‘United by emotion’: Tokyo Games opening ceremony first global event since pandemic began

Five years ago at the 2016 Rio Games opening ceremony, a crowd of 60,000 flag-bearing fans screamed and cheered 10,000 athletes as they paraded through the Maracana Stadium on a hot August night.

Against a backdrop of political unrest in Brazil, concerns over the Russian doping scandal, the Zika virus and problems with the city’s security, infrastructure and venues, the ceremony exploded into a party atmosphere and was a celebration of the country’s history and hope for its future.

Now, as Tokyo prepares to unveil its Olympic Games opening ceremony inside the $1.5 billion National Stadium in the Shinjuku ward on Friday, (Seven has the exclusive broadcast starting at 8.30pm), it will carry the distinction of being the first city in the Games’ 125-year modern history without spectators.

There will be plenty of room, though, in the 58,000-seat, oval-shaped stadium, for hundreds of diplomats, foreign dignitaries, Olympic sponsors and members of the International Olympic Committee.

The Games have already broken new ground because of the 12-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, pushing the Games to an odd-numbered year for the first time.

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The opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Games will be held at the new National Stadium along with athletics events and football matches. Photo: Getty

But with no fans permitted in Japan, foreign or local, thousands of athletes – competing in 33 sports and 339 events – and the Games’ creative team have their work cut out to bring this ceremony to life.

We are promised an opening ceremony for these “unprecedented” times.

Mandating the Olympic charter of showcasing Japan’s history and culture (featuring a lot of wood and rope), we will get the pageantry, the video and artistic performances, a smaller version of the Parade of Nations, the lighting of the Olympic flame and the symbolic release of the doves of peace.

Speculation is mounting that Japanese golf star and US Masters winner Hideki Matsuyama will light the Olympic cauldron if he is offered the opportunity, saying it would be an “honour” to represent his country.

One of the ceremony’s team Hamabe Akihiro says the Parade of Nations will be “emotional”: “With elements of contemporary Japanese culture added into the program, the athletes’ entrance will be a one-of-a-kind Tokyo 2020 experience that is not to be missed.”

The opening ceremony’s motto – “united by emotion” – means there will no doubt be an acknowledgment of the tragedy of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Japan continues to record up to 2000 new cases a day of COVID-19, and a fresh surge in Tokyo, with more than 90 new infections among those accredited for the Games since July 1, when many athletes and officials started arriving.

Long-time opening ceremonies executive producer, and now a senior adviser to the Tokyo ceremonies executive producer, Marco Balich told Reuters on July 21 the opening ceremony will be a scaled-down affair, and we will see a “sobering” performance.

“It will be a much more sobering ceremony. Nevertheless with beautiful Japanese aesthetics. Very Japanese but also in sync with the sentiment of today, the reality,” said Balich, who was in charge of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

“We have to do our best to complete this unique and hopefully the only one of its kind Olympics.”

“That (pandemic) of course has consequences. Mass choreography is not happening obviously, because of COVID-19.”

Balich said back in March 2020: “I think for sure the Olympic ceremony, which is a window of all humanity, will have to reflect somehow or reference somehow what has happened”.

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Organisers say the ceremony will express ‘gratitude and admiration for the efforts we all made together over the past year‘. Photo: Getty

We know the athletes, performers still a secret

Olympic tradition will ensure teams enter the stadium in alphabetical order – marshalled and socially distanced – with Greece (always first), Japan (host nation last) and Australia in the top 20 behind Armenia and Aruba.

Four-time Olympians Patty Mills and Cate Campbell will jointly bear the Australian flag and lead 487 athletes into the stadium.

Key stakeholders worldwide, including the major broadcasters, are sworn to secrecy as to who the celebrities, musicians and pop culture chart toppers will be.

We do know Emperor Naruhito will attend (without Empress Masako), according to Japan Today, with reports on Thursday from passersby who can hear the Dragon Quest video game anthem coming from the stadium, and Japanese folk song Tsubasa wo Kudasai (Please give me wings) as possible theme songs for this Olympics.

Time speculated on July 16, “details of the artistic program are usually kept secret until the day of the performance, but as was true for the Rio 2016 opening ceremony, Tokyo’s will likely feature thousands of performers outfitted in intricate costumes, elaborate set pieces, spectacular music and dance numbers, and appearances by renowned Japanese celebrities.

“One of the most exciting moments of the 2016 opening ceremony came when famed Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen strutted down the catwalk to The Girl From Ipanema,” Time wrote.


It was majestic. When Bundchen walked the catwalk to The Girl from Ipanema, the emotion and awe from the stadium was palpable. Photo: Getty

Another creative Yohei Taneda, who admits he’s weaved in lots of “elements of Japanese taste”, says: “With many years of experience as an art director for movies, I am excited for people to enjoy a sense of anticipation – like watching a scene in a movie – through the stage modelling and set movement.”

‘Not smoke and mirrors’

There is widespread concern among the public over the safety of holding the global sporting spectacle amid the pandemic and many Japanese fear the Olympics could turn into a super-spreader event.

“It will be very meaningful, far from the grandiosity of previous ceremonies. The moment is now. It is a beautiful effort. A very truthful, honest ceremony, nothing fake,” Balich said.

“Not smoke and mirrors. It will be about real stuff happening today.”

After the Rio opening ceremony was done and dusted on August 6 five years ago, local sales manager Lana Morgando told The Guardian she was happy with how the event unfolded.

“Better than I expected. It makes me feel optimistic about my country. Right now we have so many problems,” she said.

“This gives us hope.”

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