The most troubled Olympics in modern history finally open in Tokyo on Friday, struggling to shake off lingering virus fears after a one-year postponement and a build-up marred by scandal and controversy.
Eight years after Japanese newscasters shed tears as Tokyo celebrated winning the right to stage the Games, Friday’s opening ceremony will take place before empty stands and with the city in a state of emergency.
Fears that the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could trigger a super-spreader event have prompted organisers to clamp the Games in a biosecure straitjacket.
Overseas fans are banned for the first time ever, and domestic spectators will be kept out of all but a handful of venues.
Athletes, support staff and media are subject to strict Covid-19 protocols, including regular testing and daily health checks.
Tokyo residents turned out across the city to see an aerial display before the opening ceremony
Polls have consistently found a majority of Japanese are against the games, with opinion ranging from weary indifference to outright hostility.
But in the hours before the opening ceremony, there were glimmers of excitement building, with thousands turning out in Tokyo to watch an aerial display by the Japanese air force’s Blue Impulse team.
“Before the Olympics began I expected the atmosphere to be a little sad,” said Maki Hasumoto, 25, as she waited for the display.
“But now it’s very atmospheric and now I’m looking forward to it.”
Friday is a national holiday in Japan and families set up picnic blankets in Tokyo parks to watch the jets draw the Olympic rings in coloured smoke.
“It’s impressive here. It really feels like the Olympics is going to start,” added 38-year-old Megumi Taguchi.
– ‘Determined’ –
Nearby, locals patiently lined up in the heat to take photos in front of the Olympic rings mounted next to the stadium that will host this evening’s opening extravaganza.
Traditionally a highlight of any Summer Games, featuring the parade of nations and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, Tokyo’s opening ceremony will be drastically pared back.
The flame was used to light a cauldron outside the Tokyo local government building in the hours before the opening ceremony
Fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and officials will be present at the 68,000-seat stadium when events get under way at 8:00 pm local time (1100 GMT).
Most world leaders have opted to stay away, though US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron – whose country will host the 2024 Paris Olympics – will be in the stands along with Japan’s Emperor Naruhito.
But in a sign of how divisive the Games remain, several top sponsors including Toyota and Panasonic will not be sending executives.
A few hundred protestors demonstrated against the Games on Friday morning near the Tokyo government building where Governor Yuriko Koike welcomed the Olympic flame.
“Even though the pandemic continues, we will hold a safe and secure Games,” Koike said.
“We are determine to see it through. Today is the first step towards that.”
Tokyo is battling a surge in virus cases, and is under emergency measures that means bars and restaurants must shut by 8:00 pm and cannot sell alcohol.
– Dogged by controversy –
But Olympic officials have put a brave face on the unusual circumstances, with IOC chief Bach insisting cancellation was never on the table.
Gymnastics superstar Simone Biles is hoping for five gold medals at the Tokyo Games
“Over the past 15 months we had to take many decisions on very uncertain grounds,” he said this week. “We had doubts every day. There were sleepless nights.
“We can finally see at the end of the dark tunnel. Cancellation was never an option for us. The IOC never abandons the athletes… we did it for the athletes.”
There are also hefty financial incentives in play. Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for around $1.5 billion in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been cancelled.
The pandemic has not been the only hiccup in preparations though, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo.
The controversies kept coming right up to the eve of the Games, with the opening ceremony’s director sacked on Thursday for making a joke referencing the Holocaust in a video from 1998.
Skateboarding is one of the sports making an Olympic debut
Back in the sporting arenas, a new generation of Olympic stars are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.
US swimmer Caeleb Dressel could target seven gold medals, and in track and field, 400 metre hurdlers Karsten Warholm of Norway and the USA’s Sydney McLaughlin are among those hoping to emerge as household names.
Gymnastics meanwhile will see Simone Biles attempt to crown her dazzling career by equalling Larisa Latynina’s record of nine Olympic gold medals.
New Olympic sports will also be on display in Tokyo, with surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate all making their debut.