Opinion: The Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony — the wrong pictures, the wrong message | Sports | German football and major international sports news | DW | 23.07.2021

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Opinion: The Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony — the wrong pictures, the wrong message

The Olympics have started one year after their original date. But the opening ceremony shows the IOC has learned nothing from the pandemic and missed the opportunity to set an important sign, writes DW's Sarah Wiertz.

The cries of protest from the demonstrators outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo could be heard as far as the seats inside the stadium. "Stop the Olympics," they shouted through megaphones. Even as the lights went out and the music came on for the opening ceremony, the protesters continued to be clearly audible inside the arena.

As they marched in, the athletes waved towards the mostly empty seats around them, where only a few journalists and a few officials sat, clapping cautiously. No cheers, no flags, no chants: the atmosphere was surreal.

Sterile, distant

The newly built arena holds around 68,000 spectators who were supposed to cheer on athletes from all over the world and give them an unforgettable evening. Instead, just over a dozen government leaders showed up. In Rio, there were around 40. Journalists made up by far the largest group inside the stadium. How absurd.

In recent decades, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games has degenerated into a bloated, artificial spectacle, put on mainly for the television camera. Without fans in the stadium and with only a fraction of the athletes that would normally be in the arena, the show felt even more sterile, even more distant, even more emotionless. The only bright spot faded as quickly as it came: a collage of families, friends and sports fans on the big screen, who followed the whole ceremony virtually.

Eröffnungsfeier Olympische Spiele Tokio 2020 - Proteste vor Stadion

Protests against the Olympics took place outside the stadium in Tokyo.

Where are the emotions?

The motto of the opening and closing ceremonies is "United by Emotions." More touching than the perfectly staged TV pictures, though, were the excited and giggly young performers, in lovingly homemade clothes, waiting for their entrance in the underground car park shortly before the show: They were honest and authentic. But viewers don't get to see these moments.

Sarah Wiertz

DW's Sarah Wiertz

Tokyo 2020's organizers cannot do anything about the pandemic-related situation as a whole. Despite that, they didn’t do themselves any favors: Two creative directors and a composer were dismissed due to misconduct. The fact that some of the music heard at the stadium in Tokyo was canned, speaks volumes.

Waving cats

After years of training, the athletes have earned the spotlight, even though during the ceremony they looked more like the waving cats Japan is so famous for, rather than the main characters in a joyful meeting between young people from all over the world.

Many of them are worried about being infected by COVID-19 shortly before competing. In addition to that, the fact that many athletes dropped out means Tokyo 2020 is anything but a fair competition or a meeting of the world’s best in your sport. It hardly creates a cheerful mood.

Who writes the end of the story?

The IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organizers wanted to send out a message of courage in the worldwide fight against COVID-19. The actual message, however, was different: The show must go on, as always, the same procedure as every four years.

Given the pandemic is still with us, it would have been more meaningful to go with a minimal ceremony that focused entirely on the athletes and the sports.

It is now up to the Olympians to take the helm. They can ignite the Olympic spirit with their motivation. With their achievements, they can ensure that they’re the ones who'll be writing the story of the 2020 Olympic Games rather than the IOC, COVID-19, or the protesters.