The Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony Was Depressing as Hell
Bashful bombast performed for a crowd of no one. The superspreader Olympics that no one wants debuted to an empty stadium on Friday morning. What are we even doing here?
The fireworks went off. But to what end?
Is it even prudent, at this point, to list everyone who didn’t want the Olympics to happen this year? The ceremony was brief and, sure, beautiful. Out of respect, everything was subdued. There were speeches about international solidarity and perseverance. But the question raised by Friday’s Opening Ceremony was mostly: Is this respectful, or just stupid?
It’s a shame that organizers in Tokyo had to dampen what I’m sure would have been an explosive display, had the mood been appropriate. We got some cultural dancers, the hints of what might have been had full-on show-stopping been allowed, and notes of sobriety in honor of COVID.
I’m not sure how to talk about the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Over the years, I have reviewed it as a show. They’re always a bit silly. But they’re beautiful, and they send a message. An entire nation’s cultural history portrayed via modern dance. It’s insane. It’s a marvel, especially as the host country proudly displays its new technological advancements. I laugh and cry in equal measure.
There are often stats about how many locals were recruited to pull off the antics. The ceremony is not just a triumph of artistry, but of community. You hear about local drummers, dancers, and people willing to wield flags as if their life depended on it, all in the name of presenting national pride to an international audience. In a normal year, one could only imagine what Tokyo would have produced on that scale.
Friday’s Opening Ceremony took place in a largely empty stadium, as the country that was supposed to be hosting stayed at home during a pandemic. Japan is known for its artistry and meticulousness, from culture to capitalism. If you’ve been there, you know its tourism and standard of service. It is frankly sad to see a representation of it so coy and removed.
I would have loved to see the bombast and lunacy—there’s always a bit of lunacy—of a preposterously themed Opening Ceremony that celebrated Japanese culture, spotlighted its unique talents, and celebrated the triumph of a society that bent over backward to make this event happen.
Full disclosure: My last sojourn before the pandemic ground the world to a halt was to Tokyo. The pride everyone took in all of the renovations at hotels, the infrastructure being erected to make attending the games easier, and just the fact that the Games were going to be there was inspiring. That was 18 months ago.
Now the country is in another lockdown amidst a fourth wave of the coronavirus, and those same, proud people have responded in shocking numbers that they wished the Games weren’t happening. And those people working in service at hotels and restaurants, who spent so much money and time preparing, are dealing with an Olympics with no spectators.
I remember when I used to cry watching the Parade of Athletes. What must it be like to work so hard for a dream, and have it realized? Whatever happens in competition, to walk into the stadium behind the flag of your country and hear the cheers validating you as an Olympic athlete... it makes me weepy. It’s a new feeling to be angry about it.
The Opening Ceremony is supposed to represent a chance to show the world what your country is about: your history, your present, and your values. In the era of a pandemic, the tenor is fear, incompetence, and regret, no matter how beautifully a dancer may briefly perform.
Everything this year has an asterisk. Not even the hot shirtless guy from Tonga could make things feel normal. I can’t wait to buy the Wheaties box featuring the last two American athletes who didn’t get COVID smiling with their eyes over a medical mask.
Where Japan had, before the COVID crisis, prepared for and deserved a spectacle, it got roughly an hour of half-hearted showcase before Savannah Guthrie was brought in to vamp the Parade of Athletes. Fifty-seven years ago, Japan used the summer Olympics Opening Ceremony to announce itself to the world as a modern, fruitful society. This year, the cameras are focusing on it as a cautionary tale.
Is it even possible to watch any of this round of Olympics without feeling a guilty conscience? A ceremony-closing political speech about “solidarity and peace” that would have moved me in normal times instead made me roll my eyes. Where there was invigoration, everything this year seemed like opportunistic desperation.
The ceremony began with a video. The narration says, “All things emerge from a single point, springing forth from the rich, inherited birthing ground of life and time.” You are forgiven for wondering if Tokyo is, in fact, trolling you. Is that not what a pandemic is?
To give credit where it’s due, what the ceremony produced was riveting. It’s a hint of what could have been a large, shameless ceremony in another year.
At this point, montage videos are as intrinsic to the Olympic experience as athleticism, and whoever produced this figured out the exact chord to pluck on our hearts with that training montage.
The imagery was beautiful—and smartly resonant. The person jogging alone on the treadmill, a person persevering in the loneliness of our times. The singer Misia dressed in a rainbow poof that was strangely moving in its inclusivity. The precision with which every dancer moved. The dance sequences, honestly, took my breath away.
I mean, after the Parade of Athletes, 1,800 drones formed a globe above the stadium while an ensemble of children sang “Imagine.” That’s classic, Grade-A, make Kevin cry on his couch shit. But for reaction shots, there was no recourse but to pan to masked athletes (the ones who don’t have COVID yet) looking confused. By the time Keith Urban and John Legend traded riffs in pre-taped footage, I, as I think all of us did, had had enough.
Chalk it up to me being old and corny, but I associate this event with us coming together. Yet we’ve never been farther apart.
On the one hand, maybe there is a poignancy to the Olympics representing the current global situation. In that purview, it’s not tragic that there’s no international joining of hands. It may even be beautiful to see an empty stadium, to hear no cheers. The athletes are coming together when we, as a global community, cannot. Maybe the perseverance is touching.
On the other hand, what in the goddamn hell?
Even a subdued, scaled-back Opening Ceremony that in normal times would have spillover crowds in the street seems tone-deaf and crass. Sure, the ribbon dancing was lovely. But also...with all the [gestures wildly at the world] going on, you’re doing fucking ribbon dancing?
My basic-bitch patriotism should have me in tears when Team USA walks into the stadium. But when Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez made their entrance and Guthrie started grilling them about how they felt, I groaned. I think we all did. I think that’s what we’ve all been doing. A part of us can’t believe this is actually happening.
We think of the Olympics in terms of triumph. It’s bizarre to associate them with disaster.
Japan, a country that, to be clear, would have fucking KILLED IT in normal times, is in the fourth wave of a pandemic and currently under stay-at-home orders. Polls before today’s kick-off indicated that locals wished the country had postponed the event again. After all, how can you celebrate the world coming together when literally no one can come? And, commercially, how can you take advantage of a global event when no one can leave their homes?
Companies like Toyota pulled their ads out of respect. COVID cases are at a high not seen since January. Every day brings a new list of athletes pulling out of their competitions because they tested positive. The Daily Beast reported on volunteers being encouraged to postpone their vaccinations so that they don’t suffer side effects that would pull them from their duties. Shall we even bring up the number of Opening Ceremony organizers (as in MORE THAN ONE) who were fired for being absolute pieces of shit?
In what fresh hell is this worth celebrating?
We all crave a celebration. No matter what Tokyo pulled off Friday, however, the response was going to be a collective cringe. If the Opening Ceremony inherently is meant as braggadocio for what a country has become, I’m not sure anyone was in the mood to cheer for the cultural dance that signifies the start of an international competition that has so far doubled as a superspreader event.
Credit where it’s due: If these things are meant to reflect our times, suffice it to say the bleakness of this year’s ceremony has absolutely captured ours.