Japanese tradition was represented by wooden Olympic rings from the 1964 Games, as well as fireworks that lit up an empty stadium and a moment of silence for those killed by COVID-19.
As the novel coronavirus is on the rise again, and taking lives around the world, organisers were forced to take the unprecedented step of holding these Games without fans.
Even the Opening Ceremony, which is usually a star-studded affair packed with celebrities, was unusually quiet, with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, strict social distancing rules, and signs instructing spectators to “be quiet around the venue.”
Regardless, it represents a coming together of the world, with hundreds of millions of people tuning in from all over the world and at various stages of the pandemic to watch the start of the greatest show in sport.
The stadium’s opening video recapped Japan’s path to the Games and the challenges the world has faced since the Japanese capital was chosen as host in 2013.
It demonstrated how, in 2020, the coronavirus struck, forcing an unprecedented postponement only four months before the Games were scheduled to begin, ushering in a roller-coaster period of uncertainty and isolation for the athletes.
Some are expected to use the ceremony to make statements about equality and justice, and several nations will be represented by a man and a woman after the organisers changed their rules to allow for two flagbearers.
The Olympics were billed as a re-enactment of the 1964 Tokyo Games, which marked Japan’s return to the world stage after its devastating World War II defeat, but this time highlighting the country’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis.
The organisers showed a lone female athlete, Japanese boxer nurse Arisa Tsubata, training in the dark, running silently on a treadmill, in the segment highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the athletes and people around the world unable to see the Olympics in person.
Dozens of dancers moved around while projection mappings showed connections between them, emphasising how people all over the world, including the athletes, have formed new online connections during the lockdown.
Both masked Japanese Emperor Naruhito and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach entered the stadium and bowed to each other before sitting socially apart.
The massive wooden rings were carried onto the field on a platform by the light of numerous paper lanterns. The rings were transformed into the Olympic symbol with the pull of a rope.
The rings are made of lumber from thinned trees that grew from seeds carried by athletes from each of the nations that competed in the previous Olympics, which were held in Tokyo.
The “Kiyari Uta,” a traditional work song sung for centuries by labourers to synchronise their efforts in rhythmic spectacle, began the performance of putting the rings together.
The opening is taking place without the usual mass choreography, massive props, and slew of dancers, actors, and lights associated with previous celebrations.
A significantly smaller number of athletes will march in the teams’ parade, with many planning to fly in just before their competitions and leave shortly afterwards to avoid infection.
Only 15 world leaders will be present, including Emperor Naruhito, who will formally open the Games as his grandfather Hirohito did in 1964, and US First Lady Jill Biden.
The ceremony is notable for the absence of high-profile figures, including former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who lobbied for the Games to be held in Tokyo. A number of top sponsors and economic leaders have also decided to boycott the event, demonstrating strong opposition to the sporting extravaganza in COVID-fatigued Japan.
Hundreds of protesters carried placards reading “Lives over Olympics” as they marched around the venue. As they marched, the protesters, who wore white surgical masks, yelled, “Stop the Olympics!”
Only one-third of the population has received even one dose of vaccines, raising concerns that the Games will become a super-spreader event. More than 100 Olympic participants have already tested positive.
A series of scandals have rocked the Olympics, including the resignation of senior officials over derogatory remarks about women, Holocaust jokes, and bullying.
The Games will be held until August 8th.
There will be approximately 11,000 athletes from 204 national Olympic committees competing under the Olympic flag, as well as a team of refugee athletes.