Weekend Gold Coast Bulletin
EMPTY STADIUM BUT FULL OF PROMISE
IT was the moment a socially distanced world had been waiting for – a coming-together of nations in a moving ceremony to declare the Tokyo Olympic Games open.
With the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic hanging over the Games, the 68,000-seat National Stadium was empty, with spectators banned and fewer than 1000 VIPs, journalists and Olympic officials allowed into the stands.
As the greatest athletes from 200 countries took part in the Parade of Nations, their waves were not to those in the stands but to the hundreds of millions of people watching at home, a welcome relief and distraction for a Covid-weary world.
The word “celebration’’ was discreetly dropped from Emperor Naruhito’s speech, replaced in Japanese language by a word meaning “commemorate’’, as organisers toned down some of the grander song-and-dance routines.
Days earlier, the International Olympic Committee had amended the 125-year-old Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger’’ by adding a fourth word, “Together’’, an acknowledgment by the world’s first pandemic Olympics of the global battle to defeat the coronavirus.
Covid was everywhere, the unwel come, uninvited guest that delayed the Games by a year, stole the chance for spectators to witness the world’s greatest celebration of sport and forced the athletes into face masks.
But for those marching from continents and countries around the globe, nothing was going to diminish this moment.
On a night of firsts, Australian flag-bearers Patty Mills and Cate Campbell added their names to the history books – basketballer Mills as the first Indigenous athlete to carry the Aussie flag, and Campbell the first female swimmer. It was the first time each country had nominated two flag bearers, one male and one female. And when the Parade of Nations began, teams walked out in alphabetical order based for the first time on the Japanese alphabet, not the English, meaning Australia came out later than its usual early position.
More than 50 Australian athletes were to take part in the parade, including the men’s basketball team, the Boomers, and tennis stars.
By tradition, Greece was to be first out on the track, with the Refugee Olympic Team of stateless athletes to come second. The host of the next Games, France, was to march out second-last, with the Japanese athletes closing out the parade.
The Games had been beset by problems – budget blowouts, political turmoil, sponsors declining to attend the ceremony, and a state of emergency declared in Japan days before the event was due to start.
None of that mattered, however, as the precise, elegant and very Japanese ceremony sent the clear message that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad were officially open.
A world divided and isolated by Covid was again united by sport, and had permission to party, albeit in a quiet and socially distanced way.
United Nations had sent two messages to the IOC membership and Tokyo 2020 organisers about the importance of the Games. The World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus arrived in Tokyo to tell organisers the Games had the power “to bring the world together” and “to inspire, to show what’s possible”.
The open-air National Stadium, rebuilt after hosting Toyko’s first summer games in 1964, showed off its open-air design, its latticework symbolic of the structures of Japan’s pagodas and shrines.
Elegant dancers dressed in white were to perform an interpretative dance with red ribbons – the colours of Japan’s distinctive Rising Sun flag while a rider on a futuristic vehicle swooped across the centre of the stadium.
The Olympic torches were the shape of the sakura, or famed cherry blossom, while the medals the victorious athletes will wear around their necks were made of recycled electronic devices such as mobile phones, in a nod to Japan’s success as an elec tronic manufacturing powerhouse.
Among the handful of dignitaries in the crowd were to be French president Emmanuel Macron and US first lady Jill Biden.
Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, an accomplished athlete himself who famously met his Tasmanian wife Mary Donaldson at a pub at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, was forced to cancel at the last moment after coming into contact with a Covid-positive person in Denmark.
The ceremony was also expected to introduce Miraitowa to the world, the friendly, athletic blue-checked mascot of the Games, a gender neutral personality that organisers say “has a special power to instantly teleport anywhere it wants.’’
For the first time, the cauldron, to be ignited by the final torchbearer, is not in the main Olympic stadium, but several kilometres away on the Yume on Ohashi pedestrian bridge in Toyko’s Waterfront City.
Japanese media reported that the stadium’s wooden latticework meant the cauldron would have breached local fire safety laws, with organisers forced to find a new location.