When a national leader as conservative as Shinzo Abe was persuaded to emerge from a giant pipe in Rio dressed as the world’s most famous plumber, it felt like Tokyo had already hatched plans to put on an Olympic show like no other when its chance came four years later.
The coronavirus not only forced the summer Olympics’ fallow season to be extended by 12 months; it has guaranteed that nothing as whimsical as a cosplaying politician will be making a reappearance at the official start of the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The London 2012 opening ceremony has been touted as the “most popular” precursor to the Games over the past quarter of a century, but whatever transpires inside the 68,000-seat main stadium in the Japanese capital on Friday evening will live long in the memory for very different reasons.
This week Abe – a Tokyo 2020 stalwart who recently described those calling for the Games to be cancelled as “anti-Japanese” – said he would join the list of dignitaries skipping the opening ceremony.
Media reports said the former prime minister thought it inappropriate to attend when the host city, Tokyo, was in the midst of a surge in coronavirus restrictions that forced organisers to ban domestic spectators from almost all Olympic events.
When successive opinion polls showed a majority of Japanese opposed holding the Games this summer, government and Olympic officials conceded only that there were “various views” on the wisdom of inviting tens of thousands of people to Tokyo during another wave of the pandemic.
Abe, though, has joined several sponsors in publicly distancing himself from an opening ceremony that the Japanese public will be forced to watch on TV.
Days before the ceremony, Toyota – a top-tier sponsor – said it would scrap Olympic-themed TV adverts in Japan for the duration of the Games, adding that its president, Akio Toyoda, would not be there on Friday.
Other household names from corporate Japan quickly followed suit: NTT, NEC, Panasonic and Fujitsu, along with the leaders of Keidanren, the country’s most powerful business lobby.
With the stadium off-limits to all but an estimated 950 VIPs – including the US first lady, Jill Biden, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron – coronavirus restrictions mean the only public gatherings will be in bars and restaurants that are flouting official requests to ban alcohol and close at 8pm, risking fines in the process.
Although organisers have refused to release details, Marco Balich, an adviser to the executive producer for Tokyo, said the ceremony would be cognisant of public sentiment in the age of Covid-19.
In contrast to the usual displays of mass choreography, giant props and bright lights, it would be “sobering”, but also mindful of the host nation’s history and culture.
“It will be a much more sobering ceremony, nevertheless with beautiful Japanese aesthetics. Very Japanese but also in sync with the sentiment of today, the reality,” said Balich. “We have to do our best to complete this unique and hopefully the only one of its kind Olympics.”
Photographers who spied Thursday night’s dress rehearsal in the distance posted images of swarms of drones forming the planet Earth and spelling out lyrics from John Lennon’s Imagine.
A slimmed-down contingent of dignitaries will watch a dramatically reduced number of athletes line up behind their flagbearers. Team GB has said that as few as 30 of its 200-plus athletes could be involved, with most taking every possible precaution against a positive diagnosis that would crush their Olympic dreams.
“It will be very meaningful, far from the grandiosity of previous ceremonies,” Balich said. “The moment is now. It is a beautiful effort. A very truthful, honest ceremony, nothing fake. Not smoke and mirrors. It will be about real stuff happening in today.”
The “real stuff” happening in Tokyo in recent days could prompt local people to find an alternative to live broadcasts to while away another Friday evening under the capital’s fourth coronavirus state of emergency.
In the same week as two of the leading creative minds behind the ceremony were forced out of their roles – one for historical bullying, the other for a joke in the 1990s about the Holocaust – medical experts warned that by early August, Tokyo could see daily cases rise to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, they reported 1,832 new cases, up by nearly 700 from the same day the previous week. Japan’s chief health adviser, Shigeru Omi, said daily infections in the capital could “very well” double over the next fortnight and reach a record of nearly 3,000 as the Games draw to a close in early August.
While they sit out the state of emergency and wait for vaccines held up by supply issues, Japanese people denied a close-up view of the spectacle are far from convinced by repeated assurances that the Olympics will be “safe and secure”. A poll this week by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper found that 68% doubted that infections could he kept under control during the event, while 55% supported an 11th-hour cancellation.
Appropriately, it will fall to Japan’s emperor, Naruhito, to reflect the public mood and, perhaps, unite the country behind an unpopular Olympics about which he reportedly harbours doubts of his own.
Just as superstition dictates that speeches at Japanese weddings should omit words such as “separate” to avoid offending the bride and groom , Naruhito will refrain from describing Tokyo 2020 as a “celebration”, according to media reports.
Asked when a sceptical public would start looking favourably on the Games, the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, confidently replied: “When the Olympic flame shines brightly over Tokyo.”
Previous Olympics had shown that pre-show jitters were “normal”, he added. On Friday he and TV audiences around the globe will receive confirmation that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad are many things, but normal isn’t one of them.