The 11,000 athletes have been waiting for a year but stepped out on Friday into a near-empty stadium.
After a one-year delay, several scandals, and with the spectre of the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over it, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games finally kicked off on Friday.
Athletes from around the world not only stepped foot in the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony but also into the world of Japanese comics and graphic novels.
An orchestral medley of songs from iconic Japanese video games served as the soundtrack for the parade of countries at the ceremony.
The first song played on Friday was “Roto’s Theme” from the Dragon Quest series. Dragon Quest was enormously influential as the first console role-playing game, launching a genre. The parade also included the main Final Fantasy theme and “Victory Fanfare,” the song that plays when a player wins an encounter.
Another well-known song that was featured was “Star Light Zone,” from the original Sonic the Hedgehog. In addition to appearing in the original game, a remixed version appeared in the DS version of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games.
Additionally, the placards for the country names for the parade of athletes used manga speech bubbles, and the costumes for the placard bearers and assistants had manga touches in their design.
No spectators for the 11,090 athletes
This kick-off marks more than just the beginning of two weeks of sporting feats, it is also the end of a long and tiring marathon for the Japanese organisers who have been waiting for this moment since 8 September 2013 and the designation of Tokyo as the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games.
But the 11,090 athletes making up the 206 delegations — which for the first time include as many women as men — ventured out to parade in front of a near-empty stadium.
In the grandstand of the venue, which can normally accommodate 68,000 spectators, stood Japanese emperor Naruhito, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, French President Emmanuel Macron and US First Lady Jill Biden.
These dignitaries and a few thousand other privileged guests will witness the lighting of the cauldron by the flame alighted on 12 March 2020 in Olympia, which traditionally marks the start of the Games.
But in a surprise move, after months of polls indicating hostility to the Games, Tokyo residents gathered in their hundreds around the Olympic Stadium before the ceremony.
They watched the Blue Impulse air patrol fly over the Japanese capital and sketch Olympic rings in the sky. They then posed next to the Olympic rings, carved on the stadium's forecourt: "I'm delighted that the Games are starting, it's a source of pride for me," one Tokyo resident explained.
Tests, masks and a ban on families
To reassure the Japanese public, most of whom would have preferred another postponement or the outright cancellation of the Olympic fortnight, Japanese authorities took drastic measures: daily tests for athletes, compulsory masks for all, gatherings limited to the strict minimum in the Olympic Village, a ban on foreign athletes' relatives and families coming to Japan and, last but not least, the almost total absence of spectators, something never seen before in the history of the Olympics.
Still, anti-Olympics protesters marched from Harajuku to Sendagaya ahead of the Olympic Games opening ceremony, criticizing the Japanese government for what some say is prioritising the Olympics over the nation's health.
About 23% of the population of more than 120 million has been fully vaccinated, a number that has picked up since May but is still far short of where Japan's government had hoped to be before the Olympics.
Japan has weathered the pandemic better than many other countries, logging about 853,000 cases and 15,100 deaths since the pandemic began. But infections have been surging, with Tokyo hitting a six-month high of 1,979 daily cases on Thursday.
The organisers of the event also have had to deal with several scandals including the resignation of the president of the organising committee, Yoshiro Mori, last February for sexist remarks, or that of the artistic director of the opening ceremony on Thursday for a bad joke about the Holocaust made more than twenty years ago.