Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony Live Updates: Athletes Arrive And Naomi Osaka Lights The Olympic Flame

Published July 23, 2021 at 5:34 AM EDT
Tennis star Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.
Maja Hitij
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Japan's Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch towards the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Good morning ☕

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are officially open, after Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony. Here are some of the fascinating storylines we're watching during one of the most unique and turbulent Games in history.

— The NPR Olympics team
Emily Alfin Johnson, Rachel Treisman, Will Jones, Arielle Retting, Nell Clark, Casey Noenickx, Merrit Kennedy, Saeed Ahmed, Bill Chappell, Laurel Wamsley, Scott Neuman

Before You Go
Just The Start

Let The Games Begin 🥇🥈🥉

Posted July 23, 2021 at 11:21 AM EDT
A view of the Olympic cauldron after it was lit at the conclusion of the opening ceremony.
Franck Fife/AFP
The Olympic flame burns after the lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

And with that, the opening ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo has concluded.

We saw many sights: drone artwork, dancing pictograms, glistening abs and Naomi Osaka bringing home the torch.

Of course, we also saw a stream of athletes from hundreds of countries — including Team USA — and a solemn tribute to COVID-19 victims. Even though some competitions started as early as Wednesday, we can now officially say: Let the Games begin.

The Tokyo Olympics were officially declared open by Japan’s Emperor Naruhito. And over the course of the next two weeks around 11,000 athletes will compete in 41 different sports.

In late August, the 2020 Paralympic Games will begin in Tokyo.

To follow the latest on all the events from Japan, check out NPR's Tokyo Olympics blog.

Tune In

Here Are The Events You Can Catch This Weekend

Posted July 23, 2021 at 11:06 AM EDT

Now that Tokyo 2020 is officially underway, it's finally time for us armchair athletes to get in on the action.

Here are some of the moments we'll be watching this weekend:

Dip a toe into swimming events

A full week of swimming events starts on Saturday. This year's U.S. swimming team includes:

  • Six-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky
  • Caeleb Dressel, who holds the world record in the 100-meter butterfly
  • Simone Manuel, who narrowly won the 50-meter freestyle event at the Olympic trials
  • 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the team's youngest member

👀 NPR's Merrit Kennedy has this who's-who of talent to watch.

The first Olympic skateboarding competition

This year, the Olympics is featuring two categories of skateboarding: street and park. The street skaters will take to stairs, handrails, curbs, benches, walls and banks in their competitions on Saturday and Sunday. The park competition will take place on Aug. 3 and 4.

Kennedy notes that popular U.S. skateboarder Nyjah Huston is a medal hopeful.

Time for medals

The first medals of the Games are expected to be given out on Saturday, starting with the winners of the women's 10m air rifle final.

Other medal events that day include archery, fencing, judo, cycling and weightlifting.

And like so much else this year, the ceremonies are going contactless: Athletes will be presented with medals on a tray and then put them on themselves.

Or check out the full schedule of events.

Ceremony Details

You Won't Want To Miss These Live-Action Pictograms

Posted July 23, 2021 at 11:02 AM EDT

The last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics was in 1964. That was also the year organizers debuted pictograms, depictions of different sporting events for the benefit of athletes and spectators from around the world.

The pictograms got a new look this time around, thanks to Japanese designer Masaaki Hiromura and a team. They created 50 new pictograms, unveiled in time for the 2020 Games.

A person wearing blue and white poses with legs apart and one arm in the air, acting out a pictogram on the floor of the empty Olympic stadium.
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A performer dressed as a Pictogram poses during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Friday.

And today they were literally brought to life. One, two, sometimes three faceless people — dressed in the same hues of white and blue — jumped on blocks and posed with props to act out the iconography as upbeat techno-pop blared in the background.

Be sure to check it out later if you missed it this morning (and maybe, like us, watch it again even if you didn't).


A Drone Display Like No Other

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:55 AM EDT
Drones fly in the shape of the globe above the opening ceremony.
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A drone display is seen over the top of the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

A glittering new feature took center stage during the opening ceremony: nearly 2,000 drones moving in perfect concert to form a revolving globe.

Exactly 1,824 drones were used to form the massive orb, floating above the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

Behind The Scenes
The Olympic Torch

The Last Torch Bearer: Naomi Osaka 🔥

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:46 AM EDT
Naomi Osaka holds the Olympic torch after lighting the Tokyo Olympic caldron.
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Naomi Osaka of Team Japan lights the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

The tennis star, who competes for Japan, was the final carrier of the Olympic flame in a ceremony that was a long time coming.

When the 2020 Olympic flame at last illuminated an enormous cauldron in Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, it was lit by Naomi Osaka, Japan's 23-year-old tennis superstar.

There was speculation that Osaka would have a role in the ceremony after organizers pushed Osaka's opening tennis match from Saturday to Sunday, without an immediate reason given. With the opening ceremony taking place on Friday night in Tokyo, Osaka would have little rest before a Saturday morning match.

