Tokyo Games officially begin as Naomi Osaka lights Olympic cauldron

The opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics began on Friday in a largely empty stadium, as cases of the coronavirus in the host city hit a six-month high. Friends and families of competitors were among those barred from attending the ceremony in person to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron atop a peak inspired by Mount Fuji, ending the flame’s journey from Greece to Japan. The four-time Grand Slam winner dipped the flame in the cauldron to mark the formal start of the Games and fireworks filled the sky.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony
Japan’s Naomi Osaka reacts after lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Ashley Landis / AP

After an opening fireworks display, the opening ceremony was relatively somber in tone. Near the start, a moment of silence was taken for those who had died during the pandemic, as well as for members of the Israeli Olympic team who were murdered during the Munich Games in 1972.

The acts reflecting Japanese culture and heritage were streamlined and simple. A white pyramid depicting Mount Fuji remained in the background.

In keeping with Olympic tradition, Greece was first in the parade of nations to enter the stadium. It was followed by representatives of the refugee team. Japan, as the host country, entered last. The U.S. team entered third to last.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony
Athletes from the United States of America walk during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. David J. Phillip / AP

“You had to face great challenges on your Olympic journey,” President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach told the athletes that were gathered after processing into the stadium.

“Through the pandemic, you did not know when you could train again… You did not even know whether this competition would take place at all. You struggled. You persevered. You never gave up. And today, you are making your Olympic dream come true,” he said.

An extra line was added to the Olympic motto this year to make it read: “Faster, higher, stronger — together.”

“The pandemic forced us apart,” Bach said. “To keep our distance from each other. To stay away, even from our loved ones. This separation made this tunnel so dark. But today, wherever in the world you may be, we are united in sharing this moment together. The Olympic flame makes this light shine brighter for all of us,” he said.

Some politicians and dignitaries, including U.S. first lady Jill Biden, were among the limited few permitted to watch from the stands. Hundreds of fans and supporters gathered outside the gates of the Olympic Village, waving at cars that went by with Olympic logos or people with Olympic credentials, the Associated Press reported.

But other crowds gathered in Tokyo to protest the Games.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony Protest
Anti-Olympic protestors demonstrate near the National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan where the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics took place, Friday, July 23, 2021. Kantaro Komiya / AP

Dozens of demonstrators around the city chanted “cancel the Olympics” and “go to hell, IOC” on Friday. Despite precautions, there are fears that the event could worsen Japan’s coronavirus outbreak.

In addition to the pandemic, the spectacle of the opening ceremony was undercut by the firing of the event’s creative director. Kentaro Kobayashi was dismissed Thursday after a video emerged of him appearing to joke about the Holocaust.