The Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony was heartbreakingly beautiful. All the pageantry and style stood to represent Japanese history in vivid colors accompanied by resoundingly stirring music. For a short time, I felt like I was back in Japan being overwhelmed by all the history and culture I encountered there. It was a gorgeous start to these games that were delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite that lovely opening act, it was the Parade of Athletes that broke my heart. Most of the 11,289 athletes – representing 205 nations and one delegation comprised of refugees – wore masks but seemed to be happy to be there. Some danced, did flips, raised their hands in the air, and waved their national flags proudly.
Of course, there would be something missing if we didn’t see Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua shirtless and glistening in the lights. He seems so genuinely happy to be there for his third Olympic appearance. He was not alone on this night, however, because Vanuatu’s Rio Rii must have been inspired by Pita because his shirtless and glistening body gave Pita a little run for the money.
There was a welcoming group on both sides of the path through the stadium, and the athletes and their coaches waved to them, but in the background the vast arena’s seats were empty and bathed in colors to sort of mute the fact of their emptiness. It felt like an eerie quiet, seemingly magnified by the huge space not having people in it.
These athletes have put in countless hours of training to prepare for this moment, and they deserve their time in the spotlight. Why shouldn’t there be a parade? Why shouldn’t they be treated to the adoration like in any other Olympics?
The problem is that there was no enthusiastic crowd to energize the moment and let the athletes bathe in adulation and applause. I don’t know what was going through the minds of those marching in that parade, but I know watching it was bittersweet. Sometimes I’d see a face in the parade with eyes askew, and other faces that were a little solemn.
For the most part though, the athletes were good soldiers, waving their flags and showing that they were happy to be there. Not all of the athletes were there – like the USA Gymnastics Team – but as standout gymnast Simone Biles explained, it didn’t make sense for them because they had to be up early the next day to compete. Maybe in a different year it wouldn’t make sense, but in this year unlike any other year it does.
The Olympics is a chance for the world to come together as it doesn’t do in normal times – even long time rivals Iran and Iraq marched one after the other with their flags proudly waving. Sports is a unifier and a universal language. Yes, it is competitive, but done with rules and regulations and everyone accepts and understands them because they must follow them in order to participate.
When the amazing tennis player Naomi Osaka was handed the torch to light the Olympic cauldron, it came to her from almost 10,000 other people who carried it on its journey through the 47 prefectures of Japan. Naomi climbed those stairs, lit that cauldron, and it all seemed real to me now. These games were going forward, and the resilience of everyone involved has been incredible. The 2020 Olympic Games – even though it was 2021 – were going to take place.
So, let’s all salute the magnificent athletes who have worked so hard to be in Tokyo. Against all odds and the virus too, they are competing and making things better for viewers even if we can’t be there in the stands to cheer them on. Yes, I feel sad that they cannot have the full experience, but these are not normal times. The opening ceremony made it real for the athletes and the viewers and let us know the games have begun, which helps us feel a little more normal in these still extraordinarily abnormal times.