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Why was the athletes' parade order at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony so different?

The U.S. Olympic team is seen making their entrance during the athletes' parade in the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Japan National Stadium on July 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- The Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony at the Japan National Stadium showcased a rather different order for the parade of athletes than we have seen before. First was the modern Olympics founding nation Greece, and last was Japan, but the nations in between appeared not in alphabetical order, but in the order of the Japanese syllabary.

    Iceland, Ireland and Azerbaijan are all spelt with an "a" sound in Japanese, which put them first up. But even though the USA team might be expected to have come in with the A set, as in Japanese it starts with America, it appeared at the end of the procession. But why?

    The gathering of athletes from over 200 countries and regions across the world inside the games' main venue is one of its most arresting sights. Since the London 1908 Olympics, it has been traditional for each country and region to enter the stadium led by a flagbearer. The teams also use their outfits to showcase a part of their culture.

    But changes since the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, when the games began to become more commercialized events backed by broadcasting rights fees and sponsorships, have led to more extravagant performances at opening ceremonies that gain greater attention.

    For broadcasters, the opening ceremonies are one of the games' major draws. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says that since worldwide distribution began with the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the broadcasting fees and the hours of sports shown have been rising with each games.

    Broadcasting rights income reportedly grew to $4.157 billion (about 457.3 billion yen) in the four years (2013-2016) leading up to the Rio 2016, and total hours hit 7,100. Both figures are more than double those for Sydney 2000. Opening ceremonies are estimated to pull in a global audience of some 1 billion people.

    The Tokyo Games were promised to be scaled back after they were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the IOC would not allow changes to the opening ceremony. IOC President Thomas Bach has called the opening ceremony a showcase for the host country that should stay the same. He also said that changes should not be made to the athletes' experience of parading into the stadium.

    Behind these statements is major U.S. broadcaster NBCUniversal Media. The company will have paid a total of some $12.03 billion (about 1.3 trillion yen) to broadcast the 10 Olympics spanning the Sochi 2014 Winter Games to the Brisbane 2032 Summer Games.

    For the athletes' parade at the Tokyo ceremony, changes were made so that the host nation was among the last to appear. The order of the final three nations was the U.S., set to host the 2028 Los Angeles Games; France, which is holding the 2024 Paris Games; and this year's host, Japan.

    Although the changes appear to shine the spotlight on the host nations, the alterations were apparently the wish of the high-paying American broadcasters. There were concerns that if the U.S. team came out too early, American viewers would change the channel.

    For the Tokyo Games, more than 80% of venues will hold events without spectators, meaning the role of video has been elevated a step further. According to the IOC, the Olympic Broadcasting Services plan to produce more than 9,000 hours of footage for international distribution during the current games.

    (Japanese original by Hitoshi Kurasawa, Sports News Department)

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