Pope Francis offered his blessings on the Olympic Games in a message posted on the Vatican news site on Sunday.
“In this time of pandemic, may these Games be a sign of hope, a sign of universal brotherhood marked by a healthy spirit of competition,” read the pope’s message.
“God bless the organizers, the athletes and all those who collaborate for this great festival of sport,” he added.
Postponed by a year due to the coronavirus, the Games, which officially opened on Friday, are being held without spectators in Tokyo under a COVID-induced state of emergency.
Athletes, the vast majority wearing masks, paraded through an eerily silent National Stadium where flag-bearers for the first time were both men and women.
In its journey through the stadium, the torch was passed from Olympic champions to baseball legends – one born in Taiwan – a doctor and a nurse, a Paralympian, and children from parts of Japan hit badly by the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.
It was finally handed to Japan’s global superstar Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old four-time tennis grand slam champion whose background as the daughter of a Haitian man and Japanese woman reflects the changes and slowly growing diversity coming to a once ethnically homogeneous country.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka wrote in a tweet.
“I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said in his opening speech addressing the athletes: “The lesson we learned is we need more solidarity – more solidarity among societies, and solidarity within societies.”
But the shift towards greater inclusiveness has not come without stumbles.
Tokyo 2020 has been hit by a string of scandals, including the exit of senior officials over derogatory comments about women, Holocaust jokes and bullying.
Normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, the ceremony was low-key, with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, strict social distancing rules and signs calling on spectators to “be quiet around the venue.”
Opening with videos showing empty streets around the world and an athlete training alone in darkness, it also included drones hovering over Tokyo’s National Stadium in the shape of the Olympic logo morphing into planet earth and a global performance via videolink of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Imagine.”
“With the world in a tough situation because of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to pay my respect and express my gratitude to medical workers and all those who are working hard every day to overcome the difficulties,” said local organizing committee President Seiko Hashimoto.
The ceremony climaxed with a fusion of traditional kabuki theater – with its elaborate makeup and costumes – and a jazz piano improvisation, on a stage topped with the cauldron for the Olympic flame.
At the parade, most countries were represented by both male and female flag-bearers in an Olympic first, but not everybody stuck to pandemic protocols.
In an awkward contrast to most other athletes, teams from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and Pakistan’s flag-bearers paraded maskless. – with a report from Reuters