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Commentary: Toned-down Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony can set new standard for future games

The hope is the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony will be a humble reminder of what the games are truly about rather than a wasteful display of pomp, says John Duerden.

Commentary: Toned-down Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony can set new standard for future games

The Olympic torch is being carried on a nationwide relay across Japan. (Photo: AFP/Philip FONG)

SINGAPORE: One of the high points of interest in every Olympic Games has been its opening ceremony.

Speculation over what the host nation might showcase in its lead-up is part of a familiar tradition.

Perhaps this is where the 2020 Olympics may differ from all that have gone before - not least because it is taking place a year late.  

The mood is also poor, with the global pandemic still raging, a reported 80 per cent of the Japanese opposed to the games taking place at all and with few people to be present in the National Stadium.

Many observers are therefore expecting the event on Friday (Jul 23) to be a toned-down version of the planned original. This may just be a step in the right direction.

A Brazilian dancer performs on stage for Australia's Olympic athletes at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, August 29, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed)

Opening ceremonies were conceived to be exactly that according to Rule 55 of the Olympic Charter.

These regulations simply stipulate that the head of state of the host nation should declare the games open, the Olympic oath should be taken with the final leg of the Olympic torch relay and there should be a lighting of the flame to signal the  official opening of the games with athletes from all competing nations having a chance to wave hello to the fans.

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A massive performance however have grown over the years to become the main focus as nations turn the opening ceremony into a vehicle for soft power and seek to show off.

Once a humble parade marked mostly by ceremonial, procedural elements, the start of the modern ceremony, now a blockbuster, crowd-pulling presentation drawing attention to the host nation’s vision of the Games, is thought to have been birthed in Los Angeles in 1984.

Perhaps fittingly for the home of Hollywood, there was glitz, glamour and jetpacks, with the show elements preceding the ceremony for the first time. In a way, the opening reflected the spirit of the Cold War times, hosted by a US that did not want to be outdone by its ideological and strategic rival, the Soviet Union, which had hosted the last edition just four years earlier.

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Regardless, it started a series of one-upmanship as host cities looked to raise the bar on each subsequent opening ceremony.

That dynamic reached a crescendo in 2008 when Beijing reportedly spent over US$100 million on an incredible ceremony that featured over 15,000 performers, special effects and an amazing display of fireworks. The brainchild of world-famous film director Zhang Yimou, the event was seen by the rest of the world as China’s coming-out party, a declaration of its status as a powerful force in the world.

London four years later was less extravagant - and came in at less than half the price - but the madcap performance encapsulating a commentary on the world’s collective social and cultural history created by famed director Danny Boyle was still pretty insane.

Rio’s effort in 2016 was a return to a more traditional theme, though it was modestly done compared to Beijing, partly due to the poor economic situation in the country at the time. It also earned praise for drawing attention to the environmental threat to the Amazon rainforest and the general issue of climate change.

Artists perform during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. (Photo: AFP/Thomas Coex)


Many sports journalists who go to the Olympics to cover the various competitions regard the opening as having little or nothing to do with sport. Increasingly, these ceremonies are more about sending a message to an audience - whether domestic, international or both. 

They have become more about national branding. This is understandable in business terms. According to reports, around 900 million people around the world watched London’s effort in 2012.

If indeed, as Esquire columnist Stephen Marches said earlier that year, one second of advertising at half-time in the Superbowl, American football’s showpiece game, that attracts a much smaller international audience, cost around US $116,000, then the US$40 million that London paid for its show is money well-spent.

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The city and Great Britain could advertise themselves to much of the world for three or four hours for a bargain price. Even China’s relatively expensive ceremony still offered huge value for money in public relations terms.

It could be argued that these are the perks that cities deserve when they shoulder the costs of organising a massive sporting extravaganza.

Staging the games after all costs money. When Tokyo bid in 2013, its announced budget was about US$7.5 billion. That figure had grown to US$15.4 billion in December, with reports the true total cost is over US$26 billion.

The Olympics is however a global sporting event upholding the values of sportsmanship and excellence, and the ceremony should promote that.

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Moreover, a costly opener can come at a great opportunity cost to the host nation.  After the excitement had worn off, UK newspaper The Guardian questioned the legacy of the games when sports education funding in public schools four years after had declined and PE classes cut. 

Well-funded private schools with their top-quality sporting facilities and highly qualified coaches will continue to dominate competitive sport, concluded education correspondent Sally Weale.

Callum Skinner of Great Britain celebrates after winning the race and setting a new Olympic record in 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Matthew Childs)


With no pressure to impress, Tokyo has a chance to change mindsets. The original opening ceremony would have been spectacular, with Super Mario, Hello Kitty and manga classic Akira set to make appearances in a dazzling display of technology, lights and animation, as Japanese news outlets predict.

The 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony, in which Japan’s teaser hints at many of these pop culture elements suggest the same themes will likely be employed, but nobody really knows what the scaled-down version will look like.

If anything, Japan could afford to take a leaf from Rio’s opening ceremony – a financially modest but critically well-received display. Instead of the pomp and grandiose performances that have characterised London 2012, Beijing 2008 and even Athens 2004, Rio’s humble but moving display of uniting in saving the Earth won praise.

And so it is hoped that Friday’s ceremony in Tokyo will signal that continuation of a return to basics, a return to when the opening ceremony was simply that, an official start to the sports rather than an end in itself.

With the global economy still in the midst of a global pandemic, a less-is-more approach would surely be welcomed and be in tune with a simpler approach going forward.

“Legacy” is an overused word in sports but getting the opening ceremony right is a small but powerful chance for Tokyo 2020 to leave something tangible.

John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).

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Source: CNA/sl