Some Olympic Stadiums strike you first with their sense of place and history. No matter how much you’ve read or heard about it, nothing can fully prepare you for the moment you first walk inside the old Olympic Stadium in Berlin.
If the ghost of Adolf Hitler doesn't get you first then the ghost of Jesse Owens will. As if 1936 will be inside there forever, as well it should.
Other Olympic Stadiums strike you first with their sense of scale and design. No matter how much you were told or tried to imagine it, still nothing topped that first walk inside the Bird’s Nest in Beijing. It was as if all artistic arenas had been painted into the one single masterpiece.
Others strike you differently again, in a forgettable or even meaningless way. What has happened to the Athens Olympic Stadium now? Did Rio de Janeiro ever even happen?
Then there are those that strike you first in unexpected ways, with a shivering chill like ice water in the veins even in the searing heat and humidity of a summer evening in Tokyo. Because this is exactly what happens when I first walk inside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony 57 years after their last one, for the then 1964 Olympics, where among the then 93 nations was an Irish team of just 25 athletes, my dad among them.
He turned 84 earlier this month, and one of the last things he said to me before coming out here was to look out for that spot somewhere on the backstretch where in his heat of the 5,000 metres he got dropped for the first time, with three laps to go. He didn’t make the final, and 57 years later – not quite yet to the day, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics staged in October – he still talks about that experience with love and regret and some other things in between.
So it somehow felt like I'd been inside here before. In my mind anyway, in the old black and white footage of Tokyo Olympiad, directed by Kon Ichikawa, one of the first masters of Japanese cinema, through either the ghosts or spirits of Abebe Bikila and Peter Snell and Bob Hayes, the finishing kicks of Billy Mills and Bob Schul, through some of the old photographs found randomly at home over the years.
Only this was my first time – and walking from some distance away and then up the steps from the south-west gate, marked by several bronze statues of Olympic athletes at the height of their powers, that sense of past and present was undeniably alive and pressed evenly together. Even if it’s all one year later than originally planned.
And even before that moment of first entry, it was by far the strangest of approaches to any Olympic Stadium too, hundreds of Japanese spectators lined up outside the barriers which blocked off all public access, wanting just to be there for their own moment – all while the distinct rallying sounds of a small anti-Olympic protest march could be heard not far off in the distance.
I'd arranged to meet Cathal Dennehy to pass on a ticket and after some confusion around which set of large Olympic rings we were aiming for (turns out there are several set up at various points in and outside the stadium), it was an otherwise seamless entry, the large open stairways empty of near all arrivals other than us press and local volunteers.
Before the parade of 205 nations this time, most of them only putting forward a handful of athletes in the enduring face of Covid-19, there was also a sense of loneliness about the place. With a fixed seated capacity of 68,000, perfectly set in this immaculately finished piece of construction, it was sad to see it so empty. It would have been sadder still to see it left closed up completely.
In 1964, led by flag bearer and hammer thrower John Lawlor, the Irish team all felt like they were walking on new ground, as indeed they were. None of them had been to Japan before, including the one woman, Maeve Kyle, and they came away winning one bronze medal, thanks to lightweight boxer Jim McCourt from Belfast, who contentiously lost to Velikton Barannikov from the USSR on a 3-2 split decision.
Their opening ceremony, Saturday, October 10th 1964, is also now marked as a national holiday in Japan: that date (or the first Monday that falls after), considered sacred given the turning point it marked in Japanese history, and the country’s re-emergence from wartime enemy of the West to peaceful global ally.
Tokyo 1964 also turned out to be an Olympics of many firsts and lasts: the first to be telecast internationally by satellite, in colour too, and the first to boast such technological advances as the photo finish on the track and electronic starting gun in the swimming pool.
The Olympic Stadium has come a long way since 1964 too. After Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, back in 2013, it was agreed to demolish the original National Stadium, purposely built in the bid for the 1964 Games, and rebuild it all over again as a more architectural statement that took little heed to cost but went strong on sustainability.
The late, great architect Zaha Hadid won the design that included a pointed retractable roof and fancy sky walk, before in 2015, amid increasing public discontent over the cost, the Japanese government said enough already. It still ended up costing €1.4 billion, but there is some return on that: embedded onto the roof are solar panels that can provide most of the stadium's electricity, while rainwater is also collected to irrigate the surrounding greenery which drapes over the sides.
Built on a Zero Action CO2 policy, all the wood in the timber-clad roof and side panels was sourced from each of the 47 Japanese prefectures, none whatsoever being imported. This is the new Olympic Stadium that first appears out of the densely populated and built-up Shinjuku district, more modest but no less impressive, the outside swathed in greenery and wooden lattice screens, reminiscent of the traditional Japanese temple.
There is no such thing as uncharted territory in a country like Japan anymore, only much of this opening ceremony ends up feeling like it was going where none of us had gone before. An evening of firsts, unquestionably, history perhaps also reserving it as the first and last to be staged inside an Olympic Stadium empty of all spectators. And for the athletes anyway already infinitely more memorable than not being staged at all.