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The Tokyo Olympics’ Opening Ceremony Tried to Have It Both Ways

The Summer Games kicked off Friday by grasping at normalcy while begrudgingly acknowledging the next two-plus weeks will be anything but.

Fireworks explode during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Fireworks explode during the opening ceremony at the 2020 Summer Olympics — held July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

When the 1998 Winter Olympics began in Nagano, Japan, it started with singing. So the first thing the gathered crowd saw was a group of people heralding a massive gathering. In broad daylight, dozens of artists and performers made a metaphorical bridge into the country, spotlighting the nation’s history and cultural touchstones and looking to make the venue something of a holy place.

Twenty-three years later, under cover of darkness, the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo took on a decidedly different tenor. It began with a pre-recorded video countdown from when the host city for the now-underway Summer Games was announced in 2013, continued with an energetic training montage though the intervening years, and ground to a halt as the on-screen calendar hit 2020. To reignite the darkened screens, a group of athletes picked up a giant cord and plugged the world back in. Fitting a theme that persisted for much of the three-and-a-half-hour festivities, proceeding into 2021 was shown as an act of sporting defiance.

NBC Sports mainstay Mike Tirico, who served as an announcer alongside Savannah Guthrie, primed the viewing audience by explaining the original Opening Ceremony plans had “pivoted in tone.” Aside from being a far more gentle reframing of the behind-the-scenes tumult faced by the creative team in the lead-up to Friday night, it was one of the first indications that the Olympics are somehow part of a solemn duty to the world; a righteous obligation rather than a questionable bit of hubris and persistence.

Instead of shepherding the Olympics into Tokyo by putting Japan at the forefront, the artistic preamble to the introduction of the athletes moved in the other direction, trying to make a more universal statement about how many people watching have been living their lives for the better part of 18 months. As dissonant orchestral music pulsated underneath, the overhead cameras captured a choreographed medley of distanced runners — athletes training in isolation. That, in turn, gave way to a somber rope dance, one meant to invoke the inner workings of the human body.

For an event like the Olympics that sure loves a narrative, this was an esoteric beginning to a fortnight that will surely be dominated by those questioning whether these Games should be happening in the first place. In an inescapable way, Friday’s opening felt like a preemptive reassurance. By nodding toward the realities of the pandemic, the Opening Ceremony’s first 20 minutes played out like a rite of international penance; something designed to cleanse any perceived impropriety and earn the 17 days to come in the minds of those curious enough to tune in.

That also played out in the evening’s moment of silence, observed in the stadium and meant as a way to connect and unite a global audience. It was also described and intended as a way to honor the athletes killed nearly a half-century ago, during the attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. In its wake, the NBC broadcast added to the self-congratulatory tone of the evening, pointing out that an Opening Ceremony had never before acknowledged or made tribute to those deaths. Whether fair or not, it’s part of the impossible self-imposed corner that the Tokyo organizers have painted themselves into: Every deed for the rest of these Summer Games, however well-intentioned, can’t help coming off like a distraction or an obfuscation of the health risks inherent to the event itself.

After the “we’re all in this together” preamble, there was a decidedly smaller-scale attempt to kick-start the Olympics with something more upbeat. As representatives of disparate groups in Japanese society joined a spontaneous dance underneath and around the wooden Olympic rings, it felt like a step toward the spirit of Opening Ceremonies past. The group of dancers was pared down and spread out, seemingly trying to will a home country and all virtual guests into feeling like it’s OK that things are proceeding as planned.

From there, the evening gave way to the traditional Parade of Nations. One of the main components of the athletes walking into the stadium is seeing them all gawk at the majesty of the whole thing. For an overwhelming majority, the Opening Ceremony is their Olympics — their one big chance at being feted by an adoring crowd. In past years, you could sense the moment they recognized the magnitude of it all, their heads on a swivel, trying to take in a 360° view of the stadium itself. Here, such enthusiasm was decidedly tempered. It may not seem like much, but it changed things, seeing that the people in the Parade were mostly looking left and right, waving to camera crews, instead of soaking up the honor from every direction.

Tirico and Guthrie did their part to try to make this more than an Opening Ceremony lite, going through their Parade of Nations commentary as usual. The pair waded through the usual melange of geographical trivia, past Olympics performances, outsider cultural appraisals, “you may have heard” tidbits, and shirtless oiled flagbearers. It’s the kind of thing that, like most of the night’s festivities, is comforting if you’re already primed to enjoy it. For anyone on the fence, the breathless tracking of the Team USA Bus brought this closer to a massive advertisement for the Games to come (not to mention the “Today” show and any number of new and past Peacock Originals) rather than the egalitarian celebration that it continually bills itself as.

Maybe no moment cemented this as a night of #content more than when the USA contingent walked into Olympic Stadium. Flagbearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez were mic’d up for the walk across the length of the floor, getting peppered with small talk from the NBC booth the entire way. Paired with the bizarre in-game interviews from the recent MLB All-Star Game, there’s an odd sense of entitlement in the broadcast’s intrusion into these once-in-a-lifetime moments. Encroaching on in-progress action in the name of athletes answering vague questions from broadcasters is unsettling at best. Yes, these Opening Ceremonies were more pomp than on-field play, but it didn’t keep certain parts from feeling any less opportunistic.

There’s a weird tension in the Olympics between wanting to connect so much to its past and feeling an immense pressure to outdo itself. Both were on display after the Parade ended. A prerecorded piece celebrating Agnes Keleti, the oldest living Olympian, helped salute some of the historic achievements of Games past. And then, in a mirroring of Nagano, kids took center stage at the Olympic Stadium, delivering a choreographed rainbow-colored prelude to an unveiling of the Tokyo 2020 flag. (It’s worth noting that the giant drone lights show playing out overhead — hailed by Guthrie as a technological marvel never before seen — comes three-and-a-half years after a similar display was organized for the Pyeongchang Winter Games in 2018.)

But the evening’s truly baffling centerpiece was a performance of the John Lennon song “Imagine” which, in addition to becoming something of an Olympics tradition, is now officially the international anthem for misguided shows of solidarity. Combining a children’s chorus in Tokyo with virtual performances of singers from the four other global regions represented by the Olympic rings, it was the night’s most glaring bit of fake uplift. It takes a colossal misreading of the room to pick a song with the words “imagine there’s no countries” for an event whose defining feature is reminding people that there are, in fact, countries.

In the immediate lead-up to lighting the cauldron, the night salvaged some of the distinct kind of energy that has usually filled Opening Ceremonies past. Despite an initial fumble, the live-action reveal of the Tokyo pictograms for the 50 different competitions was the best melding of tradition and verve. (The finger swimming!) A short control room sketch, a mini kabuki performance, and some jazz piano? When presented that close together, it’s the Olympics in its most benevolent form: providing a place where seemingly unrelated people and ideas can exist alongside each other in harmony. With Naomi Osaka lighting the flame on the beautifully designed Olympic cauldron, there was a sense of reverence that at least partly counteracted all the questionable parts of the preamble.

It’s an inevitability that the relative lack of in-person attendees is going to mute this Olympics in all the ways that crowdless sports felt alienating throughout 2020. The capper to the Opening Ceremony’s artistic intro was described as a tribute to Japan’s history with carpentry, eventually giving way to Kazunori Kumagai’s solo tap-dance routine on a platform above the rest of his fellow performers. It’s the kind of rhythmic spirit that makes this pageantry memorable. But then again, that creative heartbeat is usually amplified by those of the people watching from the stands. As the reason for spectators’ absence persists, that thumping echo through a mostly empty stadium said more about this undertaking than anything else.

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