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Tokyo Olympics Open to a Sea of Empty Seats


TOKYO – A low-key opening ceremony for the 32nd Summer Olympics unfolded Friday night at a nearly empty stadium in Tokyo, opening the Games, which had been postponed for a year and gripped by a persistent pandemic.

At the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium, the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium was attended by fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and other invited guests, and the centerpiece of the ceremony, the parade of athletes, was entirely televised.

The masked athletes, many of whom were cut to maintain social distancing, waved at nonexistent fans as they entered the gym. Dancers in pastel suits and hats were the only live support during what is usually a flamboyant parade in front of a frantically cheering audience.

As notable as the missing were prominent political and business leaders who chose not to attend, worried that they would be seen as endorsing the event, which had lost much of its significance among the Japanese public, plagued by the pandemic and widely opposed to the Games.

Nearly all events, such as the opening ceremony, will be held without spectators, and athletes will compete under strict protocols that restrict their movements.

Olympians usually have significant disagreements, but this time the organizers have fought hard to get to that point. What should have been a showcase for Japan’s brilliant performance, superior service culture and attractiveness as a tourist destination has been flooded with fears of infections and scandals by the host committee.

The opening ceremony is often an opportunity for the host country to show off – think about Drummers of Beijing in 2008 or Dancing Nurses of the National Health Service of London four years later. But the organizers in Tokyo put on a simpler show.

In a moment of silence, the announcer asked those who watched around the world to remember those who died due to Covid-19 and the athletes who died in the previous Olympics, including the Israeli athletes who died in the 1972 Munich Games terrorist attack. …

Although it was not explicitly mentioned until after the organizers gave speeches, the ceremony used the original wording of Tokyo’s bid for the Olympics – as a symbol of the country’s recovery from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011. whites covered in ghostly makeup danced on a platform in the middle of the field as waves of light swept across the stadium.

And with drones lit above the stadium forming a giant spinning ball, a rendition of “Imagine” sung on a Jumbotron by artists such as Angelique Kidjo, John Legend and Keith Urban, and confetti doves falling from the sky, the organizers were clearly trying to distract attention. the Games’ message from pandemic and scandals to more gaudy themes of peace and global harmony.

But the message may have little resonance with the Japanese public, as the number of coronavirus infections in Tokyo surged to a six-month high and domestic vaccine introduction is progressing slowly.

At quieter moments during the ceremony, protesters outside the stadium could be heard shouting “Stop the Olympics” through a megaphone.

“I really can’t think of any meaning or significance as to why we are all doing this,” said Kaori Hayashi, professor of sociology and media research at the University of Tokyo. “We kind of started by rebuilding Fukushima, but we completely forgot about it. And now we want to show the world that we have overcome Covid-19, but have not yet overcome it at all. “

While the pandemic was an unprecedented problem for the Games organizers, it was far from the only one.

Literally one day before the grand opening, the organizing committee fired the creative director of the ceremony after it was revealed that he had joked about the Holocaust during a television comedy many years ago.

His dismissal happened a few days after the composer for the ceremony resigned – and organizers recalled the four-minute excerpt he wrote in response to a noisy social media campaign in which he criticized him for brutally bullying his disabled classmates during his school years.

These were just the latest scandals in a long string of failures. Two years after winning the tender, the government abandoned the elegant design of the stadium, designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid, due to the cost of aeronautics. The organizers had to give up their first logo after being accused of plagiarism… French prosecutors President of the Japanese Olympic Committee indicted on corruption charges related to the bidding process. Fearing extreme heat in Tokyo, International Olympic Committee moved marathon to Sapporo, on the northern island of Japan, 500 miles from the Olympic Stadium. And the president of the Tokyo organizing committee was forced to resign after sexist comments.

However, now that the Games have finally begun, the spectacle of the world’s largest sporting event has begun to push those concerns aside.

The night before the opening ceremony, 37-year-old Aya Kitamura, a traditional Japanese musician, rode his bike to the Olympic Stadium to stake out the best viewing location outside the venue.

“Of course, I understand that there are many opinions about the Olympics,” said Ms. Kitamura, who said her parents often told stories about watching the Olympics. 1964 Tokyo Olympics… “But as the Games get closer, I think every day is getting a little more excited every day.”

The near absence of spectators disappointed those who said they did not understand how the Olympics were different from other recent sporting events, which attracted large numbers of people in Europe, where infection rates remain higher than in Japan.

“It’s unfair that only a limited number of people can watch the opening ceremony,” said 19-year-old Hinako Tamai, an Olympic volunteer who helped guide journalists to the stadium on Friday night. “But because of Covid, there is little we can do.”

Among the several hundred people who sat in the $ 1.4 billion Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony on Friday were the Emperor of Japan, Naruhitowho officially opened the Games; the first lady of America, Jill Biden; French President Emmanuel Macron, whose capital, Paris, will host the next Summer Games in 2024; and Tedros Adhanom Gebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization.

But several prominent potential attendees said they would not be present, including Akio Toyoda, chief executive of Toyota, a prominent sponsor of the Olympic Games, which has pulled out of running Olympic TV ads in Japan. Shinzo Abe, a former prime minister who helped Tokyo secured an application for participation in the Games, also decided to stay away.

Several foreign dignitaries, including Princess Anne of England and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, have decided not to come, citing coronavirus restrictions. South Korean President Moon Jae-in canceled a planned visit after insulting a Japanese diplomat.

Even if the Olympics don’t turn into a super-common event, it will be difficult for her to avoid the shadow of a pandemic as the Delta variant spreads and daily counts of new cases in the Olympic Village increase anxiety.

“I really feel like the pandemic, no matter what, leaves the impression of a priority of money over public health,” said Jessamine R. Abel, assistant professor of Asian Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

While the decision to continue the Games amid the pandemic has drawn attention to the billions of dollars at stake for the International Olympic Committee, international scrutiny has also been harsh for Japan at times.

The one-year delay has exposed social issues such as sexism in a country where nearly all major jobs filled with older menas well as the resistance of the conservative government to gay and transgender rights

But in one respect, the organizers seem to be more modern.

Marching to the stadium as the standard bearers of Japan. Rui Hachimura, a mixed-race basketball star who plays for the Washington Wizards; and Yui Susaki, a female wrestler. Mr. Hachimura is just one of several mixed race athletes. Naomi Osakawho lit the Olympic cauldron, being the most famous – which represent a largely homogeneous Japan at the Olympics.

However, fanfare can only go so far with a cautious audience. Kentaro Tanaka, 28, a Tokyo-based consultant who walked his dog outside the Olympic Stadium the night before the opening said he liked football and planned to watch matches but questioned the authorities’ priorities.

“Doesn’t the government need to work on something else?” said Mr Tanaka before loudly wondering when he could finally get an appointment for the vaccination.

Hikari Hida prepared a report.

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