Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
As thousands gathered outside Olympic Stadium, some in protest, wielding signs that read, “Cancel the Olympics – Save Lives,” and some in support, with signs that read, “I believe in the power of sport,” the Tokyo Olympic Games Opening Ceremony asked us to Imagine. With clouds of drones coalescing in the sky to form an image of the Earth, alongside the lyrics of John Lennon’s signature song – sung by an international array of performers that included Americans John Legend and Keith Urban – the spectacle’s theme, “moving forward,” became clear.
Rather than a glitzy production filled with highly choreographed dance numbers, the four-hour ceremony contemplated how, especially in the wake of a global pandemic, the sway of sport can keep us connected. The first minutes of the ceremony powerfully offered glimmers of hope for the days ahead, as solitary athletes trained on treadmills and rowing machines, together yet alone, with threads eventually stretching across the infield to connect them, to connect us.
The role of Opening Ceremony is critical to every Olympics; it is designed to create a line of demarcation between everyday life and Olympic events, no mean feat during a global pandemic. An array of symbols – the Olympic flag, anthem, oath, torch, and, of course, flame – help transform the individual teams who enter the stadium as national entities into a universal body, ensuring that anyone who stands on a victory dais will represent more than just where they are from. At the Closing Ceremony, the athletes will not enter via nation, but rather as a wider community, one that hopefully will return to everyday life with a more global perspective.
But just as Covid has refused to acknowledge borders, it will also fail to recognize where everyday life ends and Olympic life begins. Sport is no island, the Olympics included.
In this Opening Ceremony, children led each team to the music of video games – a contrast with the ceremony’s more somber moments, including a moment of silence for all lost to Covid, as well as an unprecedented mention of the Israeli team murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972. Families of the Israeli athletes had been campaigning for this for decades, particularly around the 40th anniversary at the London Games in 2012.
As always, the Parade of Nations provided a lightning-round course in geography, featuring countries as small as Andorra and as large as Argentina, whose flag bearers, Santiago Lange and Cecilia Carranza, walked arm and arm, their teammates dancing behind them. The Greek delegation, per tradition, entered the stadium first, symbolic of the Ancient Games, followed by the second-ever refugee team. The host delegation brought up the rear, led by wrestler Yui Susaki and Washington Wizards basketball player Rui Hachimura.
Historically, each host city hopes that its Opening Ceremony will be unprecedented in some way. In 1980, the heavily-boycotted Moscow Games included thousands of spectators holding up cards to create the image of Misha the Bear in the stands, while four years later in Los Angeles, a man flew into the stadium via jet pack. Flash forward to London in 2012, where director Danny Boyle orchestrated someone closely resembling Queen Elizabeth II jumping out of a helicopter and onto the infield.
To be sure, a parachuting monarch was impressive, but the moment of greatest impact tends to be the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, which marks the symbolic official start to competition. For example, the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black gloved fists during the victory ceremony of the men’s 200-meters dominates memories of the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, but 20-year-old hurdler Norma Enriqueta Basilio also made history when she became the first woman to light the cauldron in an Opening Ceremony.
In 1988, Seoul’s release of doves of peace ended badly, as the birds flew straight into the cauldron, while Barcelona in 1992 created a bit of fiery magic, with Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo appearing to light the cauldron with a flaming arrow. The return to the Olympics by Muhammad Ali created the most dramatic moment of Atlanta’s Opening Ceremony in 1996, as his unsteady hand took the torch from swimming legend Janet Evans to light the flame.
Tokyo did not shirk when it came to this essential moment: None other than 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka – who has made headlines as much for her championing of mental health and her stances in support of Black Lives Matter as for her Grand Slam tennis victories – had the honor, representing on every level what a 21st century athlete from Japan can be. She ascended a replica of Mount Fuji and lowered the flame into the cauldron, designed to look like an opening cherry blossom.
The choice of Osaka provided a moment of both power and celebrity, exemplifying the dramatic contradictions contained in these Games. To be sure, amidst the smiling, weeping athletes who waved to practically no one, there were also the unexpected flashes of delight that consume us, such as the bare, heavily oiled chest of Pita Taufatofua, Tonga’s flag bearer in 2016 and 2018 and now, again, in Tokyo, and Tokyo’s joyful and funny dancing pictograms, designed to represent all 50 Olympic sports.
