Japan is poised to kick off the Covid-delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo as fans gather outside the main stadium ahead of the Opening Ceremony.
Plagued by a pandemic, scandals among organising officials, and strongly divided opinions among locals, Japan is nevertheless hoping that the £13billion sporting showpiece – due to begin at 8pm local time (12pm GMT) – will prove a unifying event amid difficult times.
Hundreds of sports fans gathered outside the main Olympic arena in Tokyo on Friday certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves, some dressed in traditional Japanese regalia while others posed for photos in front of the Olympics’ famous rings.
Supporters were also treated to a fly-past by the Blue Impact military display team, whose jets streaked through the sky above the stadium trailing coloured smoke.
Meanwhile Olympic torchbearers beamed as they took part in a final relay event – taking just a few steps before passing the flame instead of the usual running due to Covid rules – before the flame is taken to the main arena where it will be used to light a cauldron and officially open the Games during tonight’s ceremony.
Few know what to expect from the ceremony itself, which has been extensively re-planned since the Games were delayed from last year – coming amid a pandemic which will make traditional routines of choreographed dancers nigh-on impossible to replicate.
It will also take place in front of just 950 attendees including 15 heads of state after large crowds were banned due to Tokyo’s spiralling Covid case tolls.
Torchbearers flash V signs as they take part in the final leg of a relay even ahead of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony, when the flame will be used to light a cauldron declaring the Games open
Sports fans gather outside Tokyo’s main stadium to take pictures in front of the Olympic rings and soak in the atmosphere ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony
Olympic super-fan Kyoko Ishikawa, who has attended every Summer Olympics in the past 30 years, celebrates outside Tokyo’s main stadium as the Games finally comes to her country
Japanese display team Blue Impulse take part in an aerial show over Tokyo’s Olympic stadium ahead of the opening ceremony
Blue Impulse display jets release coloured smoke over Tokyo hours before the main Opening Ceremony is due to take place
Crowds point their cameras at the sky as jets from the Blue Impulse display team perform in the skies over Tokyo
Japanese sports fans have put aside their worries about rising Covid cases in the city to gather outside the Olympic stadium
People take photographs as jets fly over Tokyo ahead of the official start of the Olympics
Tokyo is poised to kick off its Olympic Games after a year of delays due to the Covid pandemic and despite rising cases
People stand outside the National Stadium before the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Police direct traffic and crowds outside of the Tokyo Olympics main stadium ahead of the Opening Ceremony
A woman in traditional clothing looks on from behind a fence prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games
Fans watch from outside the gates prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
People excited about the arrival of the Games stand outside the National Stadium before the opening of the Tokyo Olympics
Fans take photos with the Olympic rings prior to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
The show is expected to focus on Japan’s history as well as its contribution to modern culture and technology, though will have a less celebratory tone than previous years as it comes amid the pandemic.
A tribute to those who are suffering from or have died of Covid is expected to feature as part of the performance, though how directors choose to handle the topic of the virus is sure to be much-talked-about.
Adding a further unepected element to the performance is the fact that one of the directors – Kantaro Kobayashi – was forced to resign just yesterday after a past comedy sketch he performed that included jokes about the Holocaust resurfaced.
The Games were supposed to take place last year but organisers took a high-stakes gamble to postpone them due to the Covid pandemic, in the hopes that the virus would be under control by now.
Officials now have the unenviable task of staging the Games while the most-infectious form of Covid to date is in circulation, causing cases to rise rapidly in Japan amid fears the Olympics will become a super-spreader event.
Tokyo reported 1,359 COVID-19 cases on Friday, part of a wave of infection in the capital as the Olympic Games kick off, it’s highest one-day toll since January.
Even this slimmed-down version of the competition – with strict limits on who can stay in Athletes’ Village and crowds banned from stadiums – will see some 50,000 people gather in the largest international event since the pandemic began.
And while Covid cases driven by the Delta variant are rising rapidly in other countries – such as the UK – Japan has fully vaccinated just 20 per cent of its population, one of the lowest rates among developed countries.
But comparison, the UK has fully vaccinated more than half of its population.
That has made the Games unpopular with the Japanese public, with polls consistently showing a majority of people do not support the event going ahead and do not expect to enjoy watching.
That anger was visible on Friday as locals waving banners that read ‘NOlympics’ and ‘Cancel the Tokyo Olympics’ were pictured in Tokyo at a torch relay event.
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito delivers a speech to the guests including French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden at the Imperial Palace ahead of the official opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
French President Emmanuel Macron is pictured arriving in Tokyo ahead of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, where he will be one of just 15 world leaders in attendance
U.S. First Lady Jill Biden gestures as she arrives at Imperial Palace for a meeting with Japan’s Emperor Naruhito in Tokyo
Staff prepare the main Olympic stadium in Tokyo for the arrival of some 950 guests to watch the opening ceremony
Japanese police officers stand in an empty Olympic Stadium that will be used for the opening ceremony
Japan spent some £13billion to stage the Games including the construction of showpiece stadiums that will now largely sit empty because of Covid restrictions
The sun dips behind the top of the main Olympic stadium in Tokyo amid the countdown to the Olympic opening ceremony
But, even at the 11th hour, demonstrators furious that the event is going ahead during a pandemic and against the backdrop of rising cases in Japan gathered to call for the event to be scrapped.
There are now 110 cases of Covid linked directly to the Games after another 25 were reported Thursday, bringing the total number of infected athletes to 13 including another member of the Czech team – road cyclist Michal Schlegel.
Three members of the media were also included in the latest total – which only counts those who tested positive in Japan and not those who were diagnosed in their home countries before making the journey.
