An Olympic Opening Ceremony For An Olympics Like None Other

Jul 22, 2021
Originally published on July 23, 2021 5:46 am

TOKYO — The COVID-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics officially begins with a parade of athletes (more than 200 of them from Team USA), waving flags and marching inside a mostly-empty stadium. It's not clear yet what else will happen during the opening ceremony which is usually a chance to showcase the host country and inspire pride from countries throughout the world.

But these are no ordinary Games, with strict restrictions in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even things behind the scenes are strange: just days ago, the ceremony's creative director and musical composer were both fired.

Kentaro Kobayashi, a former Japanese comedian and manga artist, was ousted from his post directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced his resignation after news reports surfaced that in 1998, Kobayashi and his comedy partner had parodied a Japanese children's TV show. In a skit, he reportedly held up small paper dolls and joked "Let's play holocaust."

Tokyo 2020 president Hashimoto Seiko announced Kobayashi's dismissal, and read aloud a letter of apology he penned. Kobayashi wrote that he realized he had made a mistake in his act, and that he had decided to aim for laughter that does not hurt people. In his more recent stage shows, Kobayahi's comedic stylings have included pantomiming on stage sets that resemble animated sketch drawings.

His dismissal was just the latest in a saga in what some are calling a "cursed Olympics." In March, Kobayashi replaced the ceremony's previous creative director Hiroshi Sasaki, who resigned for offensive comments he made. Japanese news reports cited his private conversations suggesting that plus-sized celebrity Naomi Watanabe dress as a pig for the opening ceremony to play the role of an "Olympig."

Fans of NPR's Tiny Desk concerts may have seen Keigo Oyamada, known as Cornelius, performing for the network in 2018. Cornelius had composed music for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics. But earlier this week, he also stepped down from his role over his past comments. In the 1990's, Oyamada was quoted in magazines "Rockin' On Japan" and "Quick Japan" confessing that as a student, he wrestled down and humiliated his disabled classmates.

Cornelius tweeted an apology, but the Tokyo organizing committee soon accepted his resignation.

There's no telling yet how any of these scandals will affect the opening ceremony. The motto of the event — and the Tokyo Olympics — is "United by Emotion." U.S. women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe mused as to what emotion that may refer to.

"It could be a collective grief from the pandemic that's still obviously raging in a lot of parts around the world," Rapinoe said. "It could be relief in finally getting to do things again, and hopefully, you know, a sense of joy in having something to do and something to watch."

And the board chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Susanne Lyons, put it this way: "I think it's gonna be a delayed gratification for everyone if all goes the way we hope and expect that it will... The memory of these Games is not that it should be the COVID Games, it should be that it is the Games that really showed the world the resiliency of humanity, that gave hope at a time when the entire world needs hope."

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Today is the day some Olympic athletes and organizers thought might never get here - the official start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The games were delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, and now a year later, COVID numbers are increasing across Japan and in the Olympic Village. This is the backdrop to an Olympic opening ceremony that is normally a flashy and celebratory affair. NPR's Mandalit del Barco joins us from Tokyo. Now, historically - and you know this - this event is filled with pomp and circumstance, a chance for the country that's hosting it to really show off in front of a packed stadium, and the athletes all get cheered as they marched in, and then hundreds of millions of people are watching on TV. Mandalit, what's it like this time around?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Well, it was celebratory. But, you know, the stands of the Olympic Stadium, which seats 68,000 people, were virtually empty, with fewer than 1,000 people watching in person. You know, the ceremony started off with a lone athlete, rather symbolic of this somewhat lonely Olympics. There were other athletes exercising alone or socially distanced. And with no huge crowds applauding, you could hear every breath and every tap of the tap dancers. There were acrobats, a kabuki performer, fireworks and a moment of silence for those who've died of COVID-19. The teams of athletes then marched in wearing stylish face masks introduced with manga-style placards and accompanied by video game music. Some of the athletes sported bright pink or blue hair, like anime characters. And there were not just one but two oiled-up bare-chested flag bearers from Tonga and Vanuatu.

You know, for the U.S. basketball player Sue Bird and base - speed skater turned baseball player Eddy Alvarez led that team with first lady Jill Biden cheering them on from the stands. But, you know, some of the world leaders chose to stay away from the ceremony, and many other athletes who would typically be here did not march. Some of them may be competing later in the Olympics and they're not here yet, and others didn't want to risk being around other people.


DEL BARCO: And, you know, the Parade of Nations was followed by high-tech drones in formation, like the Earth high above the stadium with a chorus of children and Angelique Kidjo, John Legend, Keith Urban and others singing the John Lennon song "Imagine."

MARTINEZ: Tell us a little bit about the backstory of this ceremony.

DEL BARCO: Well, things behind the scenes were pretty dramatic this week. Just yesterday, the creative director of the Opening Ceremony, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired. The Japanese comedian and manga star apologized for a skit he did in the 1990s during which he held paper dolls and joked, let's play Holocaust. Kobayashi had replaced another man who was fired in March for making offensive comments about a plus-sized actress. So that's two creative directors who are gone. And then earlier this week, musician Keigo Oyamada, who's known as Cornelius, well, he was fired after it was revealed that he had boasted of humiliating and abusing his disabled classmates.

MARTINEZ: Wow. And not to mention these games are happening as coronavirus cases continue to increase in Japan and elsewhere.

DEL BARCO: That's right. The global pandemic is still raging, and it's still a state of emergency here in Japan. So far, at least 11 athletes here at the Olympics have tested positive for the coronavirus, and some won't be able to compete. And despite all the COVID protocols and assurances that the games are safe, the Japanese public is still very much against these games. In fact, this is what you could hear on the streets of Tokyo.


DEL BARCO: Now, those are protests, chanting and holding up people - holding up signs that say, cancel the Tokyo Olympics and use that money for COVID-19. You could hear those chants from inside the Olympic Stadium, especially during the moment of silence. You know, the motto of these games is united by emotion, and I've heard a few nicknames like the cursed Olympics or quarantine Olympics or even the anger games. But still, the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony did look proud. This has really been a very different start to an Olympics like no other.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Mandalit del Barco in Tokyo. Thank you very much.

DEL BARCO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.