The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics began on Friday in a nearly empty stadium after a year-long pandemic postponement and a build-up marred by scandal and controversy.
A video showing athletes training at home during the coronavirus pandemic started the show, with pink fireworks bursting into the air after a countdown.
The ceremony in the 68,000-capacity stadium is taking place before just a few hundred officials and dignitaries, including Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, French President Emmanuel Macron and US First Lady Jill Biden.
The emperor will officially declare the Games open.
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.
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 are present at the stadium, and in a sign of how divisive the Games remain, several top sponsors including Toyota and Panasonic are not attending.
A few hundred protestors 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 8:00 pm and cannot sell alcohol.
– Dogged By Controversy –
But Olympic officials have put a brave face on the unusual circumstances, with IOC chief Thomas Bach insisting cancellation was never on the table.
“Over the past 15 months we had to take many decisions on very uncertain grounds,” he said this week. “We had doubts every day. There were sleepless nights.
“We can finally see at the end of the dark tunnel. Cancellation was never an option for us. The IOC never abandons the athletes… we did it for the athletes.”
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.