Naomi Osaka holds the Olympic torch on her way to light the Olympic caldron.
Jeff Pachoud/AFP
Japan's tennis player Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch in the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.

Osaka was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. Her family moved when Osaka was 3 to New York, eventually settling in Florida. She gave up her American citizenship in 2019; under Japan's Nationality Act, those with dual citizenship of Japan by birth have to choose one before their 22nd birthday.

In a new Netflix documentary, Osaka said she has gotten flack on social media for representing Japan instead of the U.S.

“I’ve been playing under the Japan flag since I was 14. It was never even a secret that I’m going to play for Japan for the Olympics,” she said, according to Yahoo News.

"So I don’t choose America, and suddenly people are like, ‘Your Black card is revoked,’” Osaka said. “And it’s like, African-American isn’t the only Black, you know?"

Naomi Osaka shown in an action shot practicing tennis at the Olympic practice space.
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TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 20: Naomi Osaka of Team Japan trains in Center Court Ariake Tennis Park ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 20, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Japan's flag-bearers in the opening ceremony were NBA Washington Wizards star Rui Hachimura and wrestling champion Yui Susaki.

Osaka dropped out of the French Open in May after being penalized for refusing to attend post-match news conferences. She said she has suffered long bouts of depression since 2018, and experiences intense anxiety when speaking with the press.

The Olympics will be her first competition since then.

Behind The Scenes

These Japanese Volunteers Are Folding Up Origami Creations For Visitors

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:36 AM EDT
A table is covered in baskets of colorful origami designs, with a handmade sign reading "Take Free."
Merrit Kennedy/NPR
Volunteers make origami to give to visiting journalists at the Tokyo Olympics.

Journalists who traveled to Tokyo can’t leave the Olympic “bubble” for their first 14 days in the country. It’s a measure aimed at protecting the Japanese public from potential exposure to the coronavirus, as case counts in the capital continue to rise.

So a group of young Japanese volunteers is bringing a taste of Japanese culture to them.

The women fold paper into beautiful shapes in a colorful corner of the convention center where journalists work, offering them handmade origami gifts.

“A handwritten sign in front says, "TAKE FREE." On the tabletop are creations such as handmade multicolored flowers, paper sushi rolls and small boxes. There are paper cranes of many shapes and sizes, which are traditionally given to sick people to wish them well.”
Merrit Kennedy, part of NPR's team of journalists in Tokyo

They also update a chalkboard with a Japanese word of the day (the day before the opening ceremony it was “excited,” or “wa ku wa ku.”)

Read the full story to hear from the volunteers and see more photos of their work.


These Olympics Aren’t What Anyone Imagined, The IOC Head Acknowledges

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:24 AM EDT
A man stands behind a podium during the opening ceremony.
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Thomas Bach, IOC President makes a speech as Seiko Hashimoto, Tokyo 2020 President looks on during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

“Today is a moment of hope,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said after the Parade Of Nations and a rendition of the song “Imagine.”

“Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined,” Bach told the athletes in the Olympic Stadium. "But let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together.”

The Olympics leader acknowledged the struggles Tokyo and Japan faced in preparing for the Games, from the massive earthquake that struck East Japan in 2011 to the pandemic.

“Thank you to all Japanese people for making the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 possible,” Bach said.

Addressing the hundreds of Olympians gathered in groups around the stadium, Bach said, “You did not know if your teammates would be with you for the next competition. You did not even know if this competition would take place at all.”

Praising solidarity among athletes and international communities, Bach recited an updated version of the Olympics’ traditional motto: “Faster, higher, stronger — together.”

After Bach spoke, Japan's Emperor Naruhito -- who has widely been reported as being very concerned the Games might worsen Japan’s COVID-19 emergency -- delivered a very brief speech, declaring the Tokyo Olympics to be open.

Must Listen

Do Olympic Host Cities Win Or Lose? 'Throughline' Investigates

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:19 AM EDT

Keeping fans out of the stands this Olympics will save lives. Though it does pose a financial problem for event organizers, who spent billions on infrastructure and are already over budget, without ticket sales and vendor revenue to offset costs.

As NPR's history podcast Throughline explains, massive financial budgets have become normal for Olympic host cities.

The Games have evolved over the generations to become a huge commercial success.

But do the cities that host them end up winning or losing?
🎧 Listen to the episode to find out.

Team USA

Basketball Star Sue Bird And Baseball Player Eddy Alvarez Lead Team USA Into The Stadium

Posted July 23, 2021 at 10:04 AM EDT
An aerial view of Team USA during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Mike Egerton - PA Images
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Team USA is led by Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez, who carried the national flag during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Eddy Alvarez was selected by his fellow athletes to be one of Team USA's flag bearers. He won a silver medal in speed skating at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and is competing on the U.S. baseball team in Tokyo. Alongside him holding the flag was Olympics veteran Sue Bird, who is on the U.S. women's basketball team.

