Troubled Tokyo Olympics opens under COVID-19 cloud

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jul 23 2021 06:56 PM | Updated as of Jul 23 2021 11:52 PM

Troubled Tokyo Olympics opens under COVID-19 cloud 1
General view inside the stadium before the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony on July 23, 2021. Marko Djurica, Reuters

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 organiszrs 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. 

Polls have consistently found a majority of Japanese are against the Games, with opinion ranging from weary indifference to outright hostility.

But there was plenty of enthusiasm outside the 68,000-seat Olympic Stadium in the hours before the ceremony, as hundreds of people gathered hoping to soak up the atmosphere and watch the fireworks expected during the extravaganza.

Mako Fukuhara arrived six hours before the 8:00 pm (1100 GMT) to grab a spot.

"We're here for the atmosphere, the light-up and the fireworks," she told AFP, as people snapped selfies in front of the Olympic rings nearby.

"Until now it didn't feel like the Olympics, but now we are by the stadium, it feels like the Olympics!"

- 'Determined' -

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.

Fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and officials will be present at the stadium.

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 attend96 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.

"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.

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 meter 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 equaling 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.

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