Fireworks and face masks as Tokyo douses Olympic flame on pandemic-defying Games

Fireworks are seen from outside the stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games on August 8, 2021.
Fireworks are seen from outside the stadium during the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games on August 8, 2021. © Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

Masked athletes marched into a near-empty stadium in Tokyo on Sunday as Japan prepared to douse its Olympic flame and close a Games that were upended by the pandemic and then transformed by the drama of politics, sport and personal turmoil.


A volley of white-and-gold fireworks streaked above the Olympic Stadium, putting in sharp relief the oddity of a Games held without spectators.

The stage looked sparse even as athletes marched in carrying their national flags. Many of the best-known athletes have already left Tokyo and were not able to attend Sunday’s event. Athletes are supposed to fly home 48 hours after their final competition.

The Tokyo Olympics were originally intended to show Japan’s recovery from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in 2011. After being postponed for a year, organisers said the Games would serve as a symbol of the world’s triumph over the pandemic. But without spectators and with COVID-19 variants resurgent, the Games fell short of triumph and the financial windfall Japan first sought.

Public anger over the pandemic response and a slow-to-start vaccine roll-out have badly damaged Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s standing. Public opinion polls showed most Japanese opposed holding the Games during the pandemic.

Olympic judo champion Naohisa Takato and swimmer Yui Ohashi were among those who carried the national flag into the stadium at the start.

The Takarazuka Revue, an all-women musical theatre group with a history spanning more than a century, sang the national anthem dressed in colourful traditional hakama.

It seemed an odd pairing for the Games, as the Takarazuka allows only unmarried women to perform and touts “modesty” and “grace” as part of its motto. The Games, by contrast, are said to stress gender equality.

Around a hundred protesters carrying signs that read “Olympics kill the poor” and “We don’t need the Olympics” jostled with police officers outside the stadium, although they were outnumbered by the crowd that lined the streets. Would-be spectators came out in force during the Games, defying authoritiesand blistering heat to peek in from overpasses as they tried to catch a glimpse of outdoor events such as the triathlon or new sports such as skateboarding.

Organisers appear to have prevented the Games from spiralling into a COVID-19 superspreader event, notable given that some 50,000 people came together amid the pandemic.

While the bubble - the set of venues and hotels to which Olympic visitors were largely confined - appeared to hold, elsewhere some things fell apart. Fuelled by the Delta variant of the virus, daily infections spiked to more than 5,000 for the first time in Tokyo, threatening to overwhelm its hospitals.


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