Sue Bird and Eddy Alvares, representing Team USA, carry the flag into the stadium.
picture alliance via Getty
picture alliance
Team USA with flag bearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez enter the stadium.

Bird and Alvarez led a team that consists of more than 600 athletes into the stadium. The team is the second-largest team in Olympic history.

Members of Team USA parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Martin Bureau/AFP
USA's delegation parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Behind The Scenes

Where’s The U.S. Women’s National Team? ⚽️

Posted July 23, 2021 at 9:52 AM EDT
A group of athletes pose before a soccer match on a soccer pitch at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Members of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team pose for a group photo prior to a women's soccer match against Sweden at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 21, 2021, in Tokyo.

You might have noticed a few famous faces missing from Team USA during the Parade Of Nations.

The U.S. Women's National Team was unable to attend the event — but for a great reason: Practice!

The team had a practice session scheduled for the same time as the opening ceremony. Their next game is tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. Eastern against New Zealand.

A Reporter's Diary

This Is One Of The Most Unique And Challenging Games Since The Modern Olympics Began

Posted July 23, 2021 at 9:46 AM EDT
A view of the emblem and the stage inside the stadium where the opening ceremony is taking place for the Tokyo Olympics.
An overview shows the Tokyo 2020 emblem and the stage ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman has covered no less than 12 Olympics before Tokyo. He's on the ground in Japan, and he's seeing how hugely different these Games are to all others. As he reported on Morning Edition this week:

"Usually, in this week before the Olympic opening ceremony, there's this buzz in the host city. There's anticipation. There are lots of visual reminders that this massive event is about to unfold. And I'm just not seeing that."

Goldman notes that some of the eeriness is related to Japanese displeasure about these Games. A lot of the polls show a majority of the public doesn't want these Olympics. And as he notes in this reflection piece, the pandemic is having a profound impact.

"Never have I been through an hours-long gauntlet of paperwork and QR codes and of course a saliva test at the airport on arrival. Never have I quarantined in a tiny hotel room for four days before getting a real view of the host city. Never have I seen in that city, once sprung from isolation, so little fanfare or physical evidence that it's about to host the globe's biggest sports spectacle."
Tom Goldman - NPR's sports correspondent

But with those difficulties comes hope, as Goldman writes: "And in those cheers for the competitors ... cheers that will come from living rooms and not the empty, lifeless Olympic stadiums ... these Games are exactly the same as they've always been."


Wait, Why Isn't The Parade Of Nations In Alphabetical Order? It Is ... Sort Of

Posted July 23, 2021 at 9:28 AM EDT
Uganda's delegation wears face masks with red, gold, and yellow outfits.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images
Uganda's flag bearer Shadiri Bwogi and Uganda's flag bearer Kirabo Namutebi and their delegation parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.

The most anticipated part of any Olympic opening ceremony is the Parade of Nations — when athletes from each competing country enter the stadium together, marching under their flag.

Cambodia's delegations wear shiny deep purple shirts and white face masks. One athlete's hands are pressed together at their mouth.
BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images
Cambodia's flag bearer Sokong Pen leads the delegation during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.

But the order may leave you confused. Iceland before Azerbaijan?

Here's what you need to know as you watch:

When did the Parade of Nations begin?
The first Parade of Nations took place at the London Games in 1908.

Canada's delegation walks behind their flag in red jackets and white pants. A few spectators can be seen in a mostly empty stadium.
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TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: Flag bearers Miranda Ayim and Nathan Hirayama of Team Canada lead their team during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

Why does Greece always enter first?
The modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896. So Greece gets the honor of ushering in the opening.

Who goes last?
The country that's hosting the Games march in last. In this case, Japan.

When does the U.S. delegation enter the stadium?
You'll have to wait a while. Japan is the last country to enter. The U.S. is the third-to-last. That's because it's a future host of the Games. And so, the order in reverse from the very end: Japan; France (the hosts of the 2024 Games); the U.S. (the 2028 hosts.)

Why don't the athletes march into the stadium in alphabetical order?
Except for the instances mentioned above, they do arrive in alphabetical order — but it's in the language of the host country. And that explains why Iceland came in before Azerbaijan.

Athletes from the Refugee Olympic Team walk behind the Olympic flag. They wear face masks with dark blue suits.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Refugee Olympic Team parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.

The Rules

Once Again, A Doping Scandal Is Preventing Athletes From Competing Under The Russian Flag

Posted July 23, 2021 at 9:25 AM EDT
A man speaking at a press conference.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
President of the Russian Olympic Committee Stanislav Pozdnyakov attends a news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, March 25, 2021.

Russia’s Olympic Committee has sent 335 athletes to the Tokyo Games, but you won’t see a Russian flag or hear the Russian anthem.

