The first major global multi-sports competition in the Covid-19 era has kicked off in Tokyo against the backdrop of a cocktail of strict protocols, uneasy calm and cautious optimism.
Even with spectators not allowed at competition venues, crowds milled curiously around the new National Stadium with police cordoning off roads leading to the purpose-built venue, only allowing in accredited persons.
The eerie silence of the empty stadium was only broken by voices of television journalists signing off their live reports before the ceremony began, bang on time at 7.59pm local time.
Just over 1,000 dignitaries had been invited for the ceremony at the 68,000-seat stadium constructed specifically for these Olympic Games.
The build-up to the opening ceremony has been turbulent with ceremony director Kentaro Kobayashi sacked on Thursday over his recent sketch making light of the Holocaust and musician Keigo Oyamada also dismissed after he confessed to having abused vulnerable minors.
However, well synchronised cultural performances and intermittent fireworks spiced up the evening, overshadowing the shenanigans with a moment of silence paused in memory of those who have died from Covid-19 over the last one year.
Voices of a handful of anti-Olympics protestors assembled outside the stadium were quickly drowned by enthusiastic chants of those in favour as IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were introduced to the audience, if any, at 8.12pm local time.
World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was also among the VIP with the global health body keeping a close eye on Covid-19 figures in Tokyo which recorded 1,359 new Covid-19 cases Friday.
Tokyo is currently under a state of emergency announced by Suga, and which runs until August 22, in an effort to stem the rise of coronavirus infections.
The Japanese flag was then brought into the stadium by Olympic legends, including 2000 Olympic women’s marathon champion Naoko Takahashi.
In drastically reduced numbers, the competing nations started the famous march-past at 8.35pm led by Greece, home of the inaugural Olympic Games in 1896.
Kenya’s track rivals Ethiopia marched past at 9.01pm followed by Eritrea, their bitter political rivals, the juxtaposition perhaps designed to force harmony.
Cameroon stood out with their colourful traditional wear, but Kenya responded when sevens rugby captain Andrew Amonde and his women’s volleyball team counterpart Mercy Moim strolled into the arena jointly carrying the Kenyan flag at 9.20pm.
“Now that’s what we call entering in style. Welcome Kenya!” the International Olympic Committee (IOC) tweeted.
The sparse crowd, now slightly padded by athlete numbers, cheered on as the Kenyan contingent dazzled, resplendent in their Maasai-inspired shirts, dresses and sandals conjured up by Kenyan fashion designer Wanja Ngare.
Stadium screens focused on National Olympic Committee of Kenya President Paul Tergat, himself an Olympic legend who was on Wednesday e-elected as IOC Member for another eight years.
He stood up and clapped as his countrymen strolled past.
There was a nice touch of innovation with the LED lights separating the bottom and middle tiers of the stadium displaying the Kenyan flag.
Designer-of-the-moment Wanja explained to Nation Sport that her Tokyo 2020 designs signal readiness for battle, and believes they are most appropriating in warning of Kenya’s intentions in the medal hunt.
She also argues that Kenya’s sportsmen and women, along with the country’s culture, haven’t been celebrated enough on the global stage, allowing others to cash in on the country’s potential, and even monetize.
“We’ve seen designers like Louis Vuitton use such fabric in their collection. The Maasai are synonymous with us. Kenya, despite its winning spree, has overlooked the role our athletes can play in promoting our culture, and marketing our country globally,” she argued.
“We have a print that’s being appropriated by other people… The Olympics is the world’s biggest fashion show and we as Kenyans are winners, so I was combining the global print on a global stage with global winners.”
With spectators not allowed at competition venues and also at the opening ceremony, millions were glued to big and small screens with social media awash with comments on the ceremony.
“It’s no secret where Kenya excels at the Olympics: All but seven of the nation’s medals have come in track and field and it hasn’t had an athlete reach the podium in any other sport since 1988,” Joel Tansey reminisced in a Japan Times chatroom.
“But if you’re going to put all your eggs in one basket, this is the way to do it. Kenya has dominated distance running in recent years, winning 14 gold medals over the past three Games,” he added.
Kenya’s choice of ceremonial wear also triggered some excitement in local Japanese chatrooms.
“Loving Kenya’s uniforms,” Jason Jenkins quipped.
Oscar Boyd was sympathetic of nations that opted to suit-up.
“I’m starting to feel sorry for all the teams dressed in suits and long sleeves. Although the temperature has dropped a bit since the ceremony began, it’s still very hot inside the stadium,” he chatted.
US First Lady Jill Biden rose up and clapped as a large American contingent filed past at 10.30pm with the biggest cheers reserved for showstoppers, and hosts, Japan who hit the runway at 10.30pm bringing to a close the colourful march-past, a huge first victory in itself for the organisers.
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