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There was a festive atmosphere in the Japan Sport Olympic Square — which sits just across the street from National Stadium — prior to the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, which finally opened on Friday after being postponed for one year because of COVID-19.

The run-up to the Tokyo Games was filled with concern about the ongoing pandemic, various scandals and a public that seemed vehemently opposed to holding the games as scheduled. Across the street from the main venue on the day the Games officially arrived, however, a crowd gathered to take in whatever part of the experience they could — perhaps a testament to the popularity of the Olympics even in times of strife — taking photos with the Olympic rings and each other.

This was as close as most will get to these unusual Olympics. Even though the crowd was a stone’s throw away from National Stadium, they were separated from the Games’ centerpiece venue by a fence that served as a reminder of the distance at which the Tokyo Games will be kept from the citizens of the city hosting them.

Emperor Naruhito declared the Games officially open during the opening ceremony and tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron as the Tokyo Olympics — awarded in 2013 and delayed by a year in 2020 — finally got underway.

“Today is a moment of hope,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined. But let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together.”

The opening ceremony was scaled back and held without fans due to COVID-19 concerns. It featured performances centered around coming together and moving past the hardship of the pandemic.

The night began with a performance led by Arisa Tsubata meant to symbolize the bond between athletes who were otherwise separated. Tsubata was a boxer who trained around her shifts as a nurse, but fell short of her goal of qualifying for the Games.

Performers assemble the Olympic Rings during the opening ceremony on Friday. | AFP-JIJI
Performers assemble the Olympic Rings during the opening ceremony on Friday. | AFP-JIJI

The parade of nations was held with fewer athletes than usual, with Japan taking its place at the end as the host nation. Freestyle wrestler Yui Suzaki and Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura served as flag bearers and led Japan’s Olympians into the stadium.

“It means a lot,” Hachimura said. “It’s been a tough year, especially with the pandemic. But we’re finally here, I’m so glad to represent my country.”

The Japanese Olympians would have marched into a packed stadium anxiously awaiting their arrival during any other Olympic year. In the age of COVID-19, however, there were no fans to greet them at spacious venue.

“It’s sad that the Japanese people can’t be here,” Hachimura said. “We’re disappointed, but it is what it is. A lot of people will be watching for sure through the TV.

“We’ve got to stick together as a country. In Japan we always do it together. We’ve just got to enjoy this moment.”

The athletes from each nation marched into the stadium to a soundtrack from the Japanese video game industry, featuring music from series such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. In an effort to promote diversity, the Tokyo Games marked the first time each nation was invited to select both a male and female flag bearer to carry the flag and lead their delegation into the stadium.

Former wrestling great Saori Yoshida and Tadahiro Nomura, a former judoka, were the first torchbearers to enter the stadium and handed the Olympic flame off to baseball legends Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and Hideki Matsui. The trio of former Yomiuri Giants players was relieved by Hiroki Ohashi, a doctor who treats infectious disease, and Junko Kitagawa, a nurse from a hospital that experienced a COVID-19 outbreak.

Baseball legends — (from right) Hideki Matsui, Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh — transfer the Olympic flame to medical workers during the finale of the opening ceremony. | KYODO
Baseball legends — (from right) Hideki Matsui, Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh — transfer the Olympic flame to medical workers during the finale of the opening ceremony. | KYODO

Wakako Tsuchida, a Paralympian who has won gold in both the Summer and Winter Games, took over and then passed the flame to six children from the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Osaka, the world’s No. 2 player and a four-time grand slam winner, then lit the cauldron.

“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka later wrote on Twitter.

The Tokyo 2020 cauldron, a sphere designed with a sun motif that opens like a flower, is the first in Olympic history to be fueled by hydrogen.

Two cauldrons were built for the Games, and one will be put on display in Tokyo’s waterfront area.

These Olympics will be like almost none other that came before, with Tokyo still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and currently under a state of emergency that will likely last throughout the Games.

While Tokyo 2020 organizers and IOC officials have remained steadfast that the Games can be held safely, the threat of the virus will likely hang overhead throughout the Olympics, which are scheduled to conclude Aug. 8.

Naomi Osaka prepares to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. | CHANG W. LEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Naomi Osaka prepares to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. | CHANG W. LEE / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“We can only be all together here because of you, our gracious hosts, the Japanese people, to whom we would like to express all our appreciation and respect,” Bach said.

“The organizing committee and the Japanese authorities at all levels have done extraordinary work for which, on behalf of all the Olympic athletes, I want to express our deepest gratitude.”

The Games arrive on the heels of a buildup fraught with scandals and against the backdrop of a rising tide of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo. Now that Tokyo 2020 is officially open and set to begin in earnest, organizers will likely be hoping that the athletes finally taking center stage will help lighten the mood.

“I feel like the games have finally arrived,” star swimmer Rikako Ikee said in comments released by the Japanese Olympic Committee. “I feel good mentally and I feel the Olympic mood swelling up in me.

“I’m really excited. It feels strange to have the Olympics in my own country.”

Ikee will be among the most-watched athletes in Japan, with many inspired by her comeback after her public fight with leukemia in 2019 and 2020.

Those fans will be following her on television and the internet, as spectators have been banned from the majority of Games venues due to COVID-19. Friday’s opening ceremony was limited to various officials and VIPs.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike were among the officials present for the ceremony. U.S. first lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron were also in attendance.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not among them. Abe had a major role in helping to secure the Games for Tokyo and made a memorable appearance dressed as video game character Super Mario during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Abe was not the only one missing. Public sentiment has largely been against holding the Olympics as scheduled and is likely part of the reason a number of major sponsors pulled out of attending the opening of the Games. Toyota Motor Corp. has also decided against running Olympic-related commercials during the Games.

While some celebrated the arrival of the Games, there were still pockets of protesters around the stadium loudly expressing their disapproval of the Olympics being staged. At times, they could be heard during the opening ceremony.

The Air Self-Defense Force's Blue Impulse aerobatics flies above Tokyo Station ahead of the opening ceremony of the Games on Friday. The team gave similar performances at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. | KYODO
The Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse aerobatics flies above Tokyo Station ahead of the opening ceremony of the Games on Friday. The team gave similar performances at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. | KYODO

Organizers have had to be quick on their feet this week after a pair of scandals rocked the opening ceremony.

On Tuesday, musician Keigo Oyamada stepped down from his post on the creative team for the ceremony after comments he made about abusing classmates with disabilities during his school years resurfaced.

On Thursday, Kentaro Kobayashi, director of the opening ceremony, was dismissed over jokes he made about the Holocaust during a comedy routine in 1998.

On Thursday evening, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto sought to strike an optimistic tone.

“The value of Tokyo 2020 is still exciting and we want to send our messages to the world,” Hashimoto said.

Fans have been kept away to limit the spread of COVID-19, but the run-up to the official start of the Games has done little to allay the fears of those concerned the spectacle could turn into a superspreader event.

Two South African soccer players staying in the Olympic Village tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday and more positive tests have emerged among athletes and support staff since then.

The Olympic flame burns after the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, | AFP-JIJI
The Olympic flame burns after the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, | AFP-JIJI

“We have to accept that positive cases will emerge because the pandemic is still not over,” Games delivery officer Hidemasa Nakamura said during a news conference Thursday. “We cannot say we will have zero cases from the village. What is important is how quickly we can identify those positive cases and isolate them. That is how we see it.”

In addition to an opening ceremony held devoid of spectators, these Olympics will be the first in which the vast majority of events will take place at empty venues. In addition to the financial losses that will be incurred due to ticket refunds, the lack of spectators will rob the Games of their usual fervent mood.

Three of Japan’s national teams — softball as well as men’s and women’s soccer — have already competed in venues with piped-in crowd noise instead of the festive atmosphere that was seen in Tokyo during the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which at the time was thought to be a preview of the Tokyo Games.

“That is the kind of environment I wanted our players to play in,” Japan men’s manager Hajime Moriyasu said Thursday, referring to the 2019 rugby tournament. “We wanted our fans and people who were excited about the Olympics to experience that.”

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