They had to start this thing somehow.
A muted and semirestrained Opening Ceremony began the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Friday morning, for the first time broadcast live in the early hours in the U.S. by NBC (an abridged replay will air at 7:30 p.m. EDT/4:30 p.m. PDT). Nowhere near as bombastic as ceremonies from London or Beijing, but still struggling to find the right tone, the Tokyo opener will be less remembered for its spectacle and more for the pandemic environment in which it aired.
The International Olympic Committee is trying to use the ceremony – and the Games themselves – as a step into the future, but the opening pageant was a muddled, controversial affair that couldn’t escape the looming present.
It was an odd, sometimes awkward, and tonally dissonant four-hour presentation that tried to balance the weight of the ongoing pandemic with the joy and elation that usually accompanies the world’s most prestigious athletic competition. There were fireworks, but no big audience to cheer for them. There were remembrances for those lost to COVID-19, even as some masks slipped below noses and mouths. IOC President Thomas Bach spoke of “hope” and “resilience,” while Japanese protesters vociferously denounced the Games outside the stadium. The theme was one of triumph over a common foe, except that the world is nowhere near completely “defeating” the deadly virus.
“There is no way around it: We are in the middle of a pandemic. These games are controversial, especially here, with many of the Japanese people worried about inviting in the world as the virus has spread,” NBC’s ceremony co-host Savannah Guthrie said as the ceremony got underwayat 8 p.m. local time. “But Olympic officials have pressed on, out of tradition to honor the work and dedication of these athletes and yes, in aspiration that somehow sports still has the power to connect us and to heal us.”
NBC, the IOC, the athletes and everyone involved in the Games hope that sports has the power to heal us, and that remains to be seen as the competition begins. But if they were imagining that this ceremony would spark a global mood of excitement and hope, they chose the wrong way to show it.
The ceremony opened with a videoclip-heavy package that documented the years since Tokyo was announced as the host of the 2020 Games. Elation, excitement, followed by the silence of the 2020 lockdowns and scenesof athletes training at home. In the stadium, we saw the kind of cultural performances that are often a key part of these ceremonies, including a segment honoring ancient Japanese carpentry and an interpretative dance representing the human heart and circulatory system. It was a mixed bag, but the moments that focused more on the skill of the dancers were far more successful and entertaining.
The parade of nations – with delegations bearing their countries’ flags – started less than 40 minutes into the event. It proceeded in its usual (and sometimes boring) format, although producers offered the fun touch of using vibrant music from video games to score the parade, which helped overcome that there was no audience to loudly clap and cheer for the athletes.
On the NBC feed available in the U.S., the producers continued their usual Olympics strategy of all-Team-USA-all-the-time coverage. Guthrie and co-host Mike Tirico interviewed American athletes including Megan Rapinoe, while Qatar and Kazakhstan marched through the stadium. The network also cut to commercial breaks during the parade, picture-in-picture style: Athletes from smaller countries walked as Peacock and Toyota ads appeared on an adjacent screen.
After the parade concluded, more entertainment – including a Kabuki performance and sports “pictograms” with costumed dancers and unsettling camera angles – felt more like filler so late in the event. A rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” by a Japanese children’s choir, and performers from around the globe (including John Legend representing “the Americas” and Keith Urban representing “Oceania”) were clearly meant as a source of inspiration. But considering last year’s much-maligned celebrity viral video of the song, it felt more like a parody of the cynical, corporate attempts to capitalize on the pain of the pandemic rather than genuine emotion about this world-altering virus.
There was no easy way to create an opening ceremony for an Olympics delayed a year because of a global health crisis. There is no precedent, no script to follow for trying to excite a world still hobbled by a death and tragedy to watch sports.
So in one sense, the producers of the ceremony succeeded just by pulling something together. As tennis star Naomi Osaka was given the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron, there was a small sense of awe. But in another – especially considering the controversy behind the Games and the toll they are taking on Japan and the world – this lackluster ceremony is a huge letdown. What’s the point of all the risk, all the testing and quarantining and masks, if this is the best emotion and spectacle we can muster?
Maybe once the athletes get involved, things will improve.