Summer Sports

Naomi Osaka lights Olympic cauldron, Tokyo 2020 officially underway

Tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron and Japan's Emperor Naruhito officially declared Tokyo 2020 open — and the Games delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic are now underway.

Elegant yet subdued opening ceremony kicked off pandemic-delayed Games

The Olympic Cauldron is lit during the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron and Japan's Emperor Naruhito officially declared Tokyo 2020 open, meaning the Games that were delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic are now underway.

The emperor made a short declaration following speeches by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach and Japanese Olympic Organizing Committee head Seiko Hashimoto acknowledging the challenges athletes and organizers have faced ahead of the Games.

More than three and a half hours into the ceremony, Osaka, who will compete for Japan at these Games, was handed the Olympic torch to light the cauldron. For the first time the Olympic cauldron is using hydrogen fuel as part of an effort on behalf of this year's host country to reduce emissions.

The cauldron — set atop a podium that resembled Mount Fuji, Japan's tallest mountain — was designed to evoke the sun and a flower, the latter representing vitality and hope. A short but spectacular fireworks display lit up the sky over Tokyo Olympic Stadium to close out the event.

WATCH | Naomi Osaka lights the Olympic cauldron:

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The opening ceremony, usually a boisterous affair, included the traditional musical and theatrical performances but on a smaller scale than previous Games. There were no spectators in the 68,000-seat stadium, and athlete contingents in the Parade of Nations were much smaller than usual.

Canadian flag-bearer waited 'a long time'

Only a small number of dignitaries, Olympic officials and international VIPs were in attendance.

Canada's flag-bearers, Miranda Ayim and Nathan Hirayama, carried the Maple Leaf into the stadium, ahead of only about 30 athletes from Team Canada.

"We've been waiting for this moment for a long time," Ayim told CBC's Marivel Taruc as she waited with Hirayama in the staging area where athletes gathered before parading into the stadium.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement Friday wishing Canada's athletes luck at the Games. He also acknowledged the challenges they faced, from difficulties accessing training facilities to having qualifying events cancelled.

"Despite those challenges, our Olympic athletes exemplified perseverance, patience, courage and determination," Trudeau said. "They remind us that if we work hard, remain disciplined and give it our best, we can make our dreams come true, even in times of adversity.

"To our Canadian athletes: thank you for being proud ambassadors for our country and an unrivalled source of inspiration for us all — especially our youth."

Canada is fielding a team of some 371 athletes, the largest contingent since 1984. But not all competitors are in Tokyo for the start of the Games, as some athletes are arriving just in time for their events and will leave quickly after they are done.

In one moment of controversy during the opening ceremony, Kyrgyzstan's Olympic team paraded mask-less into the stadium, marking an awkward contrast with all the national teams who had preceded them in masks, in accordance with COVID-19 protocols

Just one of the Central Asian country's athletes covered his face, with the other members of the small delegation, including its two flag-bearers, waving and smiling as they walked in. 

PHOTO GALLERY | Tokyo 2020 kicks off with opening ceremony:

After the athletes paraded into the stadium, the updated Olympic slogan was projected onto the stadium floor. "Faster, Higher, Stronger" has become "Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together" as the world comes together — albeit in a modified, more cautious way — for the Games.

The Olympic Oath has also been updated for Tokyo 2020 to better reflect a commitment to inclusion, diversity and ending discrimination. In step with the IOC's stated goal of improving gender equality, three men and three women took to the stage to recite the oath on behalf of all athletes and officials.

'United by emotion'

The theme of the opening ceremony was "moving forward," to reflect the need of the global community to look to a brighter future after a year and a half of a global pandemic that still grips much of the world.

The title was "united by emotion," as spectators who may be forced apart by the pandemic can still be united by the highs and lows of cheering on the athletes.

The ceremony opened with a short burst of fireworks, before a subdued first performance that began with Japanese boxer Tsubata Arisa, who is also a nurse, running on a treadmill. Not only was her presence an homage to front-line health-care workers who have given so much during the pandemic, but it was also a nod to athletes around the world who were forced to train in isolation as the coronavirus took hold.

Later in the ceremony, a moment of silence was held to honour the lives lost to COVID-19, as well as the members of the Israeli delegation who were killed at the Munich Games in 1972.

