Highlights From the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony


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Maria Taylor working from the sideline during a college football game in 2019.
Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Maria Taylor’s NBC career began with a surprise appearance from Tokyo before the rebroadcast of the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday evening in the United States.

“We are thrilled to welcome a new member to our NBC sports and Olympic family: Maria Taylor,” Mike Tirico, one of the hosts of the opening ceremony, told viewers. “Maria, welcome to Tokyo and the team.” Taylor then introduced a short feature about the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which she also narrated.

It has been a whirlwind few days for Taylor. On Tuesday, she hosted coverage of the N.B.A. finals in Milwaukee as an ESPN employee. On Wednesday, ESPN announced that it could not agree on a contract extension with her. On Friday, she was working for NBC at the Olympics.

According to a news release announcing her new roles, Taylor will join Tirico in hosting NBC’s late-night Olympic coverage and serve as a correspondent. After the Olympics, she will host coverage of the biggest events NBC has rights to.

“Literally, hosting the Olympics, ‘Football Night in America,’ and the Super Bowl is what I dreamed of when I started in television,” she said in the release. Taylor will be especially essential to NBC next February, when the Super Bowl takes place in Los Angeles during the middle of the Winter Games in Beijing.

Taylor departed ESPN after a tumultuous year. One of her colleagues, Rachel Nichols, made disparaging comments about Taylor last July. In a conversation with an adviser to LeBron James that Nichols was unaware was being recorded, Nichols, who is white, said that she had lost the N.B.A. finals hosting duties to Taylor, who is Black, because ESPN executives were “feeling pressure” on diversity.

The comments, and the way ESPN executives handled them, contributed to long-running tension among employees who cover the N.B.A. The controversy overshadowed the beginning of the N.B.A. finals, and Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A., said he thought that “ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it.”

They did not, and as soon as she had the opportunity, Taylor left for another television company.

The off-kilter spectacle was the natural culmination of a year and a half that has had sports canceled, postponed, revamped, and moved to Disney World.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

TOKYO — An Olympic opening ceremony with all the usual pomp and tradition played out Friday night in Tokyo in front of a nearly empty stadium.

Athletes paraded in, waving at empty seats. Costumed volunteers gyrated as if to draw excitement from a crowd that was not there. Oaths were taken, speeches were made, dances were danced, all of it for the entertainment of millions of television viewers, but only perhaps 10,000 human beings, most of them members of the news media, dignitaries and Olympic volunteers.

The off-kilter spectacle arrived a year later than originally scheduled, the result of a postponement of the Games, and as the culmination of a year and a half during which the world grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. The evening included a pause to remember the millions of lives lost, a moment of silence in a mostly deserted stadium that was already silent.

Still, the ceremony, like the Games, went on. The big moments were all there: the lighting of the cauldron by the tennis star Naomi Osaka, an appearance by Emperor Naruhito of Japan, a parade of athletes in the colors and costumes of 206 nations, the singing of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Next up is 16 days of world-class sports in the same vein, a global spectacle with triumph and defeat set to a backdrop of near silence.

There was a brief nod to ancient Japanese culture: a Kabuki theater excerpt intended to dispel negative energy.
Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

This was no year to be giddy. Past Olympic opening ceremonies have been overstuffed showcases for national stars, visiting celebrities and general theatrical excess. But the fraught Tokyo Olympics chose to be somber. Early in the ceremony, a Butoh dancer in white struck a pose of mourning. Most of the production numbers were about building or rebuilding: traditional Japanese carpentry assembling the five-ring Olympic logo, as a traditional Japanese work song turned into a tap-dance showcase. Later, an all-ages group frolicked around boxes that would form the Tokyo 2020 logo.

