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An Olympic Opening Ceremony For An Olympics Like None Other

Police manage the crowd outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Behrouz Mehri
AFP via Getty Images
Police manage the crowd outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

TOKYO — The COVID-delayed Tokyo Summer Olympics officially begins with a parade of athletes (more than 200 of them from Team USA), waving flags and marching inside a mostly-empty stadium. It's not clear yet what else will happen during the opening ceremony which is usually a chance to showcase the host country and inspire pride from countries throughout the world.

But these are no ordinary Games, with strict restrictions in place to try to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Even things behind the scenes are strange: just days ago, the ceremony's creative director and musical composer were both fired.

Kentaro Kobayashi, a former Japanese comedian and manga artist, was ousted from his post directing the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced his resignation after news reports surfaced that in 1998, Kobayashi and his comedy partner had parodied a Japanese children's TV show. In a skit, he reportedly held up small paper dolls and joked "Let's play holocaust."

Tokyo 2020 president Hashimoto Seiko announced Kobayashi's dismissal, and read aloud a letter of apology he penned. Kobayashi wrote that he realized he had made a mistake in his act, and that he had decided to aim for laughter that does not hurt people. In his more recent stage shows, Kobayahi's comedic stylings have included pantomiming on stage sets that resemble animated sketch drawings.

His dismissal was just the latest in a saga in what some are calling a "cursed Olympics." In March, Kobayashi replaced the ceremony's previous creative director Hiroshi Sasaki, who resigned for offensive comments he made. Japanese news reports cited his private conversations suggesting that plus-sized celebrity Naomi Watanabe dress as a pig for the opening ceremony to play the role of an "Olympig."

Fans of NPR's Tiny Desk concerts may have seen Keigo Oyamada, known as Cornelius, performing for the network in 2018. Cornelius had composed music for the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics. But earlier this week, he also stepped down from his role over his past comments. In the 1990's, Oyamada was quoted in magazines "Rockin' On Japan" and "Quick Japan" confessing that as a student, he wrestled down and humiliated his disabled classmates.

Cornelius tweeted an apology, but the Tokyo organizing committee soon accepted his resignation.

There's no telling yet how any of these scandals will affect the opening ceremony. The motto of the event — and the Tokyo Olympics — is "United by Emotion." U.S. women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe mused as to what emotion that may refer to.

"It could be a collective grief from the pandemic that's still obviously raging in a lot of parts around the world," Rapinoe said. "It could be relief in finally getting to do things again, and hopefully, you know, a sense of joy in having something to do and something to watch."

And the board chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Susanne Lyons, put it this way: "I think it's gonna be a delayed gratification for everyone if all goes the way we hope and expect that it will... The memory of these Games is not that it should be the COVID Games, it should be that it is the Games that really showed the world the resiliency of humanity, that gave hope at a time when the entire world needs hope."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.