That’s because the national team is still under an official cloud amid sanctions stemming from a doping scandal uncovered in 2015. As a result, Russian athletes are still barred from competing under their flag and anthem at major international events until 2022. Instead, the 335 Russians competing will do so under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Last year Russia got the ban reduced, but not enough to clear them for the Tokyo Games. Even so, the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) found unanimously that Russia was still not complying with the international anti-doping rules.

Music by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, his Piano Concerto No. 1, will be substituted for the State Anthem of the Russian Federation, the dramatic march that is normally heard during the Olympics.


How Athletes Can – And Can't – Protest At This Olympics

Posted July 23, 2021 at 9:14 AM EDT
Three athletes on the medal podium, two holding their left hands up in a fist.
In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Protests by athletes have become common and more widely embraced in the last few years, and the Olympics has updated its rules to allow for it – with limits.

The International Olympic Committee – the IOC – put out new guidelines earlier this month about how athletes can and cannot express their views on social issues.

According to the new rules, athletes can express their views on the field of play prior to the start of competition, or during the introduction of the athlete or team. That’s as long as the gesture is consistent with the principles of Olympism, isn't targeted against "people, countries, organizations and/or their dignity," and isn't disruptive.

What's considered disruptive?

Expressions during another team's national anthem or unfurling a banner during another team's introduction, the IOC offers as examples.

Athletes are allowed to express their views when speaking to media, at press conferences, or on social media.

When it comes to clothing, the IOC will allow athletes to wear apparel with words like Peace, Respect, Solidarity, Inclusion and Equality. But phrases like "Black Lives Matter" aren't allowed, The Associated Press reports.

Protests have already taken place

Even before the official start of the Games this morning, athletes have been exercising their right to protest.

In three women's soccer matches on Wednesday, players made overt gestures against racism. Britain and Chile took a knee at their match, as did the U.S. and Sweden an hour later at theirs. New Zealand's team also knelt, while Australia's squad posed with an Indigenous flag and linked arms.


Summer Games Paralympian Medalists Will Earn The Same As Olympians

Posted July 23, 2021 at 8:49 AM EDT
Two posters, on the left the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which is blue and white with a geometric design, and the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, which features a multicolored design.
Franck Robichon/AP
POOL European Pressphoto Agency
Graphic designer Asao Tokolo's poster, left, and graphic designers group GOO CHOKI PAR's poster are displayed during a presentation event in Tokyo.

The U.S. Olympic Committee board made a decision after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games to give Paralympians a 400% increase for each medal win.

U.S. Paralympians who win medals in Tokyo will earn the same as Olympians in Tokyo, thanks to a decision made a few years ago by the U.S. Olympic Committee board.

The change came shortly after the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and was made retroactive to those Games.

In previous Olympics, Paralympic athletes had received $7,500 for every gold medal, $5,250 for a silver and $3,750 for a bronze, according to The New York Times.

But the USOC decision put them at parity with U.S. Olympians, who receive $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

The U.S. Paralympic Team took home 36 medals at PyeongChang. The retroactive increase meant medal-winning athletes from 2018 got an extra $1.2 million.

You can read about the USOC’s decision in a statement on their website from September 2018.

The Coronavirus

How Many Of The Athletes Competing Are Vaccinated?

Posted July 23, 2021 at 8:34 AM EDT

Ahead of today's opening ceremony, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's medical chief, Jonathan Finnoff, said that about 100 of the U.S. athletes who are competing are not vaccinated.

Finnoff confirmed that about 600 of the American athletes had filled out their health histories ahead of the trip. And based on that, about 83% replied that they were vaccinated.

In terms of the Olympic Village as a whole, the International Olympic Committee estimates that about 85% of residents are vaccinated. Their numbers are based on what each competing country's Olympic committee has informed them. And those number have not been independently verified.

The Coronavirus

The Opening Ceremony Featured A Moment Of Silence For COVID-19 Victims

Posted July 23, 2021 at 8:22 AM EDT
First Lady Jill Biden is seen observing a moment of silence.
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First lady Jill Biden takes part in a moment of silence during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.

A moment of remembrance was held around 20 minutes into Friday's opening ceremony, as Olympic organizers encouraged people to take a private moment to remember loved ones they've lost.

The sparse crowd of attendees in the stadium stood for the observance.

Similar moments have been held at previous Olympics — but this year’s is particularly poignant, as the world mourns millions of people who have died during the pandemic.

The moment of silence also recognized the 1972 deaths of Israeli Olympic athletes who were killed by terrorists at the Munich Games. It’s the first time the Olympics has noted that massacre during an opening ceremony.

That portion of the ceremony also brought a meditative piece of music — “Silence In The Forest” by Marihiko Hara.

Symbol Of Hope

More Than 2 Dozen Athletes Will Represent The Refugee Olympic Team

Posted July 23, 2021 at 8:16 AM EDT
The Refugee Olympic team are seen parading during the opening ceremony.
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Flag bearers Yusra Mardini and Tachlowini Gabriyesos of the Refugee Olympic Team lead their team out during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Back in 2015, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, announced the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team at the United Nations General Assembly. The aim was to bring attention to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis and to stand as a symbol of hope.

The following year, a team of 10 athletes from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo competed at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

This year, the team includes more than 25 athletes competing in road cycling, swimming, boxing, judo and taekwondo, just to mention a few.

Among them is 21-year-old wrestler Aker Al Obaidi. He's an Iraqi refugee who grew up in Mosul. He was forced to flee when ISIS began recruiting young men. After leaving his family behind and escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, he eventually resettled in Austria, where he trains seven times a week and helps coach local children. More on his journey here.

'Here Together'

The Parade Of Nations Has Begun

Posted July 23, 2021 at 8:07 AM EDT

The parade of nations is the ceremony’s longest segment — called “Here Together” in the official program.

Gamers are in for a treat: flag bearers will walk in to music made famous in video games.

But there won't be blips and boops: It's a symphonic medley.

“A parade to welcome the athletes will be set to theme songs from video games — a quintessential part of Japanese culture that is loved around the world," the program states. “Once the athletes from all the nations have entered, various-colored fireworks are fired off."

The athletes’ parade is slated to last more than two hours.

Ceremony Details

What's Happening Inside — And Outside — Olympic Stadium

Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:59 AM EDT
In this scene from the opening ceremony the flag of Japan is raised.
Maja Hitij/Getty Images,
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The Olympic Cauldron is seen as the Japanese Flag is raised during the National Anthem during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

NPR's Merrit Kennedy, Leila Fadel and Tom Goldman are bringing us the view — and the context — from Tokyo this morning.

They note that it'll be tricky to strike the right tone, given the grief and anxiety that the pandemic has caused.

"Olympic organizers are attempting to reflect that universal struggle by putting on a more subdued affair than usual, celebrating the world's top athletes coming together to compete and sending a message of hope at a time of isolation," they write.

Read their full piece here, or get highlights below.

The "Parade of Athletes"

Athletes came from around the world to compete in the Olympics and march in the opening ceremony. Their home countries are all dealing with the pandemic and have varying access to vaccines.

Highlighting Japanese arts and culture

The ceremony is chock-full of Japanese symbols and traditions, from manga and video game music to traditional wood craftsmanship and dancing.

Entering the stadium

Guests must sanitize their hands, scan their credentials and present their ticket to enter. The entrances and stairs are lined with hydrangea plants, which represent "understanding, emotion and apology." They are decorated with handwritten notes from local elementary school students.

The scene outside

Some of the Japanese fans taking photos outside the stadium are wearing surfing shirts, in a nod to the new Olympic sport.

Hundreds of Japanese protesters gathered at Harajuku station in central Tokyo to express their anger about the money and attention going to the Olympics, which they say should be put toward fighting COVID-19.

Ceremony Details

The Opening Ceremony Began By Highlighting The Role Sports Play In Times Of Trouble

Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:50 AM EDT

The opening ceremony began with an artistic display, reflecting on the isolation witnessed globally over the course of the past year.

Performers were seen on treadmills and rowing machines, highlighting how athletes had been confined to working out by themselves.

But at the same time it highlighted how sports can serve as a mechanism to unite and bring people together in times of trouble.

A moment of silence was observed to remember the lives lost during the pandemic.

Performers are seen dancing during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
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Performers dance during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Japanese Emperor Naruhito is in attendance and will formally open the Games, just as his grandfather Hirohito did in 1964.

Japan's Emperor, Naruhito, stands next to IOC president Thomas Bach.
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, stands next to Japan's Emperor, Naruhito, during the opening ceremony.

First Lady Jill Biden is also in the stadium, representing the United States.

Behind The Scenes

A Protest Against The Games Jams A Street Near The Opening Ceremony

Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:42 AM EDT
A protester holds a sign mocking the olympic rings (featuring Xs instead of the traditional rings.) While other protesters in Tokyo hold signs in the background.
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Protesters demonstrate against the Tokyo Olympics on Friday in Tokyo.

A group of masked protesters shouting slogans through bullhorns and carrying banners marched through the streets of Tokyo to the venue of the Olympic opening ceremony. They are protesting the Games being held amid the continuing threat from COVID-19.

The protesters shut down the main road near Harajuku station, close to where the ceremonies are set to be held, as police tried to keep them confined and minimize the disruption.

Coronavirus infections have been rising in Tokyo ahead of the Olympics in Japan. Tokyo has imposed strict restrictions to prevent the spread of the virus. Many Japanese questioned the prudence of going ahead with the games amid the pandemic.

The Tokyo Olympics organizing committee said Friday that 19 people, including three staying at the Olympic Village in Tokyo’s Harumi waterfront district, were added to a tally that now exceeds 100 infections for people affiliated with the games.

Meanwhile, opposition to the International Olympic Committee’s ban on podium protests has been growing, with more than 150 athletes, academics and social justice activists signing a letter to the IOC calling for changes to the rule, according to Reuters.

