Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremonies—A Fascinating Tribute to Sportsmanship and Frontliners

The Olympic flame is transferred by Japanese baseball legends Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima, and Hideki Matsui to infectious disease and family physician Hiroko Oohash and nurse practitioner Junko Kitagawa. The latter were active and instrumental in managing COVID-19 cases in Tokyo and they are given honor as part of the torch relay for the opening ceremonies.

Since the Games of the XXX Olympiad or the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, I have been a great opening and closing ceremonies junkie, and since then, I have watched previous ones and would watch out for both Summer and Winter games. I was really interested in Tokyo 2020 as I have long been fascinated by Japanese culture and tradition as these ceremonies often showcase the history and lives of its people.

I apologize, but as much as I love some of the games in the various Olympic games, I am not that really into the games as much as their ceremonial activities. When I was a child, I remember watching swimming events on TV during the Atlanta and Sydney games, but Cartoon Network was more interesting for me, which perhaps carried on to my adulthood.

When it was announced that the 2020 games were to be held in Japan, I looked forward to being there in person despite not having the means. My wife and I have been longing to visit Japan since before we were married, and I thought I could bring her there for Tokyo 2020. Unfortunately, COVID-19 happened, business and income halted, and even the games were canceled. That dream of visiting Japan could wait, but it seems that the games have a different story.

Nobody knew what will happen as Tokyo 2020 was the only Olympic games to have been canceled in the modern era. It was also embroiled in various issues starting off with the original emblem for the games. At the same time, opinions for continuing the games were also at odds with some public opinion, especially in Japan, as pushing for the games to go on would seem to be out of touch with the current situation that the world is facing. Protests even days and during the start of the games continue.

Tokyo 2020 Emblems
The original winning artwork was formally presented in 2016 but was critically panned after it was seen as too similar to the logo of a theater in Europe. The temporary design was used as a placeholder before the final design was announced.

Embed from Getty Images

More than respecting athleticism and sports, I have noted several notable things for Tokyo 2020:

  • high emphasis on being together
  • a modified motto for the games
  • highlight equality in almost all aspects
  • remembrance of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami
  • remembrance of those who perished from COVID-19
  • announcement of nations not based on the French or English alphabet but on the Japanese phonetic system, a first in history
  • deep respect to frontline workers, especially medical personnel.

It must be noted that this event is held in 2021 yet retaining its 2020 name to respect the years and the next host of the Summer Games, which will be Paris in 2022.

Here are some parts of the opening ceremony that caught my attention:

The emotional countdown from number 21

The opening scenes showed some lookbacks to the previous Summer games but ended abruptly in 2020, showing empty streets and famous landmarks. Then, an athlete removes her outer clothing to reveal her number ’21’ and starts the countdown to ‘0’, which the stadium represented.

Athletes exercising on stationary sports equipment

Touted as a sign of solidarity for everyone who was stuck at home at the onslaught of the pandemic, athletes were shown using stationary sports equipment juxtaposed to athletes’ social media posts making the most out of their lockdown experiences.

A dance symbolizing the red thread that connects people in the world

This scene was quite emotional and romantic, showing how sports can unite people from different backgrounds.

Somber moment of silence with interpretative dance

a moment of silence is offered to remember those who perished in the Munich massacre in Munich 1972, where members of the Palestinian group Black September killed members of the Israeli Olympic team. This was also extended to Olympians who are no longer living. For Tokyo 2020, it was also a time to remember those who perished because of COVID-19. A dance then followed the silence.

The flag bearers of the Nisshōki

The flag of Japan, officially know as the Nisshōki, is one of the most identifiable flags in the world. As per tradition, the national flag of the host country is being carried by well-known athletes. For this year, Japan included a rescue team member who was instrumental to the COVID-19 operations and also as an allusion to the 10th year anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.

The cultural presentation which has numerous peculiar symbolisms

The modern Olympics was envisioned as a highlight of sports and the arts. While in the most recent games, artistic contests such as painting or architecture are no longer included, the opening and closing ceremonies are areas where this is given a chance to be shown.

I fondly remember how London 2012 was able to show the progression of the industries in the country from ancient times to modernity. This was also shown in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. But for Japan, they tried to merge all of these into a single presentation, combining ancient traditions with modern trends.

