Tennis star Osaka lights Tokyo Olympics cauldron as Games open

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Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka holds the Olympic Torch after lighting the flame of hope in the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021. VCG
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka holds the Olympic Torch after lighting the flame of hope in the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.VCG

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron as the Tokyo Games opened on Friday after a year’s pandemic delay and lingering coronavirus threats.

The 23-year-old, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion lifted the torch to the gleaming cauldron, which had unfurled at the top of a ramp representing Mount Fuji, in the highlight of a ceremony that was stripped back over virus fears.

Japan’s Emperor Naruhito officially opened the Games in an eerily empty Olympic Stadium, after COVID-19 forced organizers to ban spectators at all but a handful of venues.

“I declare open the Games of Tokyo,” said the monarch, wearing a white surgical mask, in Tokyo’s 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium.

Osaka, whose identity had been kept secret ahead of the ceremony, was handed the torch by a group of children from the region around Fukushima which was devastated by a tsunami and a nuclear disaster in 2011.

She tweeted that lighting the cauldron was “undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life”.

It was an uplifting moment in a low-key ceremony that unfolded in front of fewer than 1,000 VIPs and several thousand athletes.

In another high point, nearly 2,000 synchronized drones formed a revolving globe over the stadium, to a cover version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

A reduced parade of about 5,700 athletes, far lower than the usual numbers, filed into the stadium, not all of them socially distanced but all wearing masks.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach acknowledged the Games would be “very different from what all of us had imagined”.

But “today is a moment of hope”, he said in an address.

The 16-day Games, with 339 gold medals across 33 sports, have a surreal air after the pandemic compelled organizers to make this the first Games with virtually no spectators.

Athletes are tested daily but they are performing on the biggest stage under the constant risk that a positive test could wreck their Olympic dreams.

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