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How Tokyo's opening ceremony spotlighted medical staff, 3/11 and the 1964 Olympic legacy

Arisa Tsubata is seen making her appearance at the opening ceremony for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Japan National Stadium in Tokyo on July, 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- After a year's postponement and decisions to largely bar spectators and scale back festivities, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games opening ceremony finally began on 8 p.m. on July 23 in the capital's National Stadium, with nods to medical workers, acknowledgement of athletes' isolation and areas recovering from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and the legacy of the Tokyo 1964 Olympics.

    Following the countdown to the ceremony, Arisa Tsubata, a nurse and female boxer representing athletes and the medical community, took to the stage at the stadium in the capital's Shinjuku Ward. World qualifiers for boxing at the Tokyo Olympics were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, cutting off the 28-year-old's road to the games. At the opening ceremony, she was at the center of a movement using dance performances, computer generated imagery and other means to depict how new communications have emerged online and elsewhere to connect athletes isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

    Those who carried the Japanese flag into the stadium included Naoko Takahashi, who won gold in the women's marathon at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, and other athletes, as well as people with impairments and medical professionals. They were led by eight individuals including children performing a traditional dance of the Ainu people indigenous to northern Japan including Hokkaido. As part of the performance, feelings of gratitude to medical professionals fighting the coronavirus on the front lines were relayed across the world.

    Performers dance at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games, at the Japan National Stadium in the capital's Shinjuku Ward on July 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

    The huge wooden rings appearing on stage accompanied by traditional lanterns were brought in using ropes, and came together to form the Olympic symbol. The rings were made from the wood of trees planted from seeds brought by participating countries and regions at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. Over half a century on, the ceremony celebrated the legacy of the games that came before.

    The pictograms for each sporting discipline created for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics were also put under the spotlight, with mime artists recreating the images' various poses while dressed like pictogram figures. In all, 50 sports were represented in a rhythmical recreation.

    The highlight of the opening ceremony was the final stage of the Olympic torch's 121-day journey across Japan. The final chain went from judoka Tadahiro Nomura, 46, who won gold at three consecutive Olympics in the men's -60kg event, and freestyle wrestler Saori Yoshida, 38, who also won gold at three consecutive Olympics in her discipline, to 85-year-old Shigeo Nagashima, the former manager of the Yomiuri Giants baseball team, and Sadaharu Oh, 81, the world's home run record holder and chair of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks baseball team, and Hideki Matsui, 47, who has played for Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, the New York Yankees and other teams.

    The torch then went to medical professionals, who passed it on to Wakako Tsuchida, 46, an athlete competing in the triathlon at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. She gave the flame to six children from parts of Japan affected in the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. The children then passed the flame to tennis star Naomi Osaka, 23, who lit the cauldron inside the stadium.

    (Japanese original by Ryuichi Arai, Osaka Sports News Department, and Hiroyuki Asatsuma, Tokyo Sports News Department)

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