Performances and pyrotechnics still featured prominently, but these are unusual times and Tokyo staged an opening ceremony like no other as it welcomed the Olympic Games back to Japan after 57 years on Friday night (July 23).
Most conspicuous were the empty seats in the cavernous, 68,000-capacity Tokyo Olympic Stadium, a stark reminder of the invisible enemy the world continues to battle.
The Covid-19 pandemic had already meant the stadium’s big unveiling – refurbishment works were completed in late 2019 – was held back by a year, after the Olympics were postponed for the only time in its history.
A continued struggle against the virus then moved organisers to bar spectators from all events earlier this month. This resulted in the absence of the frenetic energy from the stands that usually accompanies the opening ceremony.
In a nod to gender and racial diversity, tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron to a muted reception after Emperor Naruhito formally opened the Olympics – as his grandfather Hirohito did in 1964 – with only 15 other global leaders in attendance, including United States First Lady Jill Biden.
It was sobering, but necessary.
On Friday, 19 new Covid-19 cases were reported in the Olympic Village, a daily record rise in cases since organisers began disclosing data this month. A total of 110 cases linked to the Olympics have been recorded since July 2, when the organisers started offering daily updates.
There were protests even on the day of the ceremony, most notably in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building as the Olympic torch reached its final stop before it made its way to the stadium.
Tokyo is also in a fourth state of emergency – declared earlier this month – and reported 1,979 new infections on Thursday, which is the highest daily count since mid-January.
But there has also been evidence that other segments of its residents have taken a more welcoming stance.
As buses ferried athletes, officials, journalists and delegates to the opening ceremony, locals were seen lining the barricaded streets leading to the stadium – many with cameras in hand, some with encouraging signs.
They also thronged a park next to Japan’s Olympic Museum, with a monument of the Olympic Rings a particularly popular spot.
The city might be a little deflated, but it is not entirely dispirited.
The thousands of unfilled seats inside the stadium, however, remained an unusual, uneasy sight all night.
Despite this, the Team Singapore contingent, who looked snappy in their blazers and Japan-inspired ties and scarfs, were all smiles as they waved around the empty arena along with the approximately 6,000 athletes and team officials.
The Republic will be represented by 23 athletes across 12 sports in Tokyo, but only six were in the 12-strong contingent that marched.
Some have yet to arrive in the country as they adhere to strict travel schedules tied to their events, while others – like shooter Adele Tan and fencer Kiria Tikanah Abdul Rahman – preferred to rest in preparation for early battles on Saturday.
Shuttler Loh Kean Yew, who was Singapore’s joint-flag bearer with table tennis player Yu Mengyu, said he was living his “childhood dream” being at the Olympics.
“Being here in Tokyo finally, after one year of postponement and the uncertainties, feels very surreal,” said Mr Loh, 24. “Even though the stadium is empty, being here fills me with plenty of excitement. I’m extremely honoured to carry the Singapore flag tonight, and will do my very best at the Olympic Games.”
Ms Yu, meanwhile, called being a flag bearer a “major landmark” in her life.
Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the Singapore National Olympic Council president, flew into Tokyo on the eve of the ceremony, and wrote in a Facebook post that it was a “pity there is no audience” in a “beautiful stadium”.
“But we are living in extraordinary times and some things can’t be helped,” said Mr Tan. “The organisers are doing what they can to keep us all safe and to keep things moving smoothly. I hope that the sportsmen and women will be able to inspire us through their performances and contests as they have done through the ages.
Even without spectators, elaborate choreography and large groups of dancers still entertained in performances that showcased Japan’s culture and history.
In one segment, a wooden installation of the Olympic Rings was erected in the middle of the stadium – the rings were crafted with wood grown from trees planted by athletes when the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964.
History, however, largely took a back seat at Friday night’s ceremony, which is tied to the concept of “Moving Forward”, a reference to recovering from the pandemic.
On Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee amended its motto to “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”, with the last word an addition made to “adapt it to our times”, explained its president Thomas Bach. And what novel times they are.
This story first appeared in The Straits Times