Not what was envisioned, but Olympics underway with evocative ceremony in Tokyo

The majority were in bouyant mood for the opening ceremony, but among them at one crossroads was a cluster of locals shouting their disdain, waving their 'NOlympics' flags, chanting into megaphones
Not what was envisioned, but Olympics underway with evocative ceremony in Tokyo

Team Ireland flagbearers Kellie Harrington, right, and Brendan Irvine carry the tri-colour during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It felt like a microcosm of the country as a whole. Outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Friday night, legions of fans gathered in their thousands - smiling, waving, wanting, craving a piece of an event they had sacrificed so much to host.

The majority were in bouyant mood for the opening ceremony, but among them at one crossroads was a cluster of locals shouting their disdain, waving their 'NOlympics' flags, chanting into megaphones, the noise carrying into the arena as the serene open sequence began.

The truth is, this is an event most of Japan wants - some just don't want it right now. But on that note the International Olympic Committee has always been clear: there could be no re-staging of this party, stripped and all as it may be of its proper soundtrack.

Still, there was something distinctly unfair about breezing past locals with the media accreditation around my neck, coasting through checkpoints that stopped any of them getting too close.

Entering the Olympic Stadium, beautifully presented for opening night, the overriding thought was this could - should - be something others experienced, especially when life here carries on with such normality.

On a brief sojourn to retrieve take-away food (the only non-stadium trips we're allowed) I passed restaurants packed to capacity in downtown Tokyo. Then I passed an outdoor concert with several thousand fans sitting together, masked but not socially distanced.

Protesters against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are seen from a taxi as they march in Tokyo. Picture: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Protesters against the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are seen from a taxi as they march in Tokyo. Picture: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

It brought home that there remains one rule for some and a different for others. In Tokyo's case, the Olympics has developed the reputation of a loutish intruder, and inviting it to their place for a sporting knees-up seemed an increasingly difficult concept as Covid case numbers escalated. And so the plan to allow 10,000 local fans, or 50% capacity, was discarded.

But there is a reason Japan has not struggled with the pandemic as much as countries in the west, and a lot might have to do with its law-abiding citizens. That was rammed home on my way to the stadium. Arriving at a junction where all roads were closed to traffic, I stepped out to cross one and was immediately stopped by a panicked policeman. I stepped back among the locals who were patiently waiting for a green man to appear despite no cars being within two blocks. A moment later a German photographer arrived and was equally baffled but we stood, we waited, because this is their home, their truly incredible city, and we're conscious how lucky we are to be welcomed to it.

The ceremony itself was what opening ceremonies are: long, but with a typically stirring blend of music, dance and local traditions from one of the richest cultures there is. There was a moment of silence for the lives lost in the pandemic, and for the 11 Israelis killed during the 1972 Munich massacre.

In parts the ceremony was beautifully evocative, in parts run of the mill, and then in came the athletes, the very best physical specimens on planet Earth, the ones for whom all this effort, all these headaches, were deemed worthwhile.

A general view of the Olympic Stadium
A general view of the Olympic Stadium

In came Greece, out front as always. In came Ireland, with boxers Kellie Harrington and Brendan Irvine, two of our finest athletes and finest people, holding the tri-colour aloft, bowing to the hosts. The smiling volunteers bowed back, happy to have them.

And at the end of the athletes parade, in walked Japan, the joy etched across the athletes' faces. Sure, this wasn't what any of them envisioned when Tokyo was awarded the Games back in 2013, but it was still something special, something important, a memory they likely feared would be snatched from them along with all else that's been taken over the last 18 months.

The moment we all had waited for didn't disappoint, with tennis star Naomi Osaka etching her name into history and lighting the Olympic flame. Given the year she's had, she seemed an appropriate poster girl for the Games: Smiling through adversity, resilient against great difficulties.

And as we walked away, that orange flame dancing in the night sky, drawing your gaze from all the darkness elsewhere, it was hard not to be held captive - however briefly - by its bright, brilliant glow.

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