Schlegel tested positive at the team’s training base in Izu and will miss Saturday’s road race.
The Czech Olympic Committee said in a statement Friday that Schlegel is in isolation, and that Michael Kukrle and Zdenek Stybar will be its only two riders lining up at Musashinonomori Park for one of the first medal events of the Summer Games.
Czech beach volleyball players Marketa Slukova and Ondrej Perusic and table tennis player Pavel Sirucek also tested positive earlier this week.
That has prompted the Czech Olympic team to investigate whether the outbreak is linked to its chartered flight to Tokyo.
Meanwhile a series of scandals has plagued organisers, with no fewer than five Olympic officials and artists linked to the Games being forced to quit – mostly over claims of inappropriate past behaviour.
The most-recent was Opening Ceremony director Kantaro Kobayashi who was forced to step down on Thursday after an old comedy skit in which he jokes about the Holocaust came to light.
It was the third resignation just this week, after Opening Ceremony composer Keigo Oyamada was sacked over historic allegations of bullying, and children’s author Nobumi quit a cultural event related to the Games also over bullying claims.
Despite Kobayashi’s resignation, organisers insisted the Opening Ceremony – already re-planned at short notice due to Covid – would go ahead as planned.
Even on the field the Games is running into controversy amid a growing backlash against anti-protest gestures by the International Olympic Organising Committee.
The IOC has already watered down a 50-year-old rule on political gestures at the Games to allow footballers to take a knee against racial injustice before matches.
Protesters opposed to the Tokyo Olympics gather outside a torch relay venue in the Japanese capital to express their anger just hours before the Games officially begin
Polls show most Japanese do not support the Games being held during Covid, particularly as cases rise across the country with a state of emergency declared in Tokyo itself
A man holds a banner declaring ‘shame’ on ‘greedy’ Olympic organisers and athletes for pursuing ‘money and honour’ while ordinary Japanese only feel ‘despair’
Olympic organisers have vowed to push ahead with the event despite widespread opposition that has even seen some sponsors distance themselves from the Games
Protesters gather outside Tokyo’s main Olympic stadium carrying banners that demand the event is called off, just hours before it goes ahead
Protesters march outside the Tokyo Olympics’ main stadium ahead of the Opening Ceremony
Activists hold an anti-Olympics rally in Tokyo just hours before the Games are due to start
But on Friday a group of 150 athletes, academics, and social justice campaigners submitted a letter saying a ban on political gestures on podiums should be revoked.
The letter said it was adding ‘a collective voice’ to calls for amendments to Rule 50.
‘We believe the global sport community is at a turning point in matters of racial and social justice, and we call on you as leaders in the Olympic and Paralympic movements to make a stronger commitment to human rights, racial/social justice, and social inclusion,’ the letter read.
Among the signatories were Black U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were expelled from the 1968 Olympics after they bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the podium to protest racial inequality.
The Muhammad Ali Center also signed the letter, with the late boxing world and Olympic champion’s cauldron lighting at the Atlanta 1996 Games having become an iconic moment of Olympic history.
The letter called for no sanctions to be imposed on athletes who protested on the podium in Japan and demanded a review of Rule 50 after next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
British track and field medal hope Dina Asher-Smith also joined the chorus of opposition as she prepared for the Games.
‘Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right,’ she told reporters. ‘If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?’
‘When people feel strongly about something, particularly when it’s something that’s so close to your heart – and as a Black woman you think about racism – I just think you can’t police people’s voice on that.’
Members of Argentina’s men’s rugby sevens team warm up on the field during a practice at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Despite the Opening Ceremony taking place this evening, some events are already underway including shooting (pictured)
Turkey’s Mete Gazoz competes in early rounds of archery in Tokyo as the Games get underway
Margielynarda Didal of the Philippines trains during a street skateboarding practice session at the 2020 Summer Olympics
Jeremy Flores of France takes part in a surf training session at Tsurigasaki Beach, Tokyo
Russian archer COLLAPSES in scorching Tokyo heat during Olympics qualification
A Russian archer fainted in the Tokyo heat during a qualifying Olympic round on Friday as a 33C (91F) heatwave pushed coaches and staff to huddle under trees for shade.
Svetlana Gomboeva collapsed as she checked her final scores and required assistance from staff and team-mates who put bags of ice on her head to cool her down.
‘We hope that she will be okay. It turns out that she couldn’t stand a whole day out in the heat,’ coach Stanislav Popov told reporters.
A Russian archer fainted in the Tokyo heat during a qualifying Olympic round on Friday
‘This is the first time I remember this happening. In Vladivostok, where we were training before this, the weather was similar. But humidity played a role here.’
Team-mate Ksenia Perova said later that Gomboeva was recovering well and would be able to resume competition.
‘Everything is fine with Sveta now,’ she said.
With temperatures expected to peak around 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) in the archery dome on the first day of competition, athletes had challenges with hydration and staying cool as well as those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gomboeva quickly regained consciousness after collapsing but needed to be taken off on a stretcher out of the arena by medical officers.
South Korea’s Kang Chaeyoung, who came third in the individual ranking rounds, said she had not experienced anything like Tokyo’s heatwave conditions in other recent events.
Australia’s Alice Ingley had some simple advice for her fellow competitors on how to beat the heat.
‘Cooling vest, slushies, fans, umbrellas, just all that, just try to keep out of the heat as much as possible,’ Ingley told Reuters after her competition.
‘And drink water as much as possible.’
Svetlana Gomboeva (centre) collapsed as she checked her final scores and was seen to by staff