With no fans, Olympic opening ceremony had sombre, muted feel

On a steamy night in Tokyo, the Olympic flame was ignited atop a Mt. Fuji replica, inside of a sparkling new stadium, full of thousands of empty seats. It’s a stark reminder of the global COVID pandemic that continues to loom as these Games officially begin.

Event punctuated by a few occasions of fireworks

Flab-bearers Sabiana Anestor, right and Darrelle Valsaint Jr., left, lead Team Haiti into a near-empty stadium at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Friday. Jamie Squire/Getty Images (Getty Images)

On a steamy night in Tokyo, the Olympic flame was ignited atop a Mt. Fuji replica, inside of a sparkling new stadium, full of thousands of empty seats. It's a stark reminder of the global COVID-19 pandemic that continues to loom as these Games officially begin.

Japanese tennis player and global superstar Naomi Osaka accepted the torch in the middle of the stadium before "scaling" Mt. Fuji to officially open these Olympic Games.

After COVID-19 delayed these still-named Tokyo 2020 Games for more than a year, Japan finally welcomed the world with an opening ceremony that acknowledged much has changed in the world since the Olympics were postponed last March.

With the stadium bathed in blue light, the ceremony opened with dozens of athletes training alone — as many had to when the pandemic hit.

During the near silent opening portion of the ceremony, protesters could be heard chanting outside of the stadium, decrying the IOC's presence.

As the Olympic flame was lit, a majority of the Japanese public continues to push back against hosting these Games with COVID-19 cases surging across the country.

According to a number of recent polls, including one from Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, two thirds of people doubt that Japan could host a safe Games, with more than half saying they opposed the Olympics from going ahead.

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Hours before the ceremony, Olympic organizers said three more competitors at the Tokyo Games, including one resident of the Athletes' Village, had tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of disclosed cases to 106.

The nearly four-hour ceremony nodded heavily to the current global pandemic and the near universal awakening around equality and social change, while at the same time embracing Japan's rich history.

It was relatively sombre and muted by Olympic opening ceremony standards, punctuated on a few occasions by fireworks.

No Japanese fans

For such a historic event, no Japanese fans were allowed inside. Instead, the massive stadium was sprinkled with about 1,000 people made up of IOC members, VIPs and foreign dignitaries, including U.S. first lady Jill Biden.

Outside, many Japanese people milled around the stadium, which is heavily fortified and nearly impossible for people to get close to.

For a moment that IOC officials had been pointing to as a time to rejoice and cheer, few were there to witness the historic opening.

With the nearly 70,000-seat stadium empty, this event had an eerie feel from the moment it started. Almost complete silence except for a helicopter that whirred overhead, as the laughter of athletes and the music that was used during many part of the ceremony reverberated throughout the stadium.

Protesters gathered outside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony to demonstrate the Games amid concern over the safety of holding the event during the global coronavirus pandemic as well as the cost incurred. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Nod to gender equity

More than 5,000 athletes from more than 200 countries were able to march into the stadium. Every delegation sent a scaled-back contingent with a majority of nations having their flag carried by both a male and female athlete, part of the IOC's nod to gender equity.

Canada had a delegation of 30 athletes, led by basketballer Miranda Ayim and rugby player Nathan Hirayama.

The athletes walked into a medley of songs pulled from classic Japanese video games like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Sonic the Hedgehog. 

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Some athletes walked into the stadium holding phones, as if waiting for applause before realizing the stadium was completely empty.

Nonetheless, many athletes sang and danced as they entered, savouring this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It's commendable that organizers were even able to pull off this ceremony, which has seemingly been hounded by controversy at every step.

On the eve of this event, the director of the opening ceremony was fired after past comments he made about the Holocaust while performing as a comedian. 

And earlier this week, a composer – whose music was supposed to be prominently featured in the opening festivities – was forced to resign after it was revealed he'd been involved in some past incidents of bullying.

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Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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