Wood for Olympic rings from around the world, including Canada

Before the athletes began their march into the stadium, actors and dancers dressed as woodworkers performed a traditional Japanese work song called Kiyari Uta. During the performance, giant wooden rings were wheeled into the stadium and eventually assembled into the familiar Olympic symbol.

The rings were constructed in the style of yosegi-zaiku, traditional Japanese craftwork that makes use of the natural colour differences and imperfections in the wood. 

Performers are seen during the opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020. The wood for these Olympic rings came from trees grown with seeds brought to Tokyo for the 1964 Olympics by athletes from around the world. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

To make it more special, the lumber came from trees that grew from seeds that athletes from around the world, including Canada, brought to Tokyo for the 1964 Games. The seeds were planted throughout Japan. On the grounds of a children's centre in Tomeoka sits a so-called Exhibition Forest of 160 pines and spruces from Canada, Ireland, Northern Europe and other countries. 

The lumber has also been used to construct parts of the Olympic venues, as well as the Olympic Village.

Imagine re-imagined

The classic John Lennon-Yoko Ono song Imagine was reworked by legendary Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer and performed by an array of singers representing the world's five continents: the Suginami Junior Chorus, Angélique Kidjo, Alejandro Sanz, John Legend and Keith Urban.

The song followed a jaw-dropping display in the sky over the stadium of more than 1,800 drones in the formation of the Tokyo 2020 harmonized checkered emblem, designed to look both like a colourful flower and the sun. 

'Unifying power of sport'

Organizing committee head Hashimoto began her speech by acknowledging the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic and thanked essential workers around the world "who have shown such determination in overcoming these challenges."

Hashimoto, a former Olympian and medallist herself, acknowledged the questions surrounding the wisdom of holding a global competition while the pandemic continues. She noted that athletes coming together as spectators from around the world watch and cheer is the "essence" of the Olympic movement. 

"To the athletes, thank you for gathering here on this stage," Hashimoto said. "We have been encouraged by your commitment in spite of all the difficulties you've had to endure. You have always moved forward and done your very best. As a fellow athlete, I offer you my heartfelt gratitude."

Seats inside the 68,000-seat Tokyo Olympic Stadium were empty before the opening ceremony got underway Friday. No spectators were allowed due to COVID-19 protocols. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

In his remarks, Bach — who won a gold medal in fencing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics — noted the "unifying power of sport" despite this Games being different than in the past. He also bid a special welcome to athletes who are at the Games as part of the IOC's refugee Olympic team. This is the second time such a team has been part of the Games; the first was the Rio Games in 2016.

"You had to flee from your homes because of violence, hunger or just because you were different," Bach said. "Today, we welcome you with open arms and offer you a peaceful home. Welcome to our Olympic community."

The team is made up of 29 athletes from 11 countries who will compete in 12 different sports including judo, wrestling and swimming. They walked into the opening ceremony under the Olympic flag, which will be flown in the event of a medal win. The Olympic theme will play should any win gold.

Delayed Games

After a year-long delay due to COVID-19, competition began at Tokyo 2020 on Wednesday, with events set to ramp up over the weekend. More than 11,000 athletes will be competing in 33 sports, including four sports making their Olympic debuts: karate, surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing. Baseball and softball are making their return to an Olympic program after a two-Games absence.

Meanwhile, fans were absent from the opening ceremony and will be absent from competitions in an effort to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19, though Tokyo remains under a state of emergency due to surging cases. A few dozen people accredited to attend the Games, including athletes, have tested positive since arriving in Japan.

Without the typical crowd noise, it was quiet enough inside the stadium at times during the opening ceremony to hear the demonstrators that had gathered outside to protest the Games.

Public opinion polls in Japan showed the majority of the Japanese public did not want the Games to go ahead amid the pandemic.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in Japan for the opening ceremony along with other world leaders, told a French television station Friday that Japan was right to hold the Games because they represent "the spirit of co-operation" that is badly needed.

"Japan authorities were right to hold the Olympics because no one knows how the epidemic will evolve in the coming years" or if there will be others, Macron said.


Andrea Janus

Senior writer

Andrea Janus is a senior writer at and can typically be found writing and editing breaking news and features with a cup of Earl Grey tea at hand. She has written extensively on health matters, as well as federal and provincial politics. A native Torontonian, Andrea recently took up cycling and it's now her preferred method of getting around town (and she’s always ready to tell anyone who will listen all about it).

With a file from Reuters

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