International stars — Angélique Kidjo, Alejandro Sanz, John Legend, Keith Urban — only appeared via video, singing what has become an all-purpose inspirational song: “Imagine,” which John Lennon said he wrote with his Japanese wife, Yoko Ono. (“Imagine there’s no countries,” Angélique Kidjo sang; what would the Olympics be then?) There was a brief nod to ancient Japanese culture: a Kabuki theater excerpt intended to dispel negative energy. And, shortly before the torch ceremony, there was one electrifying, genuinely live musical moment: the jazz pianist Hiromi, barreling through the rhythmic and harmonic twists of her composition “Spectrum,” as athletic as any Olympic sprint.

The selection of Naomi Osaka, the biracial Japanese tennis champion, signals the international message Tokyo wants to send to the world.

I’m in awe that anyone was able to put on an outfit of any kind and make their way to Tokyo in this extraordinarily difficult time, and I’m in awe that Japan has pulled this off, or at least for today. (And I say this as someone who has spent much of the last year and a half sitting in my pajamas at home, although I will now get dressed.) Let the Games begin!

Given all the hurdles and complications, I think they did a pretty good job, all in all. And as far as the fashion goes, I was really struck by the fact the smallest countries posted arguably the most interesting outfits. What did you guys think?

That was very elegant, Osaka lighting the cauldron, and then lights racing around the stadium itself.

Ah! the most famous Japanese athlete of all! Naomi Osaka gets to light the cauldron.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Follow our live coverage of the Tokyo Olympics.

The torch relay ended with the tennis star Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic cauldron in what is generally one of the most memorable parts of the opening ceremony.

Following in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali, Paavo Nurmi, Rafer Johnson, Midori Ito, Yuna Kim and Wayne Gretzky, Osaka climbed a stylized Mount Fuji in the form of a pyramid to light the cauldron on top.

As always, it was the symbolic beginning of two weeks of competition, this year in the oddest possible circumstances with empty stadiums because of a global pandemic.

Osaka, one of the best tennis players in the world, climbed up a long set of stairs with the Olympic torch in her hand to light the cauldron, which sat inside a blooming flower.

Her mother is Japanese and her father is Haitian, and Osaka is wildly popular in Japan, but also around the world. She skipped Wimbledon to spend time with friends and family before taking center stage at the Summer Games, where there will be immense pressure for her to win a gold medal for her country.

Osaka, through her stardom, represents many things at once during this Olympic cycle. She is one of many mixed-race athletes in Japan who are challenging long held notions about race in the country. At 23, she represents a new generation of athlete and celebrity whose voice has emerged in the past year on several social issues, including race, both in Japan and the United States and beyond.

Her appearance at the ceremony prompted a move of her opening round match in the women’s singles tournament against Zheng Saisai of China. The match was originally scheduled for Saturday morning but moved to Sunday.

Juliet Macur contributed reporting.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

We have made it to the apex of the opening ceremony. When something so weird, so delightful, so unexplainable happens at the 100th hour of a made-for-television event.

Suddenly, a set of blue humanoids — figurines/athletes/logos — blue Jacks from Jack in the Box? Whatever they were, they appeared in the center of stage and morphed into every type of athlete at the Olympics.

A three-on-three basketball player! No, an acrobatic gymnast! Oh wait! Archery! Was that an artistic swimming routine? Oh hey — badminton! Woah, beach volleyball! Guys look, they’re surfing! And weight-lifting too?! Aren’t there rules for this kind of thing?

Shock! Awe! Confusion! Joy! What are we watching? We don’t care!

In an empty stadium, I’m pretty sure that segment got the loudest cheer.

Nice to have Wakako Tsuchida, a wheelchair marathoner, in the torch procession.

Sadaharu Oh, the baseball player chosen to help light the Olympic flame, is ethnically Chinese. An earlier generation of diverse Japanese athlete but at a time when his background was not highlighted. From Oh to Hachimura, Japan evolves.

As JJ Fetter, a former Olympic sailing medalist who was a torchbearer in the U.S. torch relay some years back, said: “You’re nervous about tripping, and you can’t run with your arm going backwards and forwards as part of your normal stride, because then you would be waving the flame around. You don’t want to set your hair or anyone else’s hair on fire.”

Genuinely moving to watch Hideki Matsui walk with Shigeo Nagashima, both baseball players.

