The Haunting, Ambivalent Olympics Opening Ceremony

The proceedings did anything but distract from the distressing reality surrounding this year’s Tokyo Games.

Black and white image of Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka holding the Olympic Torch after lighting the flame of hope during the opening ceremony.
Leon Neal / AFP / Getty

Five years ago, in the closing ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the then–prime minister of Japan popped out of a green tube wearing the red hat of the world’s most amusing plumber. The stunt signified the handoff of the Olympics mantle to Tokyo, and the sight of Shinzo Abe as Mario gave a hint of what Japan might try to project in 2020: Its status as a cultural powerhouse whose innovations—such as Nintendo, karate, and anime—shape how people around the globe enjoy themselves every day. Later, a leaked planning document for the 2020 opening ceremony, featuring references to Akira and yet more Mario, hinted that the Tokyo Olympics would be a Games especially devoted to escape and play.

That vision didn’t come to pass. The 2020 Olympics became the 2021 Olympics after the coronavirus pandemic killed millions and disrupted life globally. A recovery has come into view—but slow rollouts of vaccines in many parts of the world, and the rising presence of formidable virus variants, threaten to reverse that progress. The typical scandals that seem to surround every Olympics—cost overruns, offensive comments from officials, last-minute sackings—were supercharged by pandemic anxieties, and a majority of Japanese citizens did not want the Tokyo Games to go forward as scheduled.

The proceedings nevertheless kicked off today with a mournful mishmash of a ceremony that only emphasized its dark context. “Today, with the world facing great challenges, some are again questioning the power of sport and the value of the Olympic Games,” the Tokyo Olympics organizing-committee president, Seiko Hashimoto, said in one of the evening’s speeches. The ceremony itself—which NBC will air again at 7 p.m. ET—offered tentative, wincing answers to such questioning. It was a celebration suited to an Olympics that many aren’t sure should exist at all.

An introductory video reiterated the difficult road that led to this day. A clip showed the jubilance that erupted in 2013 when the International Olympic Committee picked Japan’s bid to host the Games—a bid premised on resilience and recovery from the country’s devastating 2011 earthquake and its aftermath. As the video ticked forward to 2020, images of teams training to compete gave way to images of empty streets and solitary workouts: signs of the pandemic’s effects. When viewers finally were shown inside the stadium, they saw scattered athletes using treadmills or stationary bikes while bathed in a sterile light, casting strange shadows. Isolation, it was clear, would be part of the spectacle.

The COVID-19 commentary continued with a stark modern-dance fantasia. Swathed in hospital-white garb, performers shimmied at a distance from one another as metronomical music played: a fitting evocation of how 2020 felt for athletes, and really anyone, trying to stay active in lockdown. Next came a bit of body horror as pods of people tugged at red elastic bands, evoking blood vessels and other, more abstract systems of dependence. “The beating heart of the Olympics,” explained NBC’s commentator, “are its athletes.”

The solemn mood only deepened with an aching rendition of Japan’s national anthem by the pop singer Misia, whose beautiful gown graduated from white at her shoulders to colorful ruffles at her feet. A moment of silence then commemorated the victims of COVID-19 and fallen Olympians of the past, specifically including the Israeli athletes killed by hostage takers in 1972 (references to those murders, controversially, had been left out of all previous ceremonies). During that pause, reporters in the stadium said, attendees could hear protesters outside the building objecting to the Olympics for endangering lives in the present.

Later, the show did feature some of the patriotic pizzazz and preposterousness expected from Olympics ceremonies. (Who can forget Annie Lennox on a ghost ship in London in 2012?) Percussive music and choreography—including scorching tap dance routines—thrummed through a tribute to traditional Japanese carpentry that also served as a metaphor for modern-day Japanese can-do. A formation of flying drones in the shape of the globe hovered over the stadium in a poignant display of technical prowess. One frenetic segment, essentially a live-action music video, had a body-suited mime imitating the pictograms used to represent the various Olympic sports (such icons were first used at the 1964 Tokyo Games). The night’s best performance matched nimble jazz piano by Hiromi Uehara with lumbering movements by Ichikawa Ebizo, a Kabuki performer who swung sleeves as big as boogie boards.

But the moments that drew viewers into rapture were outnumbered by jolts back into distressing reality. More egregiously, the four-hour ceremony devoted multiple minutes to John Lennon’s “Imagine” as arranged by Hans Zimmer and sung by performers around the world, including the overexposed celebrities John Legend and Keith Urban. This set piece could have happened at any Olympics, or any corporate function, and its message would again be hammered home in a lengthy speech by IOC President Thomas Bach: The Olympics had to go on in order to provide unity in a time of isolation.

Watching each country’s athletes parade through the stadium, waving flags and (mostly) wearing face masks, it felt natural to consider other explanations for why the Olympics were still happening: national pride, competitive spirit, human stubbornness. When Bach thanked sponsors, whose representatives were among the few people allowed in the venue’s socially distanced stands, it was a reminder that money has played a role in pushing these Games ahead too. But can any motive justify spectacle when it comes with a potential human cost? The most striking image of the night was of the Olympic cauldron, a lovely, flower-shaped sculpture with a mirrored interior. Naomi Osaka, the tennis superstar, lit its flame after looking out at the world’s cameras with just a slight smile—perhaps the only kind that will ever feel right at these Games.