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Home Sports Closing Ceremony Highlights: Tokyo Fetes Olympic Athletes With Music and Spectacle

Closing Ceremony Highlights: Tokyo Fetes Olympic Athletes With Music and Spectacle


The Olympic flame was extinguished at the end of the closing ceremony.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

TOKYO — A most unusual Olympics ended with a fitting closing ceremony: the usual speeches, performances, parades and tributes played in front of tens of thousands of empty seats.

For the past two-plus weeks, the athletes performed, often at the top of their games, and records and hearts were broken. And on television around the world, it may not have looked so unusual.

But on the ground there was an undeniable feeling of absence. An absence of cheering fans in the seats, an absence of parents embracing their medal-winning children, an absence of the buzz that takes over Olympic cities, which makes taxi drivers, hotel clerks and other residents want to eagerly talk handball or table tennis with each other or a visitor from another country.

Save the masks on the participants, the closing ceremony mostly avoided the coronavirus pandemic. I.O.C. President Thomas Bach did laud the athletes for providing “hope” during dark times.

But for the most part, the familiar elements played out as if nothing was different. Flags were raised and lowered, anthems were sung, speeches were made and the flame was doused with everyone playing their parts as if nothing were wrong, with the Olympic movement or the world.

The entertainment included the familiar — dancers and jugglers. It included the representative — drumming on a huge taiko. And it had the unexpected — a ska band. For pandemic-related reasons many segments that might normally have involved scores of costumed cavorters in the stadium were shown on video.

When the Olympic cauldron was extinguished, the organizers quickly moved to a highlight reel for the Paralympics, which begin on Aug. 24, and some fireworks.

As usual, there was a segment devoted to the next Olympics host. But this year, the video peek at Paris 2024 offered not only a sense of excitement about the next Games on the horizon. It also speculated that maybe, just maybe, there will soon be a Games that will be about running and jumping rather than testing and quarantining.

Love Rina Sawayama and Elton John singing “Chosen Family” Read more about Rina here.

Four years ago, the Rio Games ended with a dance party on the floor of the stadium that went on for a while after the cameras turned off. Now, people are filing out quickly to somber music like the end credits of a feel-good flick.

Arigato, thank you, says the giant screen. The athletes stroll off in a straggling, haphazard end to one of the strangest Olympics of the modern era.

The flame is extinguished with prayerful motions for those no longer with us, an allusion, surely, to the toll of this pandemic.

“Passing on a legacy to future generations” is the theme of this musical number. Japan is a shrinking and aging country in which the government has not been able to adequately convince women to raise the fertility rate.

The applause to thank the volunteers was much more hearty than the applause for Bach’s line: “We did it — together!”

“We did it,” Bach said. In this pandemic era, that’s an accomplishment.

Thomas Bach during his closing ceremony speech.
Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

In the run-up to and throughout the Games, organizers repeatedly touted the Games as “safe and secure,” and described athletes and others within the Olympic bubble as the “most tested community almost anywhere in the world.” Thomas Bach echoed that sentiment at the closing ceremony, making reference to the coronavirus pandemic and saying that the athletes gave people hope.

All told, 436 people related to the Olympics — nearly two-thirds of whom were residents of Japan — tested positive for the virus since early July. According to the Tokyo organizing committee, only three of the Olympics-related patients ended up in the hospital, and none of them needed intensive care and have already been released.

But since the Games opened on July 23, daily cases outside the bubble in Tokyo have more than tripled. The number of people requiring ventilators has started to tax the city’s medical system. Some experts have said that by hosting the Games, the organizers tacitly gave the general public the impression that things were normalizing and that it was acceptable to go out and engage in behaviors that might have led to the increase in infections, particularly as the vaccine rollout in Japan has been much slower than in other affluent nations.

Thomas Bach refers to the pandemic but tells the athletes that they gave millions hope. He also thanks the Japanese people, a majority of whom did not want the Olympics held here.

Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Olympic committee, giving thanks to everyone who helped make the Olympics a success and reminding everyone that Tokyo still has its work cut out for it: the Paralympics is next.

During the opening ceremonies, there was no sign language interpreter projected on the jumbotrons. After an online backlash, this time there are interpreters while both Seiko Hashimoto and Thomas Bach have spoken.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

From taiko drumming and Harajuku street fashion to J-pop hits and Ainu dance, the closing ceremony incorporated Japanese cultural touchstones that were almost entirely missing from the opening ceremony.

In some ways, this celebration of Japan, on the final day of the Olympics, also marked what was lacking from these Games: the intersection of whimsy and solemnity that makes Tokyo so special.

