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Tokyo opening ceremony reflects the true purpose of the Olympics




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While the last-minute sacking of show director Kentaro Kobayashi represented one final, unanticipated distraction in the lead-up to the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics, Friday’s (23 July) opening ceremony made it very clear that the long awaited Games are going full speed ahead, carried by the hopes of thousands of athletes and billions of fans watching from Europe and around the world.

Organized amidst unprecedented restrictions as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt major events and international travel, the Tokyo Games are nonetheless set to offer a brief, cherished respite from the suffering caused by the pandemic, all while serving as a model for global cooperation as the planet struggles to coordinate an unprecedented vaccination drive.

Despite some voices calling for the event to be cancelled, the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s National Stadium reminded the small audience allowed into the stadium, and the much larger one watching on television, of the majesty and magic of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Spirit

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the Olympic Spirit as bringing out “humanity’s best” in a message of congratulations to the qualified athletes, as well as to the host country of Japan. He continued by saying that the global community can achieve anything if it applies the same principles to global challenges.

While some media outlets began referring to the 2020 Tokyo Games as the “COVID Olympics” the chagrin of the host country, many thousands of people in Japan and around the world worked tirelessly to make the games happen under unprecedented conditions, while thousands of athletes who have now arrived in Japan trained through the uncertainty of the pandemic for the chance to compete.

But while the association with the global health crisis is inescapable, the next several weeks will ultimately decide how that association will be remembered in the years and decades to come. As its organizers have made clear, the Tokyo Games are the perfect opportunity for the entire world to come together and celebrate human achievement in face of adversity.


'Outrageous and unacceptable'

Those organizers have overcome no small amount of adversity themselves in getting these Olympics across the finish line. Just one day before the ceremony, show director Kentaro Kobayashi was dismissed following the emergence of a comedy sketch from the 1990s in which he made a reference to the Holocaust as part of a joke. The Japanese Olympic Committee reacted quickly, sacking Kobayashi mere hours after the video began circulating on social media.

Kobayashi issued a statement of apology in which he said that “it should never be the job of an entertainer to make people feel uncomfortable”. His sacking was accompanied by condemnations from senior political figures in the country, including prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who described the joke as "outrageous and unacceptable".

While Kobayashi’s poor judgement represented the latest headache for an Olympic organizing committee tasked with making sure the Games would go on in the face of unprecedented adversity, Friday’s ceremony demonstrated how the Olympics could still bring people together, even in the middle of the most severe health crisis in living memory.

Adding to a tradition of resilience

Indeed, for over a century, the Olympic Games have served as a stage for celebrating achievements of athletes from wildly different social, ethnic or religious backgrounds. The Tokyo Games, by offering much-needed distraction and wonder for billions of people across the globe, promise to be no different.

Far from ignoring the lessons of the pandemic, the Games have leveraged the historic breakthroughs made in developing COVID-19 vaccines. With a vaccination rate buoyed to above 80% thanks to months of collaboration between Pfizer and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic Village managed to achieve herd immunity by the time the first events of these Olympics took place.

With the International Olympic Committee having more members than even the United Nations, the Games are one of the few truly global events on our planet. At a time of growing international tension, the Olympics can serve as a reconciliatory factor, reminding the world that friendly rivalry and competing excellence is preferable to conflict and resentment.

While this edition of the Games might take place with almost no spectators in the stands, the next few weeks should still help bring people and nations together at a time when global co-operation on issues of public health and climate change have never been so important.

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