After a year-long delay, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics kicked off Friday with an opening ceremony in a nearly-empty stadium reflecting a Games like no other and walking a fine line between celebrating the feats of the world's best athletes while acknowledging the global hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
A video montage began with the moment Tokyo won the Olympic bid in 2013, followed by athletes training before images of a world silenced by the pandemic appeared.
Pounding on a treadmill in the middle of the stadium was a 27-year-old nurse who worked on the frontlines of the pandemic treating COVID-19 patients. Arisa Tsubata was training to become an Olympic boxer but was denied the opportunity to compete after the International Olympic Committee cancelled the boxing qualifier in June due to the pandemic.
Nearby, other socially-distanced athletes exercised on a rowing machine and a stationary bike. The performance represented the "invisible bond" between the athletes, many who had to train in isolation amid the emergence of COVID-19, and were connected on stage through light projections.
U.S. & World
The theme: Apart, but not alone.
Still, they persevered. And despite not competing the Tokyo Olympics, Tsubata stole the show at the opening ceremony.
Then came the fireworks, a 20-second blast of light — as if to say these Olympics have finally emerged from dark times.
Tributes were paid to those lost during the pandemic, and the Israeli delegation that was killed at the Munich Games in 1972. A moment of silence was offered inside the stadium.
Viewers were treated to an extravagant re-enactment of a traditional Japanese festival, featuring hundreds of performers taking part in a tightly choreographed and well-rehearsed display of national pride.
But instead of a 68,000-capacity crowd cheering as about 5,700 athletes from more than 200 countries parade with flags through Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, fewer than a thousand foreign dignitaries and diplomats, Olympic sponsors and members of the International Olympic Committee were present.
This parade of athletes also differed from most others in the past because nations are being spaced out - a nod to social distancing. Many athletes wore masks as they entered the stadium.
Some Olympians decided to skip the parade of nations altogether to avoid risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
With the Games underway, athletes will find out what affect the disrupted training will have on their performances and what the uneven distribution of vaccines and COVID-19 testing across the world will mean to international sport.
Missed the Opening Ceremony? Watch it on NBC on primetime tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET. On that broadcast, Leslie Odom Jr. will tell the story of the hopes and dreams of Olympians in an opening vignette, Dwayne Johnson will introduce Team USA, and Uma Thurman will narrate a special feature leading into the Parade of Athletes.