OLYMPIC GAMES

Troubled Tokyo Olympics kick off amid pandemic fears

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics kicked off in style with a fireworks display.
The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics kicked off in style with a fireworks display. © David J. Phillip, AP

The most troubled Olympics in modern history finally got under way in Tokyo on Friday, struggling to emerge from the clutches of Covid-19 after a one-year postponement and following a build-up marred by scandal and controversy. Click on the player to watch FRANCE 24's special programme on the Games' kickoff.

Advertising

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics began in a nearly empty stadium with pink fireworks bursting into the air after a countdown. 

Japanese Emperor Naruhito and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, both masked, cheered on the athletes after bowing to each other before sitting down socially distanced.

"Today is a moment of hope. Yes, it is very different from what all of us imagined. But finally we are all here together," said Bach in the opening speech.

"You struggled. You persevered. You never gave up. Today you are making your Olympic dreams come true," he said.

Naruhito declared the Games open, with fireworks bursting over the stadium after he spoke.

Unlike his grandfather who opened the 1964 Games with a Japanese word that means "congratulations", Naruhito opted for a more neutral word in Japanese that is closer to "commemorate".

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka received the Olympic flame from a torch relay through the stadium and lit the Olympic cauldron.

After being passed from baseball legends to children, the torch was handed to Osaka, who walked to the base of the stage, which split open to reveal a set of stairs as the cauldron unfolded like a flower.

She then climbed the stairs and lit the cauldron as fireworks briefly illuminated the sky.

Major absences, ‘Stop the Olympics’ protesters

The ceremony was marked by major absences, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wooed the Games to Tokyo. Top sponsors also stayed away, highlighting strong opposition to the event in Covid-fatigued Japan.

Hundreds of people protested around the venue yelling “Stop the Olympics”.

A vastly smaller number of athletes, about 20 per nation, marched in the teams' parade, with many flying in just before their competitions and due to leave shortly after to avoid infections.

Most of the national teams walked silently, some socially distanced, others clustering together in ways utterly contrary to organisers' hopes, waving enthusiastically to thousands of empty seats.

The opening video featured at the stadium recapped Japan's path to the Games and the challenges the world has faced since the selection of the Japanese capital as host in 2013.

It showed how the Covid-19 epidemic struck in 2020, with lockdowns forcing the unprecedented postponement only four months before the Games were supposed to open, setting off a roller-coaster period of uncertainty and preparations in isolation for the athletes.

A moment of silence was held "for all those family and friends we have lost," especially to the coronavirus, and mention was made of the Israeli athletes slain at the 1972 Munich Games.

The event was taking place before just a few hundred officials and dignitaries, including Japan's Emperor Naruhito, US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country will host the next Games in 2024.

The Olympics have faced opposition in Japan over fears the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could trigger a super-spreader event.

Organisers have put strict virus measures in place, banning overseas fans for the first time ever, and keeping domestic spectators out of all but a handful of venues.

Athletes, support staff and media are subject to strict Covid-19 protocols, including regular testing and daily health checks. 

Polls have consistently found a majority of Japanese are against the Games, with opinion ranging from weary indifference to outright hostility.

But there was plenty of enthusiasm outside the Olympic Stadium in the hours before the ceremony, as hundreds of people gathered hoping to soak up the atmosphere and watch the fireworks expected during the extravaganza.

Tokyo daily Covid-19 cases total 1,359 as Games kick off
03:25

Mako Fukuhara arrived six hours before the ceremony to grab a spot.

"Until now it didn't feel like the Olympics, but now we are by the stadium, it feels like the Olympics," she told AFP as people snapped selfies nearby.

'Determined'

Traditionally a highlight of any Summer Games, featuring the parade of nations and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, Tokyo's opening ceremony has been drastically pared back.

Fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and officials were present at the stadium, and in a sign of how divisive the Games remain, several top sponsors including Toyota and Panasonic did not attend.

A few hundred protesters demonstrated against the Games outside the stadium as the ceremony began.

Tokyo is battling a surge in virus cases, and is under emergency measures that means bars and restaurants must shut by 8pm and cannot sell alcohol.

But Olympic officials have put a brave face on the unusual circumstances, with IOC chief Thomas Bach insisting cancellation was never on the table.

"We can finally see at the end of the dark tunnel," he said this week. "Cancellation was never an option for us. The IOC never abandons the athletes."

'Unusual atmosphere' for Olympics opening ceremony
02:08

There are also hefty financial incentives in play. Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for around $1.5 billion in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been cancelled.

The pandemic has not been the only hiccup in preparations though, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo. 

The controversies kept coming right up to the eve of the Games, with the opening ceremony's director sacked on Thursday for making a joke referencing the Holocaust in a video from 1998.

Back in the sporting arenas, a new generation of Olympic stars are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

US swimmer Caeleb Dressel could target seven gold medals, and in track and field, 400 metre hurdlers Karsten Warholm of Norway and the USA's Sydney McLaughlin are among those hoping to emerge as household names.

Gymnastics meanwhile will see Simone Biles attempt to crown her dazzling career by equalling Larisa Latynina's record of nine Olympic gold medals.

New Olympic sports will also be on display in Tokyo, with surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate all making their debut.

Climbing makes Olympics debut
02:02

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning