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Sport stretched out over Tokyo on Saturday and gold medals rained down as the Olympic Games burst into life, finally casting aside some of the shadow of COVID-19 and controversy that has plagued the global showpiece.

China made an instant statement of intent when Yang Qian grabbed the Games’ first gold, and Japanese judoka Naohisa Takato lifted home hearts with gold on the mat a day after the nation’s global superstar, tennis player Naomi Osaka, had lit the cauldron to officially open the pandemic-delayed Olympics.

Iran were also cheering early after Javad Foroughi won the men’s 10m air pistol event, and Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz won the men’s cycling road race as unexpected nations featured at the top of the medals table.

But fans, banned from all venues under COVID-19 protocols, were served an early reminder of the pandemic’s potential impact as two U.S. archers said they were competing unvaccinated through personal choice, and organizers said another athlete had tested positive for the virus.

The choice of Osaka to light the cauldron on Friday had capped an opening ceremony shorn of glitz and staged in an eerily silent stadium.

But while the ceremony had been like none before, day one of sport offered a much more familiar feel despite the absence of spectators, as the world’s elite athletes ran, rode, fought and swam as a hankered-for business-as-usual vibe built.

Ecuador's Richard Carapaz and Brandon McNulty of the United States in action during the men's road race final. | REUTERS
Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz and Brandon McNulty of the United States in action during the men’s road race final. | REUTERS

The sight of an athlete, eyes glistening with joy, was always going to be a welcome one for organizers, and 21-year-old Chinese shooter Yang provided it first, holding her nerve in the women’s 10-meter rifle competition to overhaul Anastasiia Galashina.

The Russian crumpled under pressure on her final shot, shooting 8.9, by far her worst of the day, and the worst score any of the finalists registered. “I got too nervous, held on too long,” she said.

Yang was thrilled, and hinted at her prime motivation. “It’s the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party,” she said. “I’m so happy that this golden medal is a gift to my country.”

Organizers are hoping sport can distract from the stream of embarrassing gaffes and coronavirus woes which have marked the event, postponed by a year.

But there was no ignoring the global pandemic, as organizers said one more athlete had tested COVID-positive, bringing the total number of disclosed virus cases to 123.

Team USA's Brady Ellison competes in the mixed team eliminations at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field in Tokyo on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI
Team USA’s Brady Ellison competes in the mixed team eliminations at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field in Tokyo on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

Later, American archers Brady Ellison and Mackenzie Brown said they were free to choose whether or not they got vaccinated against COVID-19, after a U.S. Olympic swimming gold medal prospect who had declined the vaccine was widely criticized on social media.

“It’s 100% a personal choice, and anyone that says otherwise is taking away people’s freedoms,” Ellison, the world’s No.1, said on the competition sidelines.

Organizers are also preparing for a typhoon, having already reworked Monday’s rowing competitions to integrate them in the schedule for Saturday and Sunday.

But while the rowers look anxiously to the skies, surfers — who start their competitions on Sunday — should benefit from bigger swells.

France president Emmanuel Macron and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden applaud as they attend the Basketball 3x3 match of U.S. versus France. | REUTERS
France president Emmanuel Macron and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden applaud as they attend the Basketball 3×3 match of U.S. versus France. | REUTERS

The 3×3 basketball tournament made its debut and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron led the cheering as the American women beat France.

At 12, Syria’s Hend Zaza was the youngest athlete competing in Tokyo but her table tennis tournament was over in a flash as she lost to Austria’s Liu Jia, before taking a selfie with her conqueror.

Liu, who has a 10-year-old daughter, had struggled to sleep on the eve of the event. “Yesterday I asked my daughter, ‘Do you know your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’ Her first response was, ‘Then you better not lose!'”

Syria's Hend Zaza is comforted by Austria's Liu Jia after being defeated 4-0 during their women's singles preliminary round table tennis match at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI
Syria’s Hend Zaza is comforted by Austria’s Liu Jia after being defeated 4-0 during their women’s singles preliminary round table tennis match at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

Perhaps Japan’s “King Kohei” Uchimura could have done with similar advice, but the reign of the Olympic all-around champion and holder of seven Olympic medals, came to an abrupt end when he failed to qualify for the apparatus final, closing his storied Olympic career.

“I couldn’t perform what I have practiced. That’s how I simply think,” he said.

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