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Chants from protestors – including “Go to hell, Olympics” – could be heard at the National Stadium as Friday’s opening ceremonies kicked off Tokyo Games that were delayed and haunted by COVID-19

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Japan's flag is carried onto the stage at July 23's opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics.FRANCOIS-XAVIER MARIT/AFP via Getty Images

In a stadium that may as well have been in another country, flag bearers, performers and a few masked dignitaries heralded the opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games Friday night. But to Toshikazu Sukagawa, who lives 100 kilometres away in Mito, the inaugural festivities for a sporting event staged at considerable economic and political cost are “boring,” said the 49-year-old executive. He didn’t watch on TV.

“I’m just not interested.”

Others were not so indifferent to the muted spectacle at the Olympic Stadium. As the biggest moment of the world’s biggest athletic competition unfurled in Japan, the anger against these Games was so raucous that protest chants carried into the stadium even as the opening ceremony took place.

Far from the exuberance of a country strutting before a far-flung audience, the opening of the Tokyo Olympics amid a global pandemic played out before a sea of empty seats – and a national audience whose opposition was only slightly assuaged by hours of athletes marching in to the swells of video game scores.

“There is no sense of euphoria or festive mood in the capital,” The Asahi Shimbun wrote in an editorial Friday. The opening of the Games was met with “sadness and regret,” The Mainichi reported.

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Protesters rally outside the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony.Issei Kato/Reuters

In Tokyo, in the hours before the ceremony, heat shimmered off largely empty streets around competition venues. Many residents had fled, with traffic jams stretching for 40 kilometres Thursday at the beginning of a four-day weekend.

“Everybody is escaping the city. Part of it is heat and part of it is not wanting to be around during the Olympics,” said Matt Alt, a cultural commentator and author of Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World.

Photos of Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony

There was little to be gained by staying.

“In normal times, the frustration over all the politicking and money and corruption is often smoothed over by the excitement of the Games themselves,” Mr. Alt said.

“But with spectators barred from the stadiums and race courses, it’s hard to imagine how that’s going to happen here.”

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At top, Japan's Blue Impulse aerobatic team leaves smoke in the colour of the Olympic rings over Tokyo. At Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, people turned out to watch the display.Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images; YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier Friday, amateur photographers and families with children pressed against a metal fence surrounding the National Stadium to watch the Blue Impulse aerobatic team inscribe Olympic rings in the sky.

It was the closest the public could get to seeing the opening festivities in person, although crowds gathered on nearby streets to watch the fireworks display from the rim of the 68,000-seat stadium. They were, however, accompanied by protesters whose chants – including “Go to hell, Olympics” – were loud enough to be heard inside the stadium during quiet moments of the opening ceremony.

Even the prospect of joining with others to watch the televised spectacle had largely vanished. Under a state of emergency that will last for the duration of the Olympics, bars and restaurants have been ordered to close by 8 p.m. – the start time of the opening ceremony.

Elsewhere, places once designated communal viewing areas have been closed. One, at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, has been remade into a mass vaccination site.

“To be honest, I think people are less eager to watch the Olympics than usual,” said Miho Oda, 43, a visual artist and cultural commentator. “People might enjoy watching them when their friends and family get together. But if you’re alone, fewer and fewer people will watch.”

Broadcasters not carrying the Olympics have added comedy programming to their lineups in the weeks ahead, she said – a distraction from the gloom of virus news and a Games that has attracted little public support. With karaoke establishments closed, audiences for music programming, in particular, have grown. Rather than turn to sport, “there’s been a rise in the number of people singing as they watch TV to release stress,” Ms. Oda said.

See moments from a toned-down opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, including the Canadian contingent, led by flag-bearers Miranda Ayim and Nathan Hirayama.

The Globe and Mail

Still, even in the strangest of Olympics, an opening ceremony has a unique ability to capture national attention. It ranked first among Olympic events that people in Japan want to see live, a survey by audience measurement company Video Research found.

Domestic audiences cheered the orchestral rendition of video game music that accompanied the parade of athletes, a celebration of a distinctly Japanese contribution to global culture. “OMG, my song was used in the opening ceremony!?” Keiki Kobayashi tweeted after hearing the strains of his score to Ace Combat, the combat flight simulator first released in 1995.

Some breathed a sigh of relief that – in these early days, at least – the Games have been staged without major incident.

“A few months ago, to be honest, I thought we shouldn’t hold the Olympics,” said Yoko Nakamura, 45, a Tokyo office worker. “But today, when I saw the happy faces of the athletes from all across the world and felt the fun atmosphere, I was glad the event took place.

“It’s just a pity there were no spectators.”

With reporting by Naoko Mikami

The opening ceremony in pictures

  • Tennis player Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan, lights the cauldron to open the Tokyo Olympics at an empty Olympic Stadium.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

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