Muted ceremony at Tokyo Olympics in stark contrast to raucous openers from the past

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Muted ceremony at Tokyo Olympics in stark contrast to raucous openers from the past
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TOKYO — Forget the massive dance-off from the Olympic opening ceremony five years ago in Rio. The rock concert vibe from the 2012 London Games is a distant memory too.

Tokyo went with a muted approach for the kickoff of the 2020 Olympics on Friday, successfully reading the room for a polarizing Games that were postponed a year but still couldn't escape the pandemic.

Competition at the Games actually started a couple days ago, but Friday evening's ceremony (local time) served as the formal opener despite the ever-present shadow of COVID-19.

Curious locals gathered outside the venue's exterior fencing late in the afternoon, eager to soak in some of the atmosphere from afar given the proceedings were closed to the public. Protesters upset that the Games were going ahead were also nearby.

They could only watch as arriving media members and photographers posed for photos beside the famous five rings stationed near the stadium entry point.

One couldn't help but feel a tinge of regret upon entering the cavernous yet magnificent venue, which will also be used for athletics events and the Aug. 8 closing ceremony.

Dozens of flags lined the perimeter of the building, overlooking tens of thousands of empty seats.

Normally a night for locals to let loose and celebrate after years of buildup, the ceremony felt more like a dress rehearsal than the real thing since few were on hand to enjoy it.

Performances were strong, but the applause was a mere fraction of the normal level with the stands so sparsely occupied.

Audience participation was obviously a no-go this time around, but the traditional team walkout remained a highlight even without roars from the crowd.

Athletes wore masks as they strolled out in their national team kit, waving their hands and arms and trying their best to enjoy the moment, as strange as it might be.

Sporting bright red jackets, crisp white pants and grey masks, basketball player Miranda Ayim and rugby sevens player Nathan Hirayama proudly waved the Maple Leaf as Canadian flag-bearers to lead a modest contingent of 30 Canadian athletes.

Given many athletes tightened their schedules here due to limitations as a result of the pandemic, several countries had leaner participation numbers. The usual big-name star power simply wasn't at the same level.

Tennis player Felix Auger-Aliassime and badminton player Michelle Li were two of the higher-profile Canadian Olympians on hand.

Those on hand made the most of the opportunity. Chef de mission Marnie McBean clapped as she walked near the front of the pack as the Canadian athletes made their way into the cavernous venue.

The bright-eyed looks and raised cheeks gave away the big smiles that couldn't be seen behind the facemasks. Canadian IOC member Dick Pound was shown on the in-house monitors cheering on the team's entry.

"Today, the entire world will unite for the official opening of the Tokyo Olympic Games in Japan," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a release. "This is an opportunity to celebrate athletes' excellence, sportsmanship, and dedication in Canada and across the world."

Trampoline champion Rosie MacLennan carried the Maple Leaf at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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