TOKYO — The theme for the Tokyo Olympics is "United by Emotion.'' Friday night, as the Summer Games opened a year late, there were plenty of emotions to choose from.
Relief, during an Opening Ceremony delayed for more than a year by the pandemic. Apprehension, on a day when 19 more people affiliated with the Olympics tested positive for COVID-19. Anger, from protestors whose cancel-the-Olympics shouts were occasionally louder than the show in a nearly empty stadium.
With the postponed Tokyo Games officially underway, the organizers who spent more than $15 billion to stage them are counting on the athletes to chase away the doubts. A strange, subdued Opening Ceremony showed it won't be easy.
During their procession into the stadium, athletes wore masks and waved to vacant seats in a 68,000-seat venue where only 950 spectators were allowed. Because of COVID-19 protocols, many athletes aren't even in Tokyo yet; only about 230 members of the U.S. team walked in the ceremony, a small slice of a delegation with 613 athletes.
“I think initially, when Tokyo won these Games, it was a source of great excitement for the Japanese people. And it's sad to say that because of COVID, it's become a source of stress. We recognize how very, very difficult this has been”
They have dealt with a gamut of emotions, too, during a year of waiting and wondering whether these Olympics would happen at all. Friday, as fireworks exploded over their heads, the only thing they felt was jubilation.
"We're here,'' said baseball player Eddy Alvarez, who carried the American flag into the ceremony with basketball player Sue Bird. "We made it. I know it's been a tough year and a half, for all of us. But we're so excited to represent our country right now.''
Opening ceremonies typically are monuments to excess, overflowing with pyrotechnics, elaborate performances and VIPs. In a reflection of the circumstances, Tokyo opted for a stripped-down version, light on spectacle and heavy on sentiment.
With no live audience, the new Olympic Stadium — built for these Games at a cost of almost $1.4 billion — was reduced to a TV soundstage. It was unnaturally silent until the show started, just as the spectator-free competitions will be.
Television rights money was a major factor in pushing ahead with the Games. The International Olympic Committee receives 73% of its revenue from TV rights fees paid by networks around the world, with the Tokyo Games set to bring in about $4 billion. But athletes around the world wanted these Olympics, too, finding ways to train in the worst of circumstances while hoping the pandemic could be brought to heel.
Japan obliged them, despite the pandemic's persistence. Friday brought the highest number of positive tests yet among Olympics participants, as three athletes and 16 others were put into a 14-day quarantine. That raised the number of positive tests to 110 since July 1.
"I think initially, when Tokyo won these Games, it was a source of great excitement for the Japanese people,'' said Susanne Lyons, president and chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. "And it's sad to say that because of COVID, it's become a source of stress. We recognize how very, very difficult this has been.''
Outside the stadium, a crowd gathered along the fence that prevented them from going in, eager to catch any whiff of Olympic spirit. At a normal Olympics, people jam into bars and restaurants and public viewing areas to watch the Opening Ceremony in a communal setting. But with Tokyo under a state of emergency, bars and restaurants are supposed to close at 8 p.m., and the viewing sites were shut down.
The scene inside the stadium was different, too. Video boards offered messages such as "Clap, do not sing or chant'' and "avoid crowding,'' but there were no crowds to see them. Athletes have been asked to arrive in Tokyo no sooner than five days before their competition and leave 48 hours after, which significantly reduced the procession of nations.
Among the U.S. delegation, Lynx players Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier were part of the group that strutted into the stadium in their Ralph Lauren outfits. The American gymnasts, including Minnesotans Grace McCallum, Suni Lee and Shane Wiskus, staged their own mini-march outside the gymnastics venue. The women's soccer team, who play Saturday, also put on their ceremony duds and paraded around their hotel.
"This will be a different Olympic Games,'' said wrestler David Taylor, whose team is staying in a town outside Tokyo. "Walking in the Opening Ceremony would have been awesome and cool. But I'm just excited to be here, and to compete."
IOC President Thomas Bach spoke of his gratitude and admiration for Japan for fighting through the first postponement in Olympics history and getting the Games off the ground. He called the opening of the Tokyo Games "a moment of hope,'' and a reminder of "the unifying power of sport'' at a time when COVID-19 has pulled people apart.
The ceremony culminated with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron by Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka. With no crowd, it took on an even more solemn tone.
Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, who carried Japan's flag Friday, said he was sad he couldn't share the evening with the people of his country. Mostly, he was happy it had finally arrived.
"It's been a tough year,'' Hachimura said. "But we're finally here.''