At Tokyo’s Opening Ceremonies, the celebration begins, but the doors are locked

At Tokyo’s Opening Ceremonies, the celebration begins, but the doors are locked

TOKYO — These Olympics just began, and they are not what they might have been. Friday’s Opening Ceremonies were a dress rehearsal, nothing more. The masked athletes who entered looked into the stands and waved to … no one. Some took videos of … not much. And during the quiet moments, the chants of protesters on the streets outside penetrated the stadium walls. The placards that filled the 68,000 seats weren’t capable of drowning them out.

It would be easy to call the start of the Tokyo 2020 Games a reality show, because playing to the cameras is all anyone could do. But the reality is it’s 2021, not 2020, so at the outset the entire affair involves suspending disbelief. Plus, even reality shows generate their own tension and energy. From inside National Stadium on Friday night, this was just television, forced drama at that.

The Opening Ceremonies in an all-but-empty stadium don’t damn these Games. But they do preview them as flat, with no edge. For so much of the coronavirus pandemic, which has defined global life for the past year-and-a-half, we became accustomed to our faces covered with masks, our friends at a distance and our athletic events without fans, without juice. In the United States and other places, as vaccines became available, the people returned. They brought the buzz with them. That relationship — sports fan and sports event — seemed welded together again.

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Friday at the Olympics felt like a cross-cultural step back, and with Japan experiencing rising coronavirus rates, that may well be appropriate. Yet what we have learned, before the first full day of competition, is that you can stage the Games during a pandemic, and you can hope they’re safe and successful. But you can’t force a celebration, much less one that is supposed to help unify a fractured world.

Early in Friday’s show, before the athletes entered the stadium, a group of dancers used elastic ropes stretched across the entire field of play. When three-dimensional images were projected on them, they thumped, resembling a heaving body — nerves, muscles and all that will be on display here over more than two weeks. But it also was meant to convey “a complex web of emotions and a sense of suppression.”

That’s what we have here. The emotions surrounding these Olympics are complex, both here and abroad, and the entire affair feels suppressed, muted. It all leads to a series of uneasy interactions on the ground. The hosts can’t showcase their country in all its glory because the guests are only athletes, coaches and support staff, and they’re not supposed to mingle with anyone anyway. The guests can’t feel fully welcome, because there is actual hostility from some locals, and who can see the others smiling behind their masks?

We can — and we have, and we will — debate whether these Games should be going on at all. But because they are, we might as well root for them to be the best version they can be. The athletes — amazing, all of them — have a habit of taking your eye off the greed and gluttony that shape the entire Olympic “movement.” That could happen here. They are competitors, and these are a series of competitions, so prepare to be wowed.

Even with that, we know before they begin in earnest that the Tokyo Olympics will be a lesser version of what they might have been. This city of nearly 14 million should have its arms open. Instead, it appears torn. The Olympics are an invasion, and a divided Tokyo was on display Friday night. Outside the stadium, a block full of people stood in silence, hoping to hear the music and see the fireworks thumping from inside and above the stadium. But there also were protesters chanting rhythmically, “F— the recovery Olympics.”

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That’s what these Games were supposed to be, an opportunity to show the world that Japan had moved past 2011, when an earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown shook the nation and knocked it back. Instead, it appears Japan will be left to recover from its own recovery.

“We can only be here all together because of you, our great hosts,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the camera, above all else, “the Japanese people.”

Bach is an uninvited dinner guest and he knows it, so he’s smiling and polite as he reaches for the sashimi.

Deride the IOC for its presumptiveness, because it’s deserved. But the environment in which these Games will be staged is the pandemic’s fault above all else. Blame the government of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga for a slow vaccine rollout that has roots in nationalist pride, given that the country wanted vaccines tested on its own people — never mind the Olympics are supposed to remind us we’re all human here, right? Blame the IOC for thrusting the Games — and, more importantly, the international broadcast of the Games — on a country that is at best ambivalent about them, given the current public health situation.

But it also must be acknowledged that these Olympics will lack the normal edge and energy because the approach here has been inconsistent. Though Tokyo is technically under a state of emergency, that appears to mostly be a signal to the international community that it is taking its responsibility as Olympic host seriously. Therein lies the banning of fans not just from Friday’s show but from every competition for the duration of these Games.

That appears to be political and face-saving. During the day, Tokyo’s citizens walk its streets — masked but in great numbers. Fans have attended sporting events in Japan — baseball games, sumo tournaments — throughout the past month. The incongruity — no fans at a 68,000-seat outdoor stadium to kick off the nation’s first Summer Games since 1964 — might make some sense. But if it was deemed safe for people to travel from 205 countries and gather here and the locals are already congregating, couldn’t 10,000 Japanese folks have spread out in this stadium to welcome the athletes, who instead stared at one another?

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It’s all just so … grave. Which, given 4.1 million people have succumbed to covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, is inevitable.

“Some of the somber attitude that you’re hearing from us is that concern and responsibility to carry this forward,” Susanne Lyons, the chair of the board of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said earlier Friday.

Lyons’s hope, she said, is that when everyone back home clicks off their televisions in two weeks, they say, “Boy, did we need that!”

Simone Biles might help us say that. Katie Ledecky might help us say that. Noah Lyles might help us say that, too.

If the athletes manage to bring celebration and spontaneity, they will manufacture it on their own. The sincere hope is that the Tokyo Olympics aren’t defined by the coronavirus and that its spread isn’t exacerbated by merely holding the Games.

If that’s the case, though, the Tokyo Olympics will be defined by what they didn’t have. That’s not just unity around whether they should have been staged. That’s fans — exuberant, proud, boisterous fans — to provide the idea that the Olympics can be about unity in the first place.

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