The Tokyo Olympics began on Friday with the opening ceremony and, as per usual, the entire event was a sparkling menagerie of color and sound, a breathtaking spectacle that was simultaneously alluring and difficult to watch because of the distasteful hypocrisy around the entire Olympic movement.
There was pantomimed carpentry. There were pictograms that came to life. There was tap-dancing atop plywood. There was interpretive modern dance, a Kabuki performance to cleanse the stadium of negative energy, a performer running alone on a treadmill, an appearance by a retro-looking Japanese television news crew and orchestral renditions of melodies from video games such as Sonic the Hedgehog and Final Fantasy.
The theme of the ceremony was “Moving Forward” and, well, yes — that would be nice. The drip-drip-drip of bad coronavirus-related news in Japan has felt more like an untethered fire hose of rising cases and athlete positives in recent days, not to mention the steady stream of disasters related to the organization of this ceremony itself: The ceremony’s creative director stepped down after he suggested a plus-size Japanese model should dress up as a pig during the ceremony … followed by a music composer for the ceremony being dropped because it was revealed that he had previously abused and bullied disabled children … followed by the ceremony’s fill-in director being fired after old videos emerged of him making fun of the Holocaust.
Obviously, none of this was good. And neither was the near-empty stadium in which Friday’s ceremony was performed, a yawning cavern of unfilled seats that mostly served to highlight how the world’s best athletes have been brought to Japan in the midst of a pandemic for reasons that largely have to do with television and money.
And yet, even with all that, there is this: We are absolutely allowed to be excited.
I know sometimes it can feel as if we shouldn’t be, that sometimes it can feel as if the cloud over these Games is too thick. But if we have learned nothing else during the past year and a half, it is that we must find the slivers of light however, and wherever, we can.
So it is absolutely possible to be concerned about the low Japanese vaccination rate or sympathetic to the Japanese protestors who could be heard outside the stadium during lulls in the ceremony, and all the same still be eager to see Caeleb Dressel buzz saw his way through the water.
It is possible to be offended by an event that spends billions on infrastructure only to still denigrate women’s softball by having its games played on modified baseball fields, yet also be ecstatic to see Allyson Felix sprint after history.
It is possible to think these entire Olympics are a bad idea — just a crazy, misguided, bad idea, full stop — and still want nothing more over the next 17 days than to sit on the couch with your child and watch Simone Biles fly.
Earlier this week, I was talking to Dimitris Papioannou, who was the creative director for the opening ceremony at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. That show is generally regarded as one of the best in Olympic history — it had a young boy riding on a giant paper boat and a comet that drew the Olympic rings — and Papioannou laughed as he told me that the biggest controversy he had to deal with was resistance to his plans to include (tasteful) nudity in the ceremony.
“The trademark of ancient Greece is the beauty of the human body,” he said. “But it could not be there.” He sighed. “Obviously this Olympics there is a different feel.”
As unusual as this Games and this ceremony might feel, though, Papioannou mentioned an idea that resonated: “The task is to celebrate humanity,” he said, “and humanity is greater than the instance in which we are living. Humanity has been around for thousands of years — the story can’t be about the particulars of the last year or even the last decade. It is bigger.”
Papioannou was talking mostly about the ceremony, but that premise — that the Olympics is for “zooming out” from the present moment, as he put it — is one that tracks for many of us. How else to describe why, every few years, we become fascinated, even obsessed, by people and places and competitions that rarely register with us in between?
Some love the novelty of so-called “smaller” sports playing out in the biggest of arenas, sailors or shooters or handball players taking their moment in the global spotlight. Some love the stars coming together, basketball and soccer and track icons sharing a stage. I’ve always been attracted to the little flashes of drama — the hush just before a starter’s pistol fires, the tiny splash those divers make even falling from such heights — as well as the quirks, like how there are actually lifeguards assigned to sit beside the pool as the world’s best swimmers go through their races.
We know this Olympics will not have all of that usual charm. It can’t. The lack of fans, the bubbles, the social distancing, the quarantines — even the medals won’t be presented in the same way, as athletes will have to take them off a tray and put them around their own necks in one of many changes that feels a bit more like COVID theater than legitimate public health protocol.
There will be controversies. There will be protests, from athletes speaking their truth and from locals who believe this is all a sham. There will be anger and frustration and exasperation. Like so much else we have lived through, these Olympics are not perfect. They are not what we imagined. They are messy and problematic and complicated.
But they are also a chance for these thousands of competitors. A chance to play. To strive. To strain and stretch and maybe, just maybe, touch that dream they’ve always had. That is worth something. It has to be.
So Greece marched in first, as it always does in the parade of athletes. There was the oiled-up, bare-chested Tongan again (as well as an oiled-up, bare-chested Vanuatuan!). The Bermudans in their traditional shorts and the Panamanians in their trademark hats. And Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez carrying the flag for the United States, reminding us, with the glow in their eyes, that even with all that lingers over these Games, it is OK to find the moments that inspire. It is OK to find that light.
Eighteen hundred drones came together above the stadium, lit up together as a dazzling orb to form the Earth. The Olympic torch arrived, passed from one to another until it reached Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star. She took it and ran the final leg, climbing the steps of a figurative Mount Fuji before leaning toward the cauldron.
The music soared. The athletes stood. The Olympic flame ignited, tendrils of shimmering fire licking against a darkened sky.