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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo's Olympic flame burns at last after subdued ceremony

Organizing chief vows to make Games 'source of pride' for future generations

The Olympic flame burns in Tokyo as the opening ceremony concludes on July 23. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

TOKYO -- The 2020 Tokyo Games kicked off on Friday with virtually no spectators, a reduced contingent of athletes, and subdued performances to acknowledge the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed the Olympics by a year.

The opening ceremony included a moment of silence for the 4 million people who have died in the pandemic. Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron, fashioned in the shape of the sun over Mount Fuji, after Emperor Naruhito officially opened the Games.

In an emotional speech, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto, a seven-time Olympian herself, praised athletes' perseverance in the face of the postponement and vowed to make these Games a "source of pride for generations to come."

"To the athletes, thank you for gathering here on this stage," Hashimoto said. "We have been encouraged by your commitment in spite of all the difficulties you've had to endure. You have always moved forward and done your very best. As a fellow athlete, I offer you my heartfelt gratitude."

Originally meant to be a showcase of Japanese culture and the country's recovery from the 2011 earthquake, and then a celebration of humanity's victory against COVID-19, the ceremony instead reflected the hurdles organizers faced.

The 68,000-seat National Stadium remained mostly empty, with only a few foreign dignitaries sitting alongside the emperor and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

Worse, the sound of protesters on the street seeped into the stadium, according to on-site media. Neither the severe paring down of festivities nor stringent restrictions on athletes and foreign guests managed to woo anti-Games residents back to the Olympic side.

The show had a budget of 16.5 billion yen ($150 million), shared with the closing ceremony. Panned by some international viewers as "boring," it was a product of the pandemic disruption as well as the scandals that befell its production team.

Bach had praised Tokyo as the "best prepared host ever," but the dismissal of three directors and a musical composer made a mockery of those words in the eyes of critics.

Just one day before the opening, the Tokyo organizing committee fired Kentaro Kobayashi, the show director, for joking about the Holocaust in a comedy act in 1998. The dismissal came three days after composer Keigo Oyamada resigned for abusing students with disabilities in the past. His part in the ceremony, a roughly four-minute piece to be played at the start of the event, was hurriedly replaced.

But there were also joyous moments. At noon on opening day, crowds amassed around the National Stadium grounds despite restrictions on public gatherings to cheer for the Blue Impulse squadron -- the aerobatics team of Japan's Air Self-Defense Force -- as it drew five Olympic rings in the sky to mark the end of the torch relay. This repeated the aerobatic display performed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

And though only 5,700 of the 11,000 athletes marched in the opening ceremony to avoid infection, the parade of 205 countries, territories and the refugee team brought some cheer. Delegations clad in colorful uniforms paraded through the stadium, smiling and waving as they gazed at the empty seats.

Social distancing made the ceremony 30 minutes longer than the original estimate. Greece led the march, as is customary, followed by the refugee Olympic team. Entering the stadium last were the U.S., France and Japan. France and the U.S. will host the Olympics in 2024 and 2028. The other teams marched in Japanese alphabetical order.

Due to the ban on spectators, just 950 people were allowed into the 68,000-seat National Stadium including dignitaries, sports officials and the media.

Japan's Emperor Naruhito, center right, IOC President Thomas Bach, center left, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, second from right, attend the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 23. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

Around 15 top-level dignitaries attended, including U.S. first lady Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Luvsannamsrai Oyun-Erdene of Mongolia. That is a much smaller number than in previous Olympics. London 2012 welcomed top-level dignitaries from around 80 countries, while Rio de Janeiro 2016 had officials from roughly 40 nations.

Suga on Thursday kicked off three days of Olympics diplomacy, meeting Jill Biden and WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. On Friday, Suga met Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla to seek faster delivery of coronavirus vaccine shipments. Pfizer provided 40,000 doses to athletes and other people involved in the Games and Bourla was set to attend the opening ceremony.

The ceremony also stood out for its dearth of visible corporate sponsors. Top-tier sponsors like Toyota Motor and Panasonic decided against sending executives. Other domestic sponsors, including NTT and NEC, also stayed away. The sponsors' reluctance suggested they were concerned that association with an Olympiad many Japanese oppose could hurt their brands.

Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was key to Tokyo's successful bid and delaying the Games for a year so that they could be held in "full form," also declined to attend the ceremony. Abe serves as honorary supreme adviser to Tokyo 2020.

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