged the extraordinary obstacles faced by athletes over the past year, in which many lost access to training facilities and some were forced to question whether they could afford to stay in their sport for another year.

July 23, 2021;  Tokyo, Japan;  Team USA athletes march through the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics at the Olympic Stadium.  Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

“You had to face great challenges on your Olympic journey,” he said. “Like all of us, you lived in great uncertainty during the pandemic. You didn’t know when you could train again. You didn’t know if you could see your coach tomorrow. You didn’t know if your teammates would be with you for the next competition. You didn’t even know if this competition would take place at all. “

It was easy to sympathize with the athletes – those who could attend the ceremony and those who couldn’t. COVID-19 rules ban athletes from entering the Olympic Village for up to five days before their competition, meaning many were unable to attend the opening ceremony.

Ethiopia, for example, only had one athlete in the Parade of Nations despite qualifying 54 Olympians. The whole team is set to compete in track events that don’t start until next week, so they’re not yet allowed in.

Few moments, however, seemed as depressing as when the Japanese delegation entered the arena. One of the most electrifying moments of the Olympics is the roar that rises as the home country enters the stadium during the opening ceremony.

This year, however, the heroes of the hometown were greeted with soft applause from the ever-attentive diplomats.

In the end, the only seemingly normal moment came when Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua entered the stadium carrying his country’s flag. A taekwondo athlete with an unremarkable international record, Taufatofua caught the world’s attention in 2016 when he wore traditional Tongan attire at the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.

Social media immediately focused on his bare torso which had been heavily smeared with coconut oil.

He came armed with oil again this year. He also came with a message for the world.

“Each sunset is followed by a sunrise,” he said before walking into the stadium. “We are in a sunset, but I can guarantee you the sun will rise again after all of this.”

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