Olympic opening ceremony: Sometimes the silence can be like thunder

Protests outside the stadium could be heard briefly but the show went on, and on

We were just a few minutes into the opening ceremony, which started here in an empty Olympic Stadium right on cue at 8pm sharp, when in Japanese and then English they announced we would have a minute silence for those we lost over the last year and especially in the face of Covid-19.

Only a few seconds into that minute, the distinct rallying sounds of a small anti-Olympic protest march could be heard from somewhere in the near distance, by my reckoning just off the west gate entrance which earlier in the evening had also been lined with hundreds of Tokyo residents who couldn't get into the stadium, but were delighted just to get near it, be close to here in some shape or form.

Some of the protestors had been carrying placards that read “Lives over Olympics”, others in white surgical masks yelling “Stop the Olympics” (in Japanese, naturally) although it had remained entirely peaceful.

Not long after that came lots of loud drumming and dancing around which drowned out all the inside silence and outside noise for the rest of the night, only the eerie contradiction of mood certainly wasn’t forever lost.


There was an opening segment, too, highlighting the impact of the pandemic on the athletes around the world: a lone female athlete, Japanese boxer nurse Arisa Tsubata training in the darkness, running silently on a treadmill. No escaping the fact there are the Pandemic Games like no other.

The Olympic flag was also carried in and passed to essential workers from Tokyo, another touching nod to the pandemic which still has this city under a state of emergency, and will do until the Games are due to close on August 8th.

It went on like this for a while, John Lennon's classic Imagine played out for a while as a sort a message of peace through sport, before the watered down parade got going: with the 205 nations entering by order of the Japanese alphabet, after Greece traditionally led the way, the small entourage of Irish representatives paraded in fourth, boxers Brendan Irvine and Kellie Harrington jointly carrying the Irish flag.

Most nations only sent along a dozen or so athletes, others a few more. The last of them was Japan, about an hour later, double world champion freestyle wrestler Yui Susaki carrying their flag alongside Rui Hachimura, who plays in the NBA for the Washington Wizards. Again the handclaps set against the silence sounded like thunder.

Before Japan's Emperor Naruhito declared officially open the Games of the 2020 Tokyo Olympiad, IOC president Thomas Bach said his bit, only a bit too long for many, and plenty of what he said we all could have done without: "Dear athletes, this Olympic community is with you tonight and during these Olympic Games. You inspired us to fight like you and for you to make this moment possible. Billions of people from around the world will be glued to their screens, sending you their enthusiasm, and cheering you on."

The silence enduring again, it was close to midnight local time when the Olympic flame eventually entered the stadium, before the utterly unique and lasting honour of lighting the now hydrogen-fuelled cauldron went as expected to Japan's tennis star Naomi Osaka, who looked decidedly cool even in the searing heat of the Tokyo night as she climbed the steps of the Mount Fuji-shape stage.

There was a real sense of humility in the air too, Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto, herself a four-time Japanese Olympian, looking to a brighter future, as we all might.

“I imagine there must have been many athletes who have been considering the role of sport in society precisely because of these circumstances,” she said.

“It certainly gave us a fresh opportunity to reflect on the power of sport. As has been expressed in the Games’ vision, I sincerely hope that the opening ceremony will mark the beginning of a Games that makes even a small contribution to a more positive future, with everyone striving to ‘achieve their personal best’ while truly feeling ‘unity in diversity’.”

In the end even the no-frills and stripped-down version went on an age too long. There were few moments of canned laughter during a pre-flame lighting sequence with Japanese comedian Hitori Gekidan, but other than that no simulated crowd noise whatsoever, the overriding sense in the end being relief, and for many perhaps a yearning already to get through the closing ceremony.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics