TOKYO (Japan) – Tokyo’s streets were alive with activity on Saturday as the Olympic Games kicked off, putting some distance between the city and the shadow cast by COVID-19 and the scandal that has dogged the global showpiece in recent years.
China made an immediate statement of intent when Yang Qian won the Games’ first gold medal, and Japanese judoka Naohisa Takato lifted home hearts with a gold medal on the mat a day after the nation’s global superstar, tennis player Naomi Osaka, lit the cauldron to officially open the pandemic-delayed Olympics. Yang Qian won the first gold medal of the Games when she won the women’s judo competition. Surprise nations featured prominently in the medal table, with Iran’s Javad Foroughi winning the men’s 10m air pistol event and Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz winning the men’s cycling road race, among others.
As a result of COVID-19 protocols, fans were barred from entering all venues, but they received a firsthand reminder of the pandemic’s potential consequences when two American archers said they were competing unvaccinated because they had chosen to do so. In addition, organisers reported that another athlete had tested positive for the virus. On Friday, the selection of Osaka as the host city culminated an opening ceremony that had been devoid of glitter and held amid an eerie silence at the Osaka Stadium. In contrast to day one of ceremonies, which had a unique feel due to the absence of fans, day one of sport had a much more familiar feel due to the presence of the world’s finest athletes who ran, cycled, wrestled, and swimmed in what felt like a hankering for business-as-usual mood building.
Organisers were always going to appreciate the sight of an athlete’s eyes sparkling with delight, and 21-year-old Chinese shooter Yang provided it first, keeping her nerve in the women’s 10-metre rifle category to beat Anastasiia Galashina by a single point. The Russian crumbled under the weight of expectation on her final shot, shooting an 8.9, which was by far her poorest score of the day and the worst score of any of the finalists. “I became a little too scared and held on a little too long,” she admitted.
Yang was overjoyed, and she made a subtle allusion to her primary motivation. “It is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party,” she stated. The fact that this golden medal is a gift to my country makes me really delighted. The Japanese were also keen for victory, and Takato finally achieved it in the men’s 60kg judo competition, defeating Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei after a number of close calls. “It was difficult in Rio,” Takato admitted, recalling his performance at the previous Games, where he finished with a bronze medal. “It had been a hard journey to get here.”
The organizers hope that sport would divert attention away from the slew of embarrassing gaffes and coronavirus problems that have marred the event, which has been postponed by a year. However, the global epidemic could not be ignored, as one more athlete tested positive for COVID, increasing the total number of reported virus cases to 123.
A few days later, American archers Brady Ellison and Mackenzie Brown stated that they were free to choose whether or not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, following widespread criticism of a gold medal-winning swimmer from the United States who had denied the vaccine on social media platforms. “It is one hundred percent a personal choice, and anyone who argues otherwise is restricting people’s freedoms,” Ellison, the world’s top-ranked computer scientist, remarked on the sidelines of the tournament. Neither he nor Brown advanced past the first round of the mixed event, which is making its debut at the Olympics.
Typhoon Haiyan is another threat that organizers are prepared for. They have already revised Monday’s rowing contests in order to incorporate them into the schedule for Saturday and Sunday. However, while the rowers are looking to the skies with trepidation, surfers, who begin their championships on Sunday, should benefit from larger swells. The 3×3 basketball tournament made its debut, and First Lady Jill Biden of the United States and French President Emmanuel Macron led the ovations as the American women defeated the French women in the final.
Hend Zaza of Syria was the youngest athlete competing in Tokyo at the age of 12. However, her table tennis tournament was gone in a flash when she was defeated by Austria’s Liu Jia, before taking a selfie with her victorious opponent. Liu, who is the mother of a 10-year-old daughter, had been having trouble sleeping on the eve of the event. ‘Do you realize your mother is playing against someone two years older than you?’ I inquired of my daughter the other day. Her first answer was, “Then you best not lose!” she said.
Perhaps Japan’s “King Kohei” Uchimura could have benefited from similar guidance, but his reign as Olympic all-around champion and winner of seven Olympic medals came to a sudden stop when he failed to qualify for the apparatus final, effectively bringing his illustrious Olympic career to a close. “I couldn’t put into practice what I had learned. That’s just the way I think,” he explained.