Without an audience, the Games are less Games

The pandemic changed everything. It was no time for Super Mario Bros and the complicity of a prime minister, as was the case with Shinzo Abe five years earlier in Rio de Janeiro.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. General view of empty seats inside the stadium REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. General view of empty seats inside the stadium REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

TOKYO - “Clap, don’t shout or chant,” the giant screen in the empty Tokyo Olympic Stadium asked.

“Avoid the crowds,” it then added.

It must be very advantageous to be a screen. There are no feelings. A human, on the other hand, might well have burst into tears. The messages were directed to a stadium that should have been a party, but had become a difficult place to describe.

Or maybe not so difficult. When at eight o’clock in the evening the ceremony began, the loudest thing felt in the stadium was the applause of a score of journalists. And that was it, that was what the opening ceremony would end up being for the most part. An unclimactic spectacle that was only experienced on television.

The night was bitter, an Olympic Games are not born that way.

The pandemic changed everything. It was no time for Super Mario Bros and the complicity of a prime minister, as was the case with Shinzo Abe five years earlier in Rio de Janeiro.

Outside, hundreds of Japanese were staring at the concrete of Tokyo’s National Stadium. They were anxious to enter the stadium where only the IOC members, some 20 heads of state and government, government representatives, representatives of international organizations and journalists were present. In the stands, nothing: empty seats.

“Thank you, thank you for coming,” several of the fans had said to the journalists entering the stadium. A few meters away, some girls were looking to exchange pins. Pins that in Tokyo this time almost did not exist.

At that time of the Tokyo afternoon, there were no anti-Games, but rather people who were a little sad not to be able to enjoy the almost unique opportunity of having the Olympic world at home as they wanted. Almost three generations separate Tokyo 64 from Tokyo 2021. The Games of 57 years ago were a sort of letter of introduction to the war-torn Japan that was returning to the international concert. The 2021 Games have yet to write their history, but emptiness and silence are already guaranteed.

As the sun went down in Tokyo, there was a different face. The pro-Games were still there, in the streets around the stadium, but they were mixed with the anti-Games people shouting slogans against Tokyo 2020 and the IOC. Their shouts could be heard from time to time in the middle of the opening ceremony.

Inside the stadium, music was playing and the parade of athletes, which always opens with Greece as the cradle of Olympism, began. It was difficult for the athletes, who entered a cold stadium. Argentina, one of the first delegations to parade, brought passion by jumping and singing, while Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, and Emperor Naruhito followed the ceremony from a box separated by a plexiglass sheet. Portugal, too, would raise the revolutions by jumping and dancing energetically at the evidence of emptiness.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021.  Cecilia Carranza of Argentina and Santiago Lange of Argentina lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Cecilia Carranza of Argentina and Santiago Lange of Argentina lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

But there was not much to do. If someone had decided to shout in the Tokyo night, the whole stadium would have heard him. The experience was unprecedented, because the artistic spectacle that is the opening of the Games always interacted with the public. Except for a few minutes in the final stretch, the Tokyo opening had a subtle and elegant approach, nothing bombastic. With an audience, that bet works. With the stands empty, it was a risk.

And so the night went on, with Tonga’s flag-bearer once again attracting attention by parading bare-chested, with Germany wearing an incomprehensible light green, eighties-style uniform, and with New Zealand and Haiti, countries at the geographical and economic antipodes, showing that it is possible to be both witty and elegant at the same time.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearer Malia Paseka of Tonga and PitaTaufatofua of Tonga lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File photo    SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 1" FOR TOKYO 2020 OYLMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearer Malia Paseka of Tonga and PitaTaufatofua of Tonga lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File photo SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 1" FOR TOKYO 2020 OYLMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY


Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearers Patrick Hausding of Germany and Laura Ludwig of Germany lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Flag bearers Patrick Hausding of Germany and Laura Ludwig of Germany lead their contingent during the athletes parade at the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake

The opening ceremony of a Games is a shot of adrenaline for everyone, the starting signal for 16 incomparable days. Not this time. This time, with no audience and very few athletes on the field, everything was an inevitable anticlimax. Even if the French flag-bearer did a spectacular somersault in the air, even if Japan closed the parade and its athletes raised their arms waving to the void.

The exception was the human pictograms, a brilliant staging of actors dressed as pictograms to present each of the sports. The handful of people in the stadium woke up from the lethargy in which the ceremony was plunging them. But it was just that, a moment of shock and euphoria that passed quickly before the name of who would light the Olympic fire was unveiled: Naomi Osaka.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Naomi Osaka of Japan lights the cauldron during the Opening ceremony REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Naomi Osaka of Japan lights the cauldron during the Opening ceremony REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The Olympics are usually opened by presidents and kings, but an emperor had not done so, in the case of the summer Games, since Hirohito, Naruhito’s grandfather, declared open those of Tokyo 64. No doubt, Naruhito could not have felt this Friday the same as his grandfather did in the last century: he solemnly declared the Games open and what he received was silence and a burst of raucous applause, while the outside of the stadium was dressed in fireworks.

The lack of atmosphere was felt by all, without an audience, much is lost. Without an audience, the Games are less Games. It was paradoxical, although with understandable intentions, that the IOC premiered the new Olympic slogan that, after 127 years, adds to the traditional “farther, higher, stronger” an innovative and postmodern “together”. This was not exactly the case today, nor will it be in the next 16 days. With sports and athletes in the foreground, their fans will remain at home.

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