As the lights dim in Tokyo’s empty Olympic stadium, where only privileged journalists and bobos are allowed to witness the opening ceremony, just outside the crowd crowds who would have loved to sit on the 80,000 folding seats. From a street corner, they point their phones at the immense building, just to get a glimpse of the history being written in their city, and take the risk of a corona infection for granted.
The group that had been protesting loudly at the stadium gates a few hours earlier was much smaller, and it became clear that the magic of the Games can at least temporarily silence the toughest criticism.
But what an organizational battlefield it has been in recent days, when it was no coincidence that images from 1998 surfaced of the director of the opening ceremony, the comedian Kentaro Kobayashi, making jokes about the Holocaust. He had to clear the field at work the day before the apotheosis. Shortly before that, the show’s composer, Keigo Oyamada, also resigned after admitting to bullying disabled children in high school. The Olympic anticipation was a soap opera, with increasing infections as a daily cliffhanger. As if the host country hadn’t been punished enough already in the past year.
With a video compilation, people in the stadium are once again reminded of how great the release and joy was when it was announced in 2013 that Japan was allowed to organize the Games again after 57 years. With today’s knowledge, the images are a strange sensation, because nobody could have imagined then that the actual performance, a year later than planned, would turn out so surreal. That it would be journalists sitting in the fan’s chair, filling silences with applause, and later standing and clapping at the hours-long athletes’ parade to reveal on whose behalf they were reporting.
The anticipation of the Games was a soap opera, with increasing infections as a daily cliffhanger
Fireworks erupt around the edges of the oval-shaped stadium that was built for $ 1.2 billion for this moment. On TV the difference with the past cannot be seen when the cameras zoom out and the spectacle is framed, but on site one sees the colorful hues of a faded and uncomfortable festival. The remainder of the ceremony would be modest, the chairman of the organizing committee had promised. A delicate memory of light and sound of the hard year everyone has had. Leave the appropriate wavelength of a moment to the Japanese. Actually, the missing audience fits the bill, introducing a cautious celebration of sport and an attempt to make something of the present.
In the large white center field, a runner begins to run on a treadmill, against the background of pants witnessed by no one but him. A rower pulls on her ergometer and a cyclist pedals on an exercise bike. This is how the protagonists of this Olympic tournament prepared themselves, often in silence and seclusion, linked to digital means in a common destiny, and that was to shine on the podium of the Games, with or without fans, still the highest attainable. White dots of light, a little later withering petals, must represent the bites that still made contact possible when motivation and perspective seemed to be lacking.
The missing audience does fit in with the whole, an attempt to make something of the present
The spotlight is on Emperor Naruhito and then on Olympic monarch Thomas Bach. They greet each other and wave to an audience that is not physically there, but who are undoubtedly watching en masse. They sit down as the Japanese flag is carried in by former champions and a healthcare worker, a tribute to those who saved the world from worse. The voice of the singer Misia, as the Japanese national anthem begins, cuts through every soul that is not insensitive. Then the Olympic rings are brought together, four meters high and made from the wood of trees planted by Olympians in 1964. No lack of symbolism, this strange Friday evening.
Faster, higher, stronger, is printed in the center field at the end of the parade – the Olympic motto. In Tokyo there is together added to. Bach has his mouth full. Stripped of all theatre, the message remains timeless; the Games were founded to fraternize, nowadays more often referred to as inclusiveness. That is perhaps more important than ever in today’s world.
1,824 drones take off and form a globe high above Tokyo. The coronavirus has been pushed into the background for a moment, as the Japanese flag is hoisted and tennis star Naomi Osaka ignites the Olympic flame in a work of art referring to Mount Fuji. The Games are open. The challenge is that they stay that way.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 24 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 24, 2021