Tokyo bids farewell to first Olympic stadium

by Neil Wilkie

AFP-JIJI

Sports fans bid an emotional farewell to Tokyo’s National Stadium over the weekend with a lavish ceremony to close the venue before demolition begins next month.

The stadium, built to host the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, will be dismantled over 15 months and replaced on the same site with a new $1.6 billion venue to stage the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics.

A day of spectacular laser shows, fireworks, sports and music brought the curtain down on the 56-year-old stadium before fans were invited onto the pitch to snap photos, lift replica trophies and walk around barefoot once the proceedings were over.

There were some misty eyes among the 36,000-strong crowd as the Olympic flame perched atop the back stand finally went out for good.

“I was in my first year at Waseda University when the Olympics came to Tokyo, and my college friend Yoshinori Sakai lit the flame at the stadium,” 69-year-old Tsuyoshi Hirata said on the stadium’s concourse.

“I couldn’t go to the opening ceremony so I watched it on TV. It rained a lot the evening before, but on the day the weather was fantastic. When I saw Sakai light the flame, I felt so happy. I felt like Japan had recovered from the war.”

The 54,000-seat stadium holds a special place in Japanese hearts as the site of the first Olympics to be held in Asia and a symbol of Japan’s post-World War II recovery.

Sakai, a member of Waseda University’s running club who was born in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, the day the atom bomb was dropped on the city, was chosen to light the cauldron to symbolize Japan’s peaceful postwar reconstruction.

The stadium, which was completed to host the 1958 Asian Games, has also staged a range of domestic and international sporting events including the 1991 World Athletics Championships and football’s annual intercontinental Toyota Cup match between 1980 and 2001.

American Mike Powell leapt 8.95 meters to set a world long jump record that still stands during his epic tussle with Carl Lewis at the 1991 world championships there.

Argentine football legend Diego Maradona also graced the arena at the 1979 world youth tournament, while a nascent J. League held its first soccer match there in 1993.

“Over the past half-century, the National Stadium has truly been a sanctum of Japanese sport,” Tokyo 2020 organizing chief Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, told the crowd.

“It has hosted numerous unforgettable matches and competitions, and has a special place in the hearts of people all over Japan.

“I am extremely happy that I have been able to share the incredible memories the stadium brings and realize anew the wonder of sport with the many fans gathered here today.”

The celebration came at the end of a week in which Japanese sport bosses gave the green light to a new 80,000-seat stadium, disappointing critics who say the planned arena is too big and expensive.