A Kabuki actor performed alongside a piano virtuoso. An ancient working song was playing alongside modern dance movements, and the dancers finally formed the rings of the Olympic symbol, which was made of wood planted by the athletes during the Tokyo 1964 games.

The flag bearers mostly in pairs

Countries were encouraged to assign two flag bearers, one male and one female, to highlight inclusivity and gender equality in the games.

A Japanese mine for fans is the use of manga imagery in the labels of the nations, which are again arranged based on the Japanese language. The names of the countries are placed in speech bubbles while those welcoming the athletes are wearing manga-style attire.

The refugee Olympic team

It is known that Taiwan is not allowed by the International Olympic Committee to play under their flag and be called by their country’s name and instead play under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Still, for this year, Russia was also not allowed to have that honor because of doping issues and is playing as the “Russian Olympic Committee.”

However, something heartwarming is the presence of a team of refugees with no specific nationality playing under this special refugee team.

New Olympic oath highlighting unity and diversity

The games champion equality and have been updated accordingly. It also follows the formula set in Sochi where instead of having athletes, judges, and coaches, and officials speak separately; the latter two indicate their representation. The athletes finish the form with everyone saying their oaths. The new text is as follows as found on the Olympics website:

We promise to take part in these Olympic Games, respecting and abiding by the rules and in the spirit of fair play, inclusion and equality. Together we stand in solidarity and commit ourselves to sport without doping, without cheating, without any form of discrimination. We do this for the honour of our teams, in respect for the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, and to make the world a better place through sport.

The games also have a special motto which added a word, now reading: “Faster. Higher. Stronger. Together.”

The Olympic torch

Highlighting their technological background, the games’ torch is uniquely Japanese in design explained as follows:

The shape of Japan — a cherry blossom motif.
The Olympic torch has been created in a traditional form, taking advantage of the same aluminium extrusion manufacturing technology used in the production of the Shinkansen Bullet Train.
Completely seamless – produced from a single sheet of metal.
A form that symbolises the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay, inspired by Japanese tradition and created using advanced technological capabilities.

The Olympic medals

The medals are also surprisingly unique. To present their aim as a sustainable country, the medals are made and forged from old cellular phones:

The design of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic medals reflects the concept that, to achieve glory, athletes have to strive for victory on a daily basis. The medals resemble rough stones that have been polished and now shine with “light” and “brilliance” – their overall themes. The medals collect and reflect myriad patterns of light, symbolising the energy of the athletes and those who support them. Their design is intended to symbolise diversity and represent a world where people who compete in sports and work hard are honoured. The brilliance of the medals signifies the warm glow of friendship symbolising people all over the world holding hands.

Lesser audience in the seats

Unlike previous games, Tokyo 2020 has far fewer spectators due to COVID-19 rules. At the same time, the presentation themselves could be explained as having fewer people than other previous events.

Fun presentation of the games pictogram

The Olympic committee of Japan highlighted that Tokyo 1964 started the use of pictograms which have been modified for each Summer game. For their introduction, they used a seemingly popular Japanese reality show format.

Osaka Naomi as the final torchbearer

The torch relay part of the ceremony was made up of five exchanges, and the final torchbearer was a guarded secret and was only revealed on the event itself. Aside from the baseball legends and the medical duo mentioned above, two Olympians started the relay together with a Paralympic champion who gave the fire to young athletes before giving it to Osaka Naomi, a four-time Grand Slam winner in tennis.

The Olympic flame

The Olympic cauldron for Tokyo 2020 was surprisingly small and is not situated above the stadium, unlike other games before. It materialized from a representation of Mt. Fuji flanked by a disk that symbolized the sun. To signify the ongoing games, a larger cauldron in Tokyo Waterfront was lit afterward.

The sustainable feature of the games continues as the flame is said to be fueled by hydrogen sourced in Japan.

Tokyo 2020

Still, the highlight for me was the importance given to frontline workers, especially those involved in the medical field. Even though this may not be a necessary part of the ceremony, it gives encouragement to those who work in the field.

Anyway, I am rooting for all athletes regardless of nationality. I have loved how the Olympic games unite people from different views, political ideologies, religions, and races together in the name of peace and solidarity.

The following is a live stream of the whole ceremony from a local channel here in the Philippines. All screenshots attached above were taken from this stream.


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