It’s time for the final torch bearers. Hideki Matsui, the former Yankee player is one of them.

In Beijing 2008, the hosts were so worried about problems that they lip-synched almost all of it. This felt riskier and real.

The Kabuki excerpt is from a famous play, Shibaraku.

the vigorous jazz pianist is Hiromi Uehara.

That’s some serious — and not prerecorded — performance from jazz pianist Hiromi, real daredevil stuff.

At the opening ceremony, 10,400 people filled a stadium designed for 68,000.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

There was never much doubt that this year’s opening ceremony was going to be a smaller event than usual. Tokyo has gone to great lengths to keep the number of people in any one given location at a minimum.

Athletes have been encouraged to minimize their time at the Games, arriving close to their dates of competition and departing soon thereafter. Family members and friends are not allowed, and there are no spectators at most events.

But the attendance figure for the opening ceremony announced by the Olympic organizers summed up the state of these Games: In total, 10,400 people filled a stadium designed for 68,000.

There were approximately 6,000 members of team delegations in the Olympic Stadium, including athletes and team officials. Approximately 900 “Games stakeholders” and guests of honor also attended.

And some 3,500 media members, including yours truly, were seated inside.

Finally, Japanese culture makes an appearance in the ceremony.

For those not watching, some guys dressed in blue and white with their heads encased in giant ping-pong (?) balls covered in felt just enacted what appeared to be every single Olympic sport. It was perhaps more exciting to describe it than to see it.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

And now, a video of Tokyo at night, which if you are in the Olympic bubble, you are not allowed to go see.

Motoko, sounds like piped in laughter to me. So odd to hear laughter at this ceremony. It took me aback.

Is that a laugh track?

Blue emoji man can do it all. He’s a swimmer!! No! He’s a … marathon swimmer!! But wait there’s more – a rower?! No a skateboarder! Actually wait – a surfer! Aren’t there I.O.C. rules about this kind of thing?

It keeps going…and going.

As fireworks light the night sky, the dark of the Olympic Stadium is illuminated by hundreds of cellphones from athletes photographing the pyrotechnics.

“The pandemic forced us to keep apart, to keep our distance from each other,” Thomas Bach says. “But today, wherever in the world you may be, we are united in sharing this moment together.”

I’ve seen Bach speak a few times at these things, and I have never seen him try to rise to an occasion as he is trying to rise to this one. “This Olympics experience makes all of us very humble,” he says, “because we feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We are part of an event that unites the world.” At a time when the only thing uniting the world appears to be a global pandemic, it is reassuring to hear someone speak, at least, to something beyond that.

Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

In 1964, the emperor’s grandfather, Hirohito, opened the Tokyo Olympics. Now Naruhito, who was enthroned in 2019 after his father abdicated, is opening the Games, followed by a fireworks display.

Juliet, indeed, I am sure there is sadness, and we heard emotion in her voice as she spoke. She is herself an Olympian (in fact she has competed in more Games and more sports than Thomas Bach) so she knows what the athletes are missing.

It’s worth remembering that the modern Olympics have been canceled only three times: once during World War I, and twice during World War II. These Games are the first to be held after a year’s postponent. One of the many things that does your head in while thinking about this — and it happened with the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, too — is that here we are, in July of 2021, watching the 2020 Olympics. The year 2020 seems like yesterday, and it also seems like 100 years ago.

Thomas Bach refers to refugees as an “enrichment.” I’m not sure they would choose to enrich the Olympic community by having to flee home.

Thomas Bach thanked the volunteers for their hard work. They deserve that, and more. They don’t get paid and put in long hours. They risk catching the coronavirus, in part from people traveling into this Olympic “bubble.” All that while the I.O.C. members stay in a $500/night hotel and their organization makes billions of dollars from these Games.

Performers danced at the opening ceremony.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Is some of the music during the parade of nations reminding you of a climactic battle you once fought, or perhaps a title screen you clicked through a hundred times?