What the athletes are facing – on the field and at home
While Opening Ceremony symbolically opens competition, many athletes have already been hard at it on the softball diamond and soccer pitch. On Wednesday, the US Women’s National Team dropped its opening match against powerhouse rival Sweden. The squad hadn’t lost a game since January, 2019 – a 44-match streak. And yet, the most visible response had little to do with either Covid or the US women getting beaten for the first time in years. Conservative critics eviscerated outspoken team leader Megan Rapinoe: apparently taking a knee before a game, as members of the US squad did (along with Great Britain, Sweden, and Chile) makes it okay for American fans to cheer against American teams, despite the fact that the athletes’ action at Sapporo Dome worked within the latest IOC guidelines on political activism.
Team USA had no problem with platforming outspoken politics when it selected Rapinoe’s fiancée Sue Bird, who is vying for a historic fifth gold medal in basketball – and has been one of the leading WNBA voices speaking out against racism and police brutality – to carry the flag into the stadium alongside baseball player Eddy Alvarez, whose silver medal in speed skating positions him to become only the third American with medals from both winter and summer competition.
Tokyo’s Opening Ceremony marked the first time that pairs of athletes – one male and one female – carried the flags of their delegations, something that would not have been possible before 2012, when the IOC mandated that every delegation field at least one woman. Great Britain made a historic choice for its flag bearers, with Mohamed Sbihi, who won gold in Rio in the men’s four rowing competition, the first Muslim in team history chosen for the honor, alongside environmental activist and gold-medal-winning sailor Hannah Mills.
Not many were there to see those flags, at least in person, with just under 1,000 spectators attending, the different color seat coverings making the stadium look filled when it was not. About half of the eligible athletes marched, and only a handful of global leaders attended, including First Lady Jill Biden, who represented the United States and spent parts of the ceremony chatting with French leader Emmanuel Macron (Macron recently declared new vaccine mandates for his country). Notably missing was former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a huge supporter of the Olympics, who in 2016 jumped out of a gigantic green drainpipe dressed as Super Mario during the Closing Ceremony, as Rio transitioned the Games to Tokyo.
A Covid experiment begins
Now, with Emperor Naruhito standing alone, having officially declared the opening of the Games, and with the flame set to burn brightly at Tokyo’s waterfront district, the largest Covid experiment to date really gets down to business. Just as sport served as a key alarm last year – with the shutdown of the NBA opening America’s eyes to what was to come, a soccer match in Italy coining our understanding of a super spreader event, and Major League Baseball’s truncated return to the field serving as a de facto test case for how to re-emerge from lockdown – these Olympic Games will be a window into how Covid remains among us.
Whether Tokyo’s extensive protocols – testing, quarantine, contact tracing and so on – are up to the task of battling back remains to be seen. As of Friday, over 100 cases of Covid-19 have been linked to the Games.
The days leading up to the Opening Ceremony saw Covid numbers spike and Tokyo officials – including the Opening Ceremony’s composer and director – fall, something that has become increasingly familiar with these Olympics (Both the head of the organizing committee and the creative chief quit over inappropriate remarks made to or about women).
But despite these roadblocks and many others, the Opening Ceremony did its job, taking on what executive producer Marco Balich dubbed as a “sobering” more than spectacular tone, saddled with the tension of celebrating both the athletes and the host city’s culture while still obeying public health mandates.
The Opening Ceremony acknowledged these pressures, these conflicts, in the sparse, emotional, and stark realities it presented alongside the comfort of the familiar – from fireworks to the Parade of Nations. In his opening remarks, IOC President Thomas Bach celebrated how “finally – the moment has arrived” and described the Olympics as “a light at the end of this dark tunnel,” praising Tokyo’s “incredible ability” to make it happen. To say it was an Opening Ceremony for the ages is an understatement. Drenched in the reality we now live in, athletes masked and at the ready, these Olympics may let us know not if the Games must go on, but if they can.