Keeping Score

The First Record Of These Games Has Already Been Set

Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:29 AM EDT
An archer, An San, is shown about to release an arrow during Olympic competition.
ADEK BERRY/AFP via Getty Images
South Korea's An San competes in the women's individual archery ranking round during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Friday.

The opening ceremonies are just beginning, but the first record has been shattered at the Tokyo Olympics.

South Korea's An San broke an Olympic record in archery that had stood for 25 years. She did it in the ranking round for women's archery.

Wanted To Flag This

Get To Know The Parade Of Nations Flag Bearers ... Including Tonga’s Shirtless Sensation

Updated July 23, 2021 at 9:06 AM EDT
Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:16 AM EDT
A group of athletes from Angola walk together led by their red and black flag.
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images
Angola's flag bearer Natalia Santos leads the delegation during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, at the Olympic Stadium, in Tokyo, on July 23, 2021.

While this year's opening ceremony will have a smaller crowd than most, you'll still be able to catch scores of big-name athletes on your screen — especially those serving as flag bearers for the 205 participating countries and refugee team.

This is the first year that each team is allowed one male and one female athlete to serve as flag bearers.

The parade will be in Japanese alphabetical order, though the U.S. and French teams will enter third to last and second to last as the host countries of the next two summer Olympics. Japan will be last.

Here's the full list of countries and flag bearers. Some names to know:

U.S. flag bearers Eddy Alvarez and Sue Bird

As NPR's Merrit Kennedy puts it, Alvarez is "the flag bearer you've never heard of" (read more about him here).

The first-generation Cuban American, 31, is competing on the U.S. baseball team. He won a silver medal in speed skating at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014 and is aiming to become just the sixth athlete to medal in both the Winter and Summer Games.

Alvarez was selected by his fellow athletes to be one of Team USA's two flag bearers.

The other is someone you have probably heard of: U.S. women's basketball legend and five-time Olympian Sue Bird.

Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce

The legendary sprinter has won the 100 meter final in two previous Olympics and aims to become the first woman to win three gold medals at this distance.

British rower Mohamed Sbihi

Sbihi is making history as the first Muslim to carry the British flag at an Olympic opening ceremony. He won a gold medal at the Rio Olympics.

Rui Hachimura of Japan

Hachimura, 23, became the first Japanese player ever selected in the first round of the NBA Draft in 2019, when he was picked by the Washington Wizards, for whom he still plays.

A bare-chested man with an oil-slicked chest and a woman in a traditional dress walk while carrying a red flag.
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Flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua of Team Tonga lead their team during the Parade of Nations at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium on Friday.

Plus, Pita Taufatofua and his chiseled chest are back

Tongan Taekwando athlete Pita Taufatofua first set the internet aflame at the opening ceremony of the Rio Summer Games in 2016, where he won hearts and blew minds as a bare-chested, oiled-up flag bearer.

Two years later, he competed in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as a cross-country skiier (after just 12 weeks of training in snow) and reprised his role as shirtless flag bearer once again.

He's back in Toyko to compete in Taekwando. And ... he's done it again (this time carrying the flag with fellow Taekwando athlete Malia Paseka).

Keeping Score

The Opening Ceremony Is Underway, But We Already Have Some Olympics Results

Posted July 23, 2021 at 7:00 AM EDT

The Olympic opening ceremony just screams "let the games begin." And for some events, they already have.

Countries have been facing off for the past two days in soccer, softball, archery and rowing. Notably, the U.S. women's soccer team — ranked No. 1 and the reigning World Cup champions — lost their first match to Sweden on Wednesday.

"We got our a**** kicked, didn't we. Just a little tight, just a little nervous," U.S. star Megan Rapinoe told NPR. "We had a few chances that we could have taken better that would have shifted the game quite a bit."

Read this for more on what happened and how their odds are looking now.

Here are some other stats to know, courtesy of ESPN:


A group of four female soccer players wearing white and neon yellow jerseys jump in the air as they reach for a ball on the field, in front of a row of empty bleachers.
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(From C to R) USA's midfielder Lindsey Horan, Sweden's forward Fridolina Rolfo (Top C Rear), USA's midfielder Julie Ertz and Sweden's defender Amanda Ilestedt go for a header during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games women's group G first-round match in Tokyo on Wednesday.

In women's soccer:

  • Great Britain beat Chile 2-0
  • Brazil beat China 5-0
  • Sweden beat U.S. 3-0
  • Netherlands beat Zambia 10-3
  • Australia beat New Zealand 2-1

In women's softball:

  • Canada beat Mexico 4-0
  • U.S. beat Canada 1-0
  • Japan beat Mexico 3-2


Male soccer players wearing red and yellow jerseys run towards a soccer ball, as seen from behind the net. One is sitting on the field with his leg outstretched.
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Daichi Hayashi of Team Japan has a shot saved by Ronwen Williams #1 of Team South Africa during the Men's First Round Group A match between Japan and South Africa at Tokyo Stadium on Thursday.

