OLIVER HOLT: In a Games ravaged by loss and adversity, Naomi Osaka may prove to be the shining light

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the opening ceremony was an assault on the senses. It was breathtakingly exuberant and meticulously choreographed.

Armies of acrobats lined up in their battalions on the stadium floor of Bird’s Nest, gymnasts climbed the rafters, and row after row after row of drummers drummed out the message that this was the beginning of the Chinese century.

That was a time when the world still understood what certainty was, but that time is over. Certainty has given way to uncertainty and fear. And perhaps most of all, it has been replaced by a sense of vulnerability to species.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka is the perfect athlete to be the face of these Olympics

A ping from a Covid app is now the soundtrack of our lives. Opening ceremony big show themes like triumphalism and vanity are dead.

And so on Friday night, as athletes marched into Tokyo’s elegant Olympic Stadium, some immediately marched back out instead of hanging around lighting the flame. The brotherhood of the Olympics is one thing, but Olympians are also getting the coronavirus. Other athletes waved to spectators who weren’t there as if the gesture was a muscle memory they couldn’t shake.

It was about creating an alternate reality. If television viewers thought there were spectators, they were. This is a time when athletes applaud ghosts on empty seats and broadcasters replace the silence of unattended sporting events with the fake sound of recorded cheers. Because the silence makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us.

This opening ceremony didn’t pretend the world hadn’t changed and it was better for that. It was pitched perfectly for a delayed Games that was full of regrets before it even started. Some competitors, such as British gunman Amber Hill, did not even make it to Tokyo because of Covid. Their absence also hung heavily in the stadium.

In many ways, Osaka represents the uncertainty, melancholy and loneliness of our time

In many ways, Osaka represents the uncertainty, melancholy and loneliness of our time

Rather than triumphalism, the opening ceremony gave us the haunting image of a competitor running on a treadmill, singled out by a spotlight, all alone in the expanse of the arena floor. So much of the imagery of the ceremony was about loneliness and melancholy rather than the usual diet of relentless performance we are fed at events like these. Again, it was better for it.

And at the end of this four-hour hymn to uncertainty, loss and perseverance, a woman stood at the bottom of a staircase that led to the top of a model of Mount Fuji. Naomi Osaka had been chosen to light the Olympic flame and as she slowly climbed the stairs, her torch raised, it felt like the organizers had picked the perfect athlete to be the face of these Games.

In many ways, Osaka represents the uncertainty and melancholy and loneliness of our time. She doesn’t try to project an air of invincibility or arrogance like many of her rivals. In recent months, she has been open about her struggles with depression and self-esteem and the fears that engulf her when she stands in front of a room of journalists who want to talk to her about the state of her game.

Her life, as she tells it, revolves around obligations more than joy. Some see contradictions in her vulnerability. She withdrew from the French Open last month and missed Wimbledon because she said the thought of a series of post-match press conferences that might have played in front of 30 or 40 journalists caused her “huge waves of anxiety”.

Osaka is a heroine for a new generation for whom she emphasizes that it's okay not to be okay

Osaka is a heroine for a new generation for whom she emphasizes that it’s okay not to be okay

What others see as opposites, however, are not her opposites. As she gazes at a room of journalists, it seems as if she sees animosity and a gathering that plays on her insecurities. As she held the Olympic torch in her hand, she felt perhaps not a critical gaze, but love.

And so on Friday she climbed those stairs to the top of that model Mount Fuji, knowing that the eyes of billions of television viewers were watching her every step, knowing that they were looking down on her as she lit her torch into the cauldron-shaped like a budding cherry blossom and kindled the Olympic flame.

There also seemed to be something wonderfully fitting about that image. This is a young woman, probably the best female player in the world, a winner of four Grand Slams at the age of 23, who struggles with her insecurities so much that she felt unable to compete in the last two Majors and against the contempt of those who told her to “rise womanly.”

And yet, on what to her is the greatest stage of all, lighting the Olympic flame in her homeland, she faced all those fears and worries and climbed those steps back to the top of the mountain. Never mind that she hadn’t lifted her racket in competition: this was the Tokyo Games’ first major achievement.

“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka, who begins her quest for Olympic gold this morning at the Ariake Tennis Center, wrote on Twitter about her lead role in the opening ceremony. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have now, but I do know that I am filled with gratitude and gratitude right now.”

This opening ceremony didn't pretend the world hadn't changed and was getting better

This opening ceremony didn’t pretend the world hadn’t changed and was getting better

There were some similarities between the role Osaka played here and the fact that Cathy Freeman was chosen to light the Olympic flame before the 2000 Sydney Games. Freeman was held up as a symbol of hope for reconciliation between Australian Aborigines and the descendants of the country’s white settlers. Eight years later, the Australian government finally apologized to the indigenous people and their stolen generations.

Osaka’s place in Japanese society is more nuanced, but as the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father raised in the US, she is not immune to prejudice in her homeland. Japan is one of the least ethnically diverse nations on Earth, and Osaka’s rise and political activism have challenged prejudices about how Japanese sports stars should behave.

Her honesty about her struggles with mental health has struck a chord with many as well. A previous generation of sports stars may have believed that giving in to vulnerability would give an opponent a crucial advantage. Mental health problems were merged with weakness. That attitude was especially prevalent in Japan, where stoicism is highly valued, but Osaka has encouraged a new generation to feel “it’s okay not to be okay.”

She’s a heroine for that generation, a sports star who doesn’t want to hide in plain sight. These are the Olympics of fragility and emptiness, but by climbing to the top of that mountain, Osaka has already proved that even though there is adversity all over Tokyo, triumph has an even greater power to inspire.

Her honesty about her struggle with mental health has also struck a chord with many

Her honesty about her struggle with mental health has also struck a chord with many

Wembley’s way forward

It may be pointless to compare the supervision of a fanless event to the demands of organizing security for the European Championship final at Wembley, but it felt instructive to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Friday night and recalled how the chaos that enveloped the England-Italy match this month could have been avoided.

In Tokyo, much of the area around the Olympic Stadium had turned into a sterile zone, made inaccessible to traffic by roadblock after roadblock.

If there had been fans, those without tickets would not have come near the stadium.

The scenes at Wembley Way ahead of Euro 2020 were significantly different from those in Tokyo

The scenes at Wembley Way ahead of Euro 2020 were significantly different from those in Tokyo

It’s different at Wembley. It has come to the point where we want to celebrate the drunken chaos that takes place near the stadium before the matches.

Camera crews gather at Boxpark on Wembley Way to capture revelers tossing their beers into the air as England score.

The area around the stadium is full of shops. Until we get the will to restrict that area to cardholders, we risk more of the kind of chaos that Tokyo wouldn’t tolerate.

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