Athletes react as tradition, modern spectacle converge during opening ceremony

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After a year’s delay, athletes and artists took the field at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the XXXII Olympiad Friday night, which served as a tribute to Japan’s rich history and a celebration of the athletes from more than 200 delegations competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

A powerful opening sequence kicked off with middleweight boxer and nurse Arisa Tsubata running alone on a treadmill, replicating Olympic athletes’ solitary training experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. As additional athletes became visible on the field, digital projections around them symbolized the unifying power of sport, showing that they were together despite their physical separation. The theme of cohesion was punctuated further by elastic bands physically connecting the performers in a dazzling visual spectacle.

Dancing performance during the opening sequence of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games
(Getty Images)

Modern-day technological showmanship merged with Japanese tradition throughout the Opening Ceremony. Following a stirring rendition of Japanese National Anthem “Kimi Ga Yo” by Japanese singer and songwriter Misia, the Edo Firemanship Preservation Association performed traditional Japanese work song “Kiyari Uta” as they “constructed” giant wooden Olympic Rings carved from trees planted in Japan by athletes from each of the participating nations in the 1964 Olympic Games. Those games were held at the very site where the current Tokyo Olympic Stadium now stands. The performance also featured some incredible footwork from Japanese tap dancer Kumagai Kazunori.

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With the placement of the Olympic Rings in front of the stadium’s Mt. Fuji centerpiece bringing the Opening Ceremony full circle, it was time for the Parade of Nations. In a historic first, each delegation was permitted two flagbearers – one male and one female – to represent gender equity at the Olympic Games. Argentina captured the world’s attention early on with the most boisterous entrance of the night, as athletes showed little restraint despite the physical challenges that await them for the next two weeks. Meanwhile, shirtless sensation Pita Taufatofua of Tonga continued to capture social media’s attention in his third Opening Ceremony appearance, five years after going viral in Rio.

Team USA entered third-to-last in the procession, with flagbearers Sue Bird (basketball) and Eddy Alvarez (baseball) offering their candid thoughts as they entered the stadium.

“The energy is insane,” Bird said. “I know our country is in a tough moment right now, but right now we all feel unified and it’s incredible.”

An excited Alvarez added, “This is absolutely incredible. Thank God that I have Sue here holding me up, because I’m freaking out a little bit, guys. I’m not gonna lie.”

Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women’s soccer team said she couldn’t be prouder of her flag-bearing fiancée, Bird.

Rapinoe and her team were unable to attend the Opening Ceremony due to their schedule, but that didn’t stop the squad from celebrating in their own way, as evidenced by Alex Morgan’s post.

Naya Tapper of the U.S. women’s rugby team, meanwhile, took to Twitter to show off her ceremony style.

As athletes stood united in Tokyo Olympic Stadium, the International Olympic Committee slogan, “Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together,” appeared on the field, signaling the start of a dazzling 1,824-drone display that formed the Tokyo 2020 logo and a luminous globe hovering over Tokyo.  Angélique Kidjo, Ajejandro Sanz, John Legend and Keith Urban led a performance of John Lennon’s “Imagine” before Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Hashimoto Seiko and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach addressed the athletes and a worldwide audience.

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

1,825 drones hover over the Olympic Stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Opening Ceremony
(Getty Images)

Following the ceremonial raising of the Olympic flag, an innovative and surprisingly physical pantomime performance brought 50 of the Games’ pictograms – originally created for the 1964 Tokyo Games – to animated life like never before.

A kabuki dance and piano performance by Grammy winner Hiromi cleansed the arena of negative energy to make way for the Olympic torchbearers, including notable Japanese athletes and medical professionals. In the end, 23-year-old Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka was the final torchbearer, ascending to the cauldron atop the Olympic Stadium’s Mt. Fuji-inspired main stage to light the flame and conclude one of the most memorable Opening Ceremonies in Olympic history.  

Osaka took to Twitter following the ceremony, calling it “the greatest athletic achievement and honor” she will ever have in her life.

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