In men's soccer:

  • Egypt and Spain draw 0-0
  • New Zealand beat Korea 1-0
  • Japan beat South Africa 1-0
  • Republic of Côte d'Ivoire beat Saudi Arabia 2-1
  • Australia beat Argentina 2-0
  • Romania beat Honduras 1-0
  • Mexico beat France 4-1
  • Brazil beat Germany 4-2

In women's softball:

  • Australia beat Italy 1-0
Picture Show

The Pandemic Made For An Unconventional Olympic Torch Relay

Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:43 AM EDT

The opening ceremony also marks the end of the Olympic torch relay, which kicked off in northeast Japan in late March.

As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reported, "The runners will deliver not only the torch, but also Tokyo's political message that Japan has recovered from a 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, and that mankind has vanquished the COVID-19 pandemic."

Critics say it's too early to make either of those claims.

Here are some scenes from the torch's trip across Japan's 47 prefectures.

People wearing white and red uniforms stand on a a street as two individuals light aluminum torches together.
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Japanese torchbearer Azusa Iwashimizu (front right), a member of Japan women's soccer team, passes the Olympic flame to high school student Asato Owada (left) during the torch relay grand start in Naraha, Fukushima, on March 25.

A person wearing a white Olympics ski jacket, black cap and ski goggles holds the torch on a snow-covered mountain, with a row of snowboarders in the distance.
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Torchbearer Sho Endo, a freestyle skier and former Olympian, carries the Olympic torch during the second day of the torch relay at the Inawashiro ski resort in Fukushima prefecture on March 26.

Each of the relay's roughly 10,000 runners were expected to carry the torch 200 meters, or about 220 yards.

A person holding an aluminum torch smiles at the camera from the middle of the street, as a crowd of people wearing masks take photos the sidewalk.
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A torchbearer poses for photos in Fujinomiya on June 25.

Mask-wearing spectators were allowed to clap and snap photos but were discouraged from cheering.

A boat with pink lanterns carries a torchbearer, several photographers and other people through the water as spectators watch from the distance.
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A torchbearer travels on a boat called Chintoro boat, which was used in a local festival dating back to the Edo Period, during the Tokyo Olympic Games Torch Relay in Handa, Aichi, on April 6.

In fact, officials also allowed local government task forces to suspend the relay on public roads or host lighting ceremonies only if safety protocols required.

A torchbearer wearing a white uniform runs on a mostly empty road, reflected in a large puddle on the ground.
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A torchbearer runs in Susono on June 25.

Torchbearers were also asked to practice mitigation measures in the two weeks before their leg, like refraining from certain activities and submitting daily health checks.

Two people wearing white uniforms touch torches on the steps outside of a gilded building.
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Torchbearers take over at a relay point in Nikko, Tochigi, on March 29.


Athletes Are Isolated As Tokyo Reports Its Highest COVID-19 Case Count Since January

Updated July 23, 2021 at 7:41 AM EDT
Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:30 AM EDT

Today's opening ceremony is taking place at a time when Tokyo is reporting new COVID-19 cases at levels not seen since January.

Organizers reported on Friday that 19 more people associated with the Olympics — including at least three athletes — tested positive for the coronavirus in the past day. That brings the total to at least 110 people - including at least 11 athletes since July 1. Of the 613 U.S. athletes at the Games, U.S. Olympic officials said today about 100 are unvaccinated.

  • In a bulletin on Wednesday, Tokyo's government said that there is a "high risk of a resurgence of the virus." Japan's capital and other regions are operating under a state of emergency.
  • Beach volleyball player Taylor Crabb tested positive this week, becoming the first U.S. athlete set to compete in Tokyo to do so. In a post on Instagram, he said he's symptom-free but devastated to not be competing.
  • Other athlete cases have been popping up. Players on South Africa's soccer team and the Czech men's beach volleyball team have also returned positive tests.
  • This year's Olympics are defined by isolation. As NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Tokyo, the thousands of athletes participating feel walled off from the city. And the pristine new venues are empty of the tens of thousands of fans they were built to host.
  • Organizers had ordered 160,000 condoms to be handed out to athletes in the Olympic Village, but due to the pandemic, they're calling on athletes to refrain from intimate physical activity as long as they're in "the bubble."
Behind The Scenes

This Opening Ceremony Arrives On The Heels Of Several Scandals

Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:21 AM EDT
Olympic rings made of white light stand out against the dark Tokyo skyline, with a pink sunset reflected in the water.
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A number of Japanese officials and creatives involved in the Tokyo Olympics resigned in the months and days leading up to the opening ceremony.

The lead-up to the opening ceremony has been plagued by a series of personnel issues.

Yesterday organizers dismissed the show’s director, comedian Kentaro Kobayashi, over a recently resurfaced comment he made about the Holocaust during a 1998 performance. He also is facing allegations that he bullied people with disabilities.

But it’s not the only last-minute change to the anticipated event.

