Naomi Osaka provides spark at tentative opening of Tokyo Olympics

Amid the darkness of the Tokyo skyline, a moment of hope and raging illumination. After nearly four hours of an opening ceremony that veered from the sombre to the spectacular, the Olympic flame was passed to the face of these Games, 大坂なおみ. As the steps of the Mount Fuji stage opened up before her, Japan’s globally recognised tennis star jogged towards the summit, nodded, and then set the cauldron – and perhaps these troubled Tokyo 2020 Olympics – alight.

It was the culmination of a ceremony that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) 大統領, トーマス・バッハ, promised would offer a “moment of hope” in a Covid-riven world.

“Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined,” he told the 6,000 athletes in the stadium. “The pandemic has forced us apart. But today, wherever in the world you may be, we are united in sharing this moment together. This separation made the tunnel dark. But today the flame makes this light shine brighter for all of us.”

その間, Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo organising committee, said she welcomed the athletes “with all my heart” before paying tribute to those who had been on the frontline of the pandemic.

“The whole world has faced immense challenges with Covid-19,” she said. “I would like to express my gratitude and respect to all essential workers, including those in medical services and others around the world who have shown such determination.”

The ceremony started out as the most downbeat in Olympic history, weighed down with a tangible sense of sadness, loss and isolation. It began with a female athlete on a treadmill, running alone in the darkness. Then came a lone cyclist, and a lone rower on an indoor machine. But when the spotlight shone on the whole stadium it revealed that dozens of others were also exercising, connected by the lines across the stadium floor.

The message was clear: despite everything that has gone on over the past 18 月, the world is still joined by an invisible bond. That was only reinforced when the small number of people inside the Olympic Stadium were asked to stand for a moment of silence for everyone who had died from Covid, as well as the members of the Israeli delegation who were assassinated at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

But while the first half was solemn and sad, the finale – which took place after a lengthy two-hour lull while the Olympic athletes were introduced – was spectacular. 最初, 1,824 drones lit up the sky above the stadium before the Tokyo 2020 emblem seamlessly became a revolving globe. Then came thousands of paper doves falling from the roof of the stadium, and an exuberant pictogram show. Then it was up to Osaka, who has not been seen since pulling out of the French Open citing mental health concerns, to apply magic.

Afterwards, she described it as “the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life”, adding on Twitter: “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now, but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”

One of the themes when Tokyo won the right to stage these Olympics was for it to be the “recovery and reconstruction Games” – an idea that began to form following the Tohoku disaster in 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami led to more than 10,000 deaths and a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bach used his speech to praise Japan for its resilience, both then and now.

“Thanks to all the Japanese people for making the オリンピック競技 可能," 彼は言った. “What is true for the perseverance of Japanese people is also true of you, my fellow Olympic athletes. Like all of us, you were living with great uncertainty. You did not know when you could train again. You did not know if this competition would take place at all. You struggled, you persevered, and today you are making your Olympic dream come true.”

Many of them certainly appeared happy, despite the athletes walking out in masks and in a socially distanced formation. The Argentinians jumped around manically. The Spaniards danced. The Americans and French came in mob-handed. その間, the British contingent, of just 22 from a team of 376, waved or fist-bumped. Some athletes appeared to walk straight out of the stadium to avoid hanging around.

As the evening dragged on, it was hard not to imagine a parallel universe where 68,000 people packed into this rebuilt Tokyo stadium, bathing the performers and athletes in sustained applause and joy. 代わりに, when Emperor Naruhito declared the Games of the XXXII Olympiad open, のみ 6,000 アスリート, 900 IOC officials and foreign dignitaries, そして 3,500 media representatives and volunteers were there to witness it.

These Games have a deserved reputation as the most troubled of modern times, going back to at least the boycotts of Moscow and Los Angeles and perhaps beyond. 東京 2020 faced corruption and sexism scandals, a budget swollen far beyond initial projections, and the fear that the intense summer heat could be dangerous to participants and spectators. And then Covid struck.

Organisers had held out hope of an outpouring of happiness and exhilaration as the Games neared. Instead spectators were banned, the public remained apathetic at best, and on the eve of the opening ceremony, its creative director was fired for making a joke about the Holocaust.

But in recent days there has been a softening of attitudes; a sense that not everything about these Olympics is rotten. It was evident in the packed crowds gathered outside the ring of steel surrounding the stadium hours before the flame was lit, taking selfies of themselves grinning next to the Olympic rings – although later there were a few protesters too.

Yet after Friday night, 東京 2020 can at least say this: these Games have lift-off. Whatever happens in the next fortnight, these Olympics – which have been described by the IOC as “the most complex ever” – are under way.

That is something few would have predicted at the start of this year. But now a nation, and the world, must hold its breath again.