In photos: 8 best moments from the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

Naomi Osaka, a jaw-dropping drone display, and more – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opened with a subdued but moving ceremony

Emma Steen
Written by
Emma Steen

There are many firsts in this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games: the first time for an Asian city to host the Games twice, the first time ever for the Games to be postponed, and the first time for the Games to be held without any spectators. These aren’t the kind of circumstances that anyone could have predicted for hosting the event before 2020. However, we finally made it to the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games a year later on July 23 2021.

There to open the long-awaited event was Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, the third emperor to take on the role of honorary patron of the Olympic Games. While spectators – with the exception of VIPs – were banned from attending the event, an explosive fireworks display above Kengo Kuma’s newly designed National Stadium signalled its commencement to all those gazing out at the Tokyo skyline.

The introduction to the ceremony was bittersweet, beginning with a tribute to all the lives lost during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to the victims of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Difficult emotions were further amplified by the sight of empty seats in the vast stadium, but with the parade of international athletes, a series of Japan-centric performances and a breathtaking drone display, the event quickly picked up momentum.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Opening Ceremony
Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty ImagesArisa Tsubata performs with dancers during the light show at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

The first performance showcased Japan’s forte in digital art and projection mapping technology. Here, digital graphics were projected across the stadium floor as frontline nurse and boxer Arisa Tsubata jogged on a treadmill while dancers performed an abstract piece behind her, symbolising the athletes’ plight in training during the pandemic for this event.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony
Photo: Bai Yu/Chinasports/VCG via Getty Images

This was followed by the national anthem – ‘Kimi Ga Yo’ – performed by singer-songwriter Misia, who was dressed in a colourful dress likened to cotton candy by netizens. After the national anthem was another interpretive dance that included a medley of tap dancing, Edo-style Hanten coats and percussion beats. The performance, reminiscent of Japan’s traditional summertime matsuri (festivals), unveiled the Olympic rings.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony, Tonga, athletes parade
Photo: Baptiste Fernandez/Icon Sport via Getty ImagesTeam of Tonga during the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

For the team parade, Greece’s athletes entered the stadium to lead what would become a two hour-long spectacle. Unlike other Olympic Games where countries/regions were arranged in alphabetical order, the parade in the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony was arranged according to the Japanese alphabet. Another interesting fact: the soundtrack played during this segment consisted of orchestral versions of music from famous video games developed in Japan, such as Final Fantasy, Monster Hunter, Dragon Quest and more. To the delight of audiences everywhere, taekwondo competitor Pita Taufatofua, who stole the show at Rio 2016 opening ceremony, returned shirtless and suitably oiled to carry the Tongan flag. 

Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony
Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The last teams to arrive were France, host of the next Summer Olympics in 2024, and Japan, with flag bearers Rui Hachimura and Yui Sasaki leading the way. The end of the parade was marked with the Olympic slogan ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together’ to emphasise the unity behind this colossal event.

Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, drone display
Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

If we were to pick a single highlight to sum up the opening ceremony, it would be the breathtaking drone display that formed a bright blue orb above the stadium, which looked like it came straight out of a sci-fi film. The stunning spectacle, featuring 1,824 drones, created a giant 3D rendition of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo before morphing into our planet Earth. It was truly a jaw-dropping moment.

After an emotional montage played alongside John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, IOC president Thomas Bach and chairwoman of the organising committee Seiko Hashimoto presented their speeches on what it means to host and take part in the Olympic Games today. Bach noted the unprecedented challenges that the world has faced in the midst of the global pandemic, making this a humbling experience.

Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony, blue emoji man
Photo: Swen Pförtner/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

The event took on a more upbeat tone after the speeches, with an imaginative demonstration of a person dressed in a blue morphsuit shapeshifting into the pictograms of each Olympic sport. It was a funny, witty performance reminiscent of a typical Japanese TV game show, and it provided some comic relief to the evening's proceedings.

The fun continued with cameras panning to a lighting technician flicking on switches to light up every Tokyo landmark, as well as the lights of iconic destinations across Japan. Returning to the stadium grounds, one final performance featured a Kabuki actor and famed Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi Uehara combining traditional Japanese performing arts with the nation’s more recent love for modern jazz.

Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, Naomi Osaka
Photo: Dylan Martinez - Pool/Getty ImagesNaomi Osaka of Team Japan lights the Olympic cauldron during the Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony

Selected to conclude the momentous occasion was none other than tennis champion Naomi Osaka. Despite mixed reactions to the Olympic Games leading up to this moment, and several protests, one could hear the city give a collective exhale as Osaka – lauded as a national treasure – carried the flame up the steps to light the cauldron before turning back to the audience. 

Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, finale fireworks
Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

It’s been a long road, but with the last fireworks soaring into the night sky, one can’t help but feel excited for what's likely to be one of the most historical Olympic Games ever.

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