BidWeek: Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony unfocussed, uninspiring, but perfect

BidWeek – How do you remember, honor and celebrate so many different things at the opening of the largest, yet most isolating sports event in history?  Very awkwardly, Tokyo 2020 organizers learned Friday as the Olympic Games opened after a one year postponement.

IOC President Thomas Bach (left) and Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko on podium at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony July 23, 2021 (IOC Photo)
IOC President Thomas Bach (left) and Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko on podium at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony July 23, 2021 (IOC Photo)

Add some pandering to the large portion of the Japanese public who didn’t welcome these Games at all and you ended up with an Opening Ceremony that lacked focus and theme.

Yet it was very oddly right on point, perfectly summarizing the times we live in at this moment.

Tokyo’s journey to host these Games began April 6, 2011 – and I was in the room in London where the idea was announced publicly, to a small group of international reporters at the SportAccord Convention.

Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) Vice President Masato Mizuno was responding to concerns about the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that devastated the region only one month earlier, and was visibly distraught.  He floated the idea of bidding for the 2020 Olympics, leveraging off of the failed run at the 2016 Games that went to Rio instead.

I asked him why an Olympics seemed like a priority at that moment in time.

He stared back with his head slightly lowered and with a quiet and hopeful tone he said “We need to send a signal to the world that Japan is ready to continue hosting major international sports events.”

“There is an impression that the whole of Japan has been paralyzed by this earthquake.  There is an impression that Tokyo, also, has suffered badly from the earthquake.

“Tokyo is much safer than the people think.”

He couldn’t have known that in 2020 Japan would not be ready to host and that it would be the entire world paralyzed by a natural disaster of sorts, with the COVID-19 pandemic.  He wouldn’t have further imagined that in 2021 it would be the Japanese people who fear the dangers from outside travelers, and not the other way around.

He would go on to lead Tokyo’s winning bid that defeated Istanbul and Madrid during a campaign for a Games that was to focus on the recovery of the impacted region.  They were to be the “Recovery Games”.

The motto was “Discover Tomorrow,” and there was certainly so much that would be discovered in the days – and years – ahead.

But the message of recovery from the earthquake was largely missed in the ceremony due to the overwhelming focus on the ongoing pandemic that didn’t need any symbolism at all.  The reality of empty seats, masked athletes – a vast majority of whom had left the stadium before the Olympic cauldron was lit – and the surrounding state of emergency in effect in Tokyo didn’t need any storytelling.

Tokyo 2020 President Hashimoto Seiko briefly touched on the earthquake as an impetus to these Games, she said “People from all over the world extended a helping hand, encouraging us to ‘Move forward together.'”

“Now, 10 years later, we can show you the extent of Japan’s recovery.”

Well, she can’t.  The pandemic has restricted travel to much of Japan.  International fans have been excluded from the Games.

In a symbolic gesture that you might have already caught, or missed, before the Games opening – some softball matches were held in Fukushima, one of the heavily impacted areas from the 2011 earthquake.

IOC President Thomas Bach spoke in his address of unity and solidarity.  Then solidarity and unity.  The new IOC motto adds a word to the end, now “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”.  There’s a new inclusive Olympic oath.  He spoke about diversity.  Then unity again.

He really struggled to find inspiration with his speech.  Who wouldn’t under the circumstances?  What can you say?

Bach thanked the Japanese people for being “gracious hosts” even as many were protesting outside of the stadium during his speech, fearing the international gathering would spark a super spreader event further burdening health care workers.  Then Bach thanked the health care workers, some of whom would later carry in the Olympic flag.

But after the past several tumultuous months on this planet, there was certainly so much more to cover.  Could we fit it in?  Why not?

In 2015 I asked President Bach at an IOC Press Conference in Lausanne why there had never been an opening ceremony moment of silence for the 11 slain Israeli athletes at the Munich 1972 Olympics – and why there were no plans to do so at Rio 2016.

He told me that it would not be appropriate to do so during the pageantry of the opening event.

Apparently, no changes are off the table now.  Almost 50 years after that tragic September event, those athletes were finally remembered in silence at Friday’s ceremony – a start in the right direction for an IOC that rarely breaks from tradition or protocol.

And Tokyo 2020 clearly felt the temperature in the room when organizers chose to hand the final torch to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka who lit the cauldron, igniting the start of the Olympic Games.  Typically the job is handed to Olympic heroes of the past, but Osaka’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement and her recent but controversial advocacy for her own mental health has been seen as an inspiration to a new generation.

This is just the start.  We’ve already seen the results of the more-relaxed IOC rule 50 that controls political demonstrations or symbolism at the Games.  Footballers took a knee at the Sapporo dome earlier this week, showing solidarity against discrimination, something that would have had Olympians seriously reprimanded at previous Games.  There will be much more of that to come as Tokyo 2020 continues.

Japanese Olympic officials called this a “restrained ceremony”, but there was so much to digest, and not too much focus.

And that’s exactly right.

That’s what we needed.  A cathartic ceremony where it didn’t matter what the President’s words were, it didn’t matter that things were different, and rules just weren’t important.  Some athletes attended, others didn’t.  Most left early – as they chose.

Protesters outside were reportedly heard inside the venue, so even they had an impact.

These certainly are the Recovery Games, not just from the tragic earthquake, but from all of our misguided preconceptions of the past.

Who knows what we can expect for the next two weeks, and beyond?  We’ll ‘Discover Tomorrow’.

A senior producer and award-winning journalist covering Olympic bid business as founder of as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. Robert Livingstone is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians.

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