Composer resigns over bullying comments

The ceremony’s composer, Keigo Oyamada, resigned on Monday after facing criticism on social media for newly uncovered interviews from the 1990s in which he boasted about bullying students with disabilities while he was a student.

Oyamada, who performs under the name Cornelius — including in a 2018 Tiny Desk concert — is also resigning from the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, which begin in August.

Creative director out over "Olympig" remarks

Back in March, the then-creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies stepped down after a magazine revealed his disparaging comments about a Japanese female entertainer.

Hiroshi Sasaki reportedly suggested in a group chat with fellow performers that actor and comedian Naomi Watanabe should appear as “Olympig.”

Organizing chief's exit followed sexist remarks

Sasaki's resignation came just a month after Japan’s Olympic organizing chief, Yoshiro Mori, left his post over sexist remarks. He was replaced by prominent female politician Seiko Hashimoto.

"We are facing a lot of challenges right now," Hashimoto acknowledged on Thursday. "Maybe that's the reason why these negative incidents will impact the messages we want to deliver to the world. The value of Tokyo 2020 is still exciting, and we want to send our messages to the world."

Scene Setting

The Ceremonial Start Of An Olympics Unlike Any Other

Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:09 AM EDT
Two security guards stand midway up several rows of empty stadium seats, above a sign reading "Tokyo 2020."
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Police officers stand in the empty stands at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium ahead of the opening ceremony on Friday.

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is usually a chance for the host country to show off, and for fans to gather together to cheer on their teams.

Not this year, as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports from Tokyo.

Fewer than 1,000 people will be watching in person at the Olympic Stadium, which typically seats 68,000. Many athletes who would typically march in the proceedings will be absent. First Lady Jill Biden will be in the crowd, but other world leaders will not.

The long-awaited 2020 Olympics come as more athletes and staffers test positive for the coronavirus. Japan is under a state of emergency and seeing a rise in cases. And much of the Japanese public opposes the Games, with people protesting outside of venues.

And of course, there was drama unrelated to the pandemic, with a series of creatives leaving the opening ceremony team after facing backlash for various insensitive remarks.

While these Olympics will be unlike any other Games, they are not the first pandemic-era sporting event without cheering crowds.

As Sue Bird, basketball player and one of two U.S. flag bearers, put it:

"In some weird way I think women's basketball — men's basketball as well — from our WNBA, NBA experiences are kind of used to this bubble-like atmosphere. We did this last summer, and it was really awkward and strange at first playing a game with no crowd. And then you kind of get used to it. So I think that's kind of what we're all anticipating."

More from del Barco here.

Tune In

As The Tokyo Games Get Underway, Here's What We're Watching

Posted July 23, 2021 at 6:03 AM EDT
Skateboarder Sky Brown is pictured competing at the Women's Park Semifinal at the Dew Tour in Des Moines, Iowa.
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Sky Brown of Great Britain competes in the Women's Park Semifinal at the Dew Tour on May 21, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. The 13-year old has qualified for the Olympics skateboarding competition.

Despite the extreme logistical challenges of putting on these Olympics, thousands of athletes, journalists and officials have made their way to Japan.

With many of the world's greatest athletes competing for medals, there are a number of key things to keep your eyes on:

  • Surfing and skateboarding will make their Olympic debut. Countries with longtime surfing histories such as the U.S., Australia and Brazil are expected to do well. Meanwhile, Nyjah Huston from the U.S. is a medal hopeful in the men's street skateboarding competition. And at 13, skateboarder Sky Brown will become Great Britain's youngest Olympian. She's a medal contender in the women's park event.
  • Simone Biles is expected to dominate the women's gymnastics competition. Biles recently debuted a move that is so difficult, no other female gymnast has ever performed it in competition. The question is can other gymnasts in the all-round competition, such as Biles' teammate Sunisa Lee, Viktoria Listunova from Russia or Mai Murakami from Japan, get anywhere close to her?
  • Athletes are expected to protest, possibly at medal ceremonies. The International Olympic Committee recently relaxed its rule banning political demonstrations, but has been criticized for still not allowing any form of protest during medal ceremonies. Events have been underway since Wednesday and we've already seen soccer players from the U.S., Sweden, Britain, Chile and New Zealand take the knee.

For more storylines to watch, head here.

Tune In

How To Watch The Opening Ceremony

Posted July 23, 2021 at 5:07 AM EDT
An empty stadium in Tokyo prepared for the Olympic games. The flags from a number of world nations fly in the background.
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Rainbow Bridge stands in the distance behind Ariake Urban Sports Park on July 22, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.

For the first time, NBC will broadcast the opening ceremony live starting at 7 a.m. Eastern (and 4 a.m. Pacific!)

But for folks who want to settle in for some pageantry later in the day, NBC will air the event again tonight at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, and then again for a third time overnight, so you have plenty of chances to get in on the action.

For the rest of the games, NBC continues to have a lock on all things Olympics.

👀 Here's how to watch.