The Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony Was Depressing as Hell

Francois-Xavier Marit / Getty
The fireworks went off. But for what purpose?
Is it advisable at this point to list everyone who did not want the Olympics to take place this year? The ceremony was short and of course beautiful. Everything was muted out of respect. There were speeches about international solidarity and perseverance. But the question that was raised at the opening ceremony on Friday was mainly: is that respectful or just plain stupid?
It's a shame that the organizers in Tokyo had to dampen what would have been an explosive show if the mood was right. We got some cultural dancers, hints of what could have happened if the show had been allowed to stop, and notes of sobriety in honor of COVID.
Not sure how to talk about the Olympics opening ceremony. Over the years I've reviewed it as a show. You're always a little silly. But they are beautiful and they send a message. The cultural history of an entire nation, represented by modern dance. That's crazy. It's a miracle, especially as the host country proudly showcases its new technological advances. I laugh and cry alike.
There are often statistics on how many locals were recruited to pull off the antics. The ceremony is not just a triumph of art, but of community. You will hear from local drummers, dancers and people ready to carry flags as if their lives depended on showing everything in the name to national pride to the international audience. In a normal year one could only imagine what Tokyo would have produced on this scale.
Friday's opening ceremony took place in a largely empty stadium as the country that was supposed to host 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 the tourism and the standard of service. It's honestly sad to see a portrayal of this so shy and distant.
I would love to see the bombast and madness - there is always a little bit of madness - of an opening ceremony with an absurd theme that celebrated Japanese culture, highlighting its unique talents, and celebrating the triumph of a society that bent backward to the event to enable event.
Full Disclosure: My last visit before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill was in Tokyo. Everyone's pride in the renovation work in the hotels, the construction of the infrastructure to facilitate participation in the Games, and the very fact that the Games would be held there was inspiring. That was 18 months ago.
Now the country is in another lockdown amid a fourth wave of coronavirus, and those same proud people have responded in shocking numbers that they wish the games didn't happen. And those who work in service in hotels and restaurants, who have invested so much money and time in preparation, are dealing with an Olympics without spectators.
I remember crying every time I watched the athletes parade. What must it be like to work so hard for a dream and make it come true? Whatever happens in competition, walking into the stadium behind the flag of your country and hearing the cheers that validate you as an Olympic athlete ... it makes me tearful. It's a new feeling to be angry about it.
The opening ceremony is meant to be a chance to show the world what your country is about: your history, your present and your values. In times of a pandemic the tenor is fear, incompetence and regret, no matter how beautiful a dancer may appear briefly.
Everything this year has an asterisk. Even the hot shirtless guy from Tonga couldn't make things feel normal. Cant wait to buy the Wheaties box of the last two American athletes with COVID not smiling with their eyes over a medical mask.
Where Japan had prepared and deserved a spectacle before the COVID crisis, it became about an hour of half-hearted show before Savannah Guthrie was supposed to glorify the Parade of Athletes. 57 years ago, Japan used the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics to present itself to the world as a modern, fertile society. This year the cameras are focusing on it as a cautionary story.
Is it even possible to watch this Olympic round without a guilty conscience? A political speech at the end of the ceremony about "Solidarity and Peace", which would have moved me in normal times, made me roll my eyes instead. This year, where there was buoyancy, everything seemed like opportunistic desperation.
The ceremony started with a video. Tradition has it: "All things arise from a single point and arise from the rich, inherited birthplace of life and time." You wonder if Tokyo is actually trolling you. Isn't that a pandemic?
To pay tribute to what the ceremony produced was engaging. It's an indication of what might have been a grand, shameless ceremony another year.
At this point, montage videos are as firmly embedded in the Olympic experience as athletics, and whoever produced this has figured out exactly the chord with this training montage that we can pluck in our hearts.
The pictures were beautiful - and sonorous. The person who jogs alone on the treadmill, a person who endures the loneliness of our time. The singer Misia wore a rainbow pouf that was strangely moving in its inclusiveness. The precision with which each dancer moved. The dance sequences honestly took my breath away.
I mean, after the athletes' parade, 1,800 drones formed a globe over the stadium while an ensemble of children sang "Imagine". That's classic, Grade-A, make Kevin cry on his couch. But for reaction shots, there was no other option than panning at masked athletes (those who haven't yet had COVID) looking confused. When Keith Urban and John Legend traded riffs in prepackaged footage, I believe all of us had had enough.
Mention that I'm old and cheesy, but I associate this event with getting together. We have never been so far apart.
On the one hand, there is perhaps a sharpness in the Olympic Games that represents the current global situation. In this respect, it is not tragic that there is no international show of hands. It can even be nice to see an empty stadium, not to hear cheers. The athletes come together when we as a global community cannot. Perhaps the persistence is touching.
Then again what the hell?
Even a muted, pared-down opening ceremony, which in normal times would have brought crowds onto the street, looks numb and blatant. Sure, the band dance was nice. But also ... with all the [wild gestures in the world] you do the damn band dance?
My basic bitch patriotism should break me into tears when Team USA walks into the stadium. But when Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez walked in and Guthrie started pissing them off about their feelings, I groaned. I think we all did. I think we all did. Part of us cannot believe that this is actually happening.
We think of the Olympics in terms of triumph. Associating them with disaster is bizarre.
Japan, a country that, to put it bluntly, would have fucking killed it in normal times, is in the fourth wave of a pandemic and will stay home for now. Polls ahead of today's launch showed that locals wished the country had postponed the event again. After all, how do you celebrate the coming together of the world when literally no one can come? And how can you use a global event commercially when nobody can leave their home?
Companies like Toyota withdrew their ads out of respect. COVID cases are at a high not seen since January. Each day brings a new list of athletes who are eliminated from their competitions because they tested positive. The Daily Beast reported on volunteers who were encouraged to postpone their vaccinations so they wouldn't experience side effects that would dissuade them from their duties. Should we still mention the number of opening ceremony organizers (as in MORE THAN ONE) who got fired for total shit?
Kentaro Kobayashi, director of the Olympic opening ceremony, sacked for joking around the Holocaust
In which fresh hell is it worth celebrating?
We all long for a party. No matter what Tokyo managed to do on Friday, however, the response would be a collective twitch. If the opening ceremony is inherently meant to be a boast of what has become of a country, I'm not sure if anyone was in the mood to cheer on the cultural dance that marks the start of an international competition that so far has turned out to be a Superspreader event has doubled.
Honor where appropriate: If these things are to reflect our time, suffice it to say that the desolation of this year's ceremony absolutely seized ours.
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