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With A Subdued Opening Ceremony, The Tokyo Summer Olympics Have Officially Kicked Off

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, today brought the long-delayed opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo - dazzling affair, but without the big in-person audience. NPR's Leila Fadel was among the few hundred inside the stadium.

Hey, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so this all sounds a little bit depressing to me. What was this ceremony like?

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, it was beautiful and surreal and honestly a little bit sad because the largely empty stands were a reminder of all the limitations COVID-19 still presents. Fireworks lit up the sky above the stadium, and at one point, thousands of drones with lights came together to form this incredible revolving globe in the sky above the stadium.

And the ceremony opened with this really emotional video of athletes fighting their way to the 2020 Olympics delayed by the virus, bursting through physical barriers to get to the games, and then a spotlight on Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata running on a treadmill, training in isolation like so many of these incredible Olympians did for months, getting ready for games we frankly weren't sure were going to happen until this ceremony.

And then we watched the field fill with others - trained dancers synchronized in their movements but doing them apart and finding connection. And it's something I think every single person watching could relate to - right? - trying to get through this pandemic with their sanity, trying to continue to achieve and survive in isolation. And that was kind of the point.

CHANG: What do you mean that was kind of the point?

FADEL: I mean, look; the Olympic organizers were walking a fine line, putting on a show that celebrates the incredible achievements of these athletes who will compete over the next 16 days while acknowledging the grief and anxiety of this moment globally because of the pandemic. So medical workers played a big role in the events. A Japanese paramedic was among the flag-bearers for the nation's flag. A doctor and a nurse were among those who passed the torch inside the stadium until it reached Naomi Osaka, the four-time tennis Grand Slam winner, who lit the Olympic cauldron. And the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said the games are very different than people imagined, but he asked those watching and in the stands to cherish the moment, saying it's about hope.

CHANG: It's about hope. Well, I imagine that might sound disingenuous to some people who've been warning for a long time that the games could make the pandemic worse.

FADEL: Absolutely. Experts worry that this Olympic bubble has already burst. Despite all the protocols, over 100 people have tested positive connected to the games, including 11 athletes. COVID-19 is surging in the capital, and there's a lot of anger among some Japanese that these games are happening at all, despite so many expressing concern about the risks. And during the ceremony, there was a moment of silence for all those lost due to COVID-19. And in that silence, the chants of the protesters outside echoed through the largely empty stands.

CHANG: Wow. I mean, the ceremony you described sounds so beautiful, but was it strange, an opening ceremony with barely any spectators?

FADEL: I mean, really strange. This is a stadium meant for masses of roaring fans. So when athletes paraded out motioning for people to stand, waving at the mostly empty seats, it was a little heartbreaking because there weren't really people there to clap, to wave back or to stand, save a dignitary or two from each country. But still, we saw beautiful traditional outfits from around the world. We saw athletes dancing, jumping around, trying to have a good time. And each team was pared down, and Brazil only had flag-bearers because they were worried about the coronavirus. So it was a beautiful ceremony, yes, but it was also a sad reminder of the global backdrop these games are happening in.

CHANG: And that is NPR's Leila Fadel in Tokyo.

Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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