You’re not wrong: The athletes are marching around Tokyo Stadium to songs from video games, which the organizers describe as “a quintessential part of Japanese culture that is loved around the world.” Songs from popular games like Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, Sonic the Hedgehog and the Final Fantasy series have been featured. All were developed by video game studios in Japan.

Curiously, songs from Japan’s best-known video game studio, Nintendo, seem to be missing. No Zelda, no Mario, no Pokemon, despite the fact that, five years ago in Brazil, Japan’s then-prime minister transformed into Mario, red hat and all, as part of the closing ceremony for the symbolic handoff of the Summer Games from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo.

For those who need their fix of Mario and friends, Nintendo released a game called Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games in 2019. You can choose from 20 characters — including Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog and Wario — to play 30 sports.

Thomas Bach is asking us to cherish this moment, to celebrate the fact that we are all here together. “This is the unifyng power of sport,” he says.

Motoko, you wonder how relieved Seiko Hashimoto will be after the Games are done. Could be that she will be sad too after everything that has happened?

Jill Biden, the first lady, traveled to Tokyo this week and attended the opening ceremony.
Credit…Pool photo by Leon Neal

Jill Biden, the first lady, clapped and waved on Friday as a contingent of masked American athletes joined the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Dr. Biden traveled to Japan as the leader of a small presidential delegation, and her appearance came amid concerns of skyrocketing coronavirus cases in Tokyo. Biden administration officials said the first lady had wanted to travel to the Olympics to represent the United States and show support for its athletes, most of whom will compete in the Games without family members cheering them from the stands.

The first lady published an open letter to the athletes on NBC News’s website on Friday, telling the U.S. team, “You bring us together in a way that little else can.”

Before appearing at the opening ceremony, Dr. Biden participated in a whirlwind of diplomatic events, including a reception with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan and his wife, Mariko, at the Imperial Palace.

The first lady will stop in Hawaii for a vaccination event on her way back from Japan this weekend. This is the first solo trip abroad for Dr. Biden, whose traveling schedule currently outpaces her husband’s.

A bunch of athletes seem to have given up and are lounging on the floor, examining their phones.

The Laotian delegation is trying its best to wave its flag in the background as Seiko Hashimoto speaks.

“Imagine” was also sung at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. On that divided peninsula, its longing for a world without borders was ever so slightly pointed. But it’s peculiar for it to be turning into an Olympics staple. What exactly would the Olympics be if, as Angelique Kidjo sang for Tokyo, there were “no countries”?

Now nine minutes of speeches by Seiko Hashimoto, the organizing committee chairwoman and Thomas Bach. Hey, did you know he won a gold medal in fencing? That’s the second time they’ve told us that in multiple languages.

You have to wonder what is going through Seiko Hashimoto’s mind: she took over an already controversial Olympic organizing committee and had to deal with one scandal after another, not all of them of her making.

A giant rotating Earth has appeared above the stadium as John Lennon’s “Imagine” is playing. And hey, I might have something in my eye. Or allergies. This has been such a long year and a half, and we’ve suffered through this pandemic not just as a nation but as an entire world.

I’m with you, Sarah, That’s a powerful rendition.

Simone Biles and her United States teammates start competing on Saturday.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

If you’re looking for Simone Biles, the American face of these Olympics, you won’t find her in the Olympic Stadium as the United States team appears during the opening ceremony. Biles and the rest of the American gymnasts aren’t marching.

The women’s team won’t be walking because it is “focused on preparation,” said Meredith Yeoman, a spokeswoman for U.S.A. Gymnastics.

The women were so focused on Friday, in fact, that after practicing at the Olympic venue they took no questions from reporters afterward, as other athletes did. Instead, they walked right by single file, with Biles in the lead.

They also aren’t staying in the athletes’ village, opting to stay at a nearby hotel instead.

“It was also a decision that we all made together,” Biles’s coach, Cecile Landi, wrote Sunday on Twitter. “We know it isn’t ideal during a pandemic. We feel like we can control the athletes and our safety better in a hotel setting!”



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