Japan has a knack of taking traditions from outside and making them its own, whether it’s baseball or baked goods. Add to that ancient customs that thrived on an island chain that kept itself secluded for centuries.

Athletes and other members of Olympic squads were kept from Tokyo for fear of infecting a city grappling with record coronavirus cases. Fair enough. At least with the closing ceremony, they got a hint, “chotto,” as we say in Japanese, of Tokyo’s magic.

In the days when Juan Antonio Samaranch was president of the Olympic Committee, tea-leaf readers would closely parse his comments: If he specifically called a Games the “best ever,” it meant he liked it. If he merely said it was “a great Games” or somesuch, he was disappointed. Here’s Thomas Bach to weigh in on a most unusual Games indeed.

The moment of remembrance was commemorated by a dancer and a taiko drummer.
Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

The moment of remembrance in the closing ceremony was commemorated by a dancer and a taiko drummer rather than the more conventional moment of silence. During the opening ceremony, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, specifically honored athletes who had died in previous Olympics, including the Israeli athletes killed during a terrorist attack at the Munich Games in 1972.

A pointed omission in the closing moment was any mention of the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whose 76th anniversaries passed this week without any mention by the Olympic organizers. Civic leaders and survivors had appealed to Bach to observe a moment of silence on Aug. 6, the date of the U.S. dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. But the I.O.C. declined to do so, saying that it would not single out any particular country but would offer a moment of silence during the closing ceremony to cover all past tragedies.

Survivors were particularly galled by this decision given that Bach had visited Hiroshima before the Games.

“At the Olympic Games, a festival for peace, there should be no objection for everybody involved to have a silent prayer for the many lives lost by the atomic bomb and the victims of war,” said Toshiyuki Mamiki, acting chairman of the Japan Confederation of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferers Organization.

“President Bach took the trouble to visit the atomic bombed area of Hiroshima and saw the museum, to realize the disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons. As someone who has seen Hiroshima, I believe the least that can be done is to in some shape or form, acknowledge to the world what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Every closing ceremony also looks ahead, to the next Games in four, or in this case three years.

After a healthy dose of Japanese music and dance, Paris was given the floor for 10 minutes or so. Because bringing a host of performers from Paris to Tokyo would have been a daunting prospect, the presentation relied almost entirely on film — an unusual move for the closing ceremony.

First came videos with the familiar romantic sights and rooftops of the city that have helped sell it as a site for honeymoons, school trips and major sporting events for generations.

France has never been afraid to use the Eiffel Tower for marketing purposes, and the show ended with a segment from the famed monument with a cheering crowd — packed uncomfortably close, perhaps — on the Champs de Mars.

And a jet flyover and break dancing, which will debut as a sport at the Paris Games.

The Olympics athletes who had to return home early from Tokyo are helping with the Olympics handover.

France is definitely seeking the youth vote with this video.

If I were younger it would be a life goal to play a saxophone in space.

Ask our friend Dodai Stewart — it’s never too late!

The flute mutes the martial, rousing quality of La Marseillaise.

I guess Super Mario will not be returning to hand over the Olympic flag. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared in Rio de Janeiro dressed as the video game character to accept the flag back in 2016.

That really was the best moment of the 2016 closing ceremony for me.

It was. And an excellent example of one of the icons of Japanese soft power that were puzzlingly absent from the opening ceremony.

Tomotaka Okamoto, a soprano who sung the Olympic anthem, has his amazing hair in the grey purplish color that is very popular in Harajuku salons these days. I think they call it “ash.”

Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo governor who happens to speak English and Arabic, is wearing a traditional kimono.

Obon isn’t a sad holiday. There’s an element of celebration in the festivals that happen all across Japan at this time of year, but watching the Obon dance in this empty stadium is a stark reminder of the losses that the world has experienced over the past year.

The Canadians are gamely trying to replicate the bon odori moves.

Modern enka, Japanese ballad music, was one of the soundtracks of the go-go 1980s, when Japan was developing into the world’s second-largest economy.

We’re moving into some traditional dance. A nod to the Japanese festival of Obon, which is held each year in late summer to honor the spirits of the dead.

Obon starts on Friday.

In a normal year, people would be heading home around this time to spend time with their families.

The Akito bon odori dance reminds me of my childhood visits to my grandmother and going to a local park for some dancing, water filled balloons and trying to capture a goldfish in a little plastic pool

An interpretive dance representing the Ainu people takes center stage. The Ainu are Japan’s indigenous people and faced centuries of persecution. Only a handful of people who speak an Ainu language are left in the world.

Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

If you hit the taiko wrong you can break your arm. Maybe it should be a new Olympic sport.

OK, taiko was what was criminally missing from the opening ceremonies. There is nothing like these massive drums to get your blood moving.

A volunteer cleaning a bench during one of the karate events.
Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

At every Olympics, thousands of volunteers serve as the glue that hold the Games together, driving official vehicles, fetching water, carrying Olympic medals. This time in Tokyo, they were also among the most visible and plentiful presence in the venues that were shorn of spectators.

Their tasks were myriad: wiping perspiration from table tennis tables, fetching soccer balls kicked over the goal into empty stadium seats, sweeping the gym floor during basketball games.

Sumika Yoneda, 22, who was responsible for leading press photographers into the so-called moat of the National Stadium for athletics events, was shocked by how fast the photographers would run to get a picture when an athlete fell on the track. “It was so surprising to me at first, thinking about the athletes’ feelings,” said Yoneda, who was on duty at the closing ceremony. “That’s not the first thing I would do, but I guess that’s the job of a photographer.”

Journalists in general seemed to surprise the sensibilities of the volunteers. Journalists “are very strong minded,” said Rachel Leng, 31. They “are very creative with trying to sneak into the media seats even if they don’t have the proper ticket — they’ll try to hide their badges, or some will come in once and then leave and give their credential to a colleague that doesn’t have the right to be in the space and try to pass it off as themselves, it’s been a mess!”

Now a tribute to the thousands of Olympic volunteers. certainly appropriate given how hard they work, often at thankless tasks. On the other hand, there is the thorny question of why an organization like the I.O.C., which is swimming in television money, relies on unpaid labor at all.

Whenever an agenda says “the next protocol element is …” you know you may not be in for riveting stuff. It turns out we’re going to be introduced to some new members of the athletes’ commission of the I.O.C.

We’ll see in about 13 hours, but this is generally a moment when broadcasters say, “And we’ll be right back.”

One of the loveliest moments of the Olympics was when marathon silver medalist Abdi Nageeye waved his friend and bronze medalist Bashir Abdi to the finish line.

As the medalists for the men’s and women’s marathons are honored, it’s worth noting that several countries scored their first medals at these Games. The Philippines won its first gold medal, courtesy of Hidilyn Diaz in women’s weight lifting. San Marino won not only its first but also its second medal, entering the history books as the smallest country to score a podium finish. Bermuda struck gold in the women’s triathlon, making it the smallest nation to win gold in the Summer Games.

Burkina Faso won its first medal, bronze in men’s triple jump. Turkmenistan also gained its first medal, silver in women’s weight lifting.

“It’s unbelievable,” Diaz, the Philippine lifter, said after her surprise triumph in the 55 kilogram weight lifting division. “I never thought this would happen today.”

Kenya, like other parts of Africa and Asia, is suffering from a devastating wave of coronavirus cases. One wonders what some of these athletes will face when they return home.

Molly Seidel was a surprise medalist to some. She looks suitably thrilled.

The top marathon finishers traditionally get their medals awarded as part of the closing ceremony. In the past it has just been the men’s marathon, but the women get to be part of the show as well this year.

So here’s to Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands, Bashir Abdi of Belgium. And Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei of Kenya and Molly Seidel of the United States.

Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Anthem time! All rise for Greece, the founder of the Games, way back in 776 B.C. (and again in 1896 A.D.).

It’s hard not to feel wistful that most of the Olympic visitors did not get to see this side of Tokyo in real life. And the thousands of people who wanted to be here to see it, but could not.

Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

Olympics Stadium is just a short walk from Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, a massive green space in the city center famous for its people watching opportunities. Despite the pandemic and the brutal summer heat, it has been full with its usual characters — e.g. a rockabilly dance troupe that appears every weekend — and a steady stream of Tokyoites engaged in typical park activities from jogging and picnicking to yoga and impromptu musical performances.

But coronavirus restrictions have stopped athletes from visiting the park or any of the city’s other famous tourist destinations. To make up for the missed opportunity, organizers have created a faux park inside the stadium, complete with fake grass, soothing light effects and buskers. The organizers said that the setup is intended to give athletes a taste of the city that they never got to experience: “Just like a Sunday afternoon at a park in Tokyo.”

Not quite: park goers were dressed in pastel ponchos and a ska band blasted out a brassy soundtrack as athletes milled around the field taking selfies. But for most of the participants in this year’s Olympics, this ersatz park will be the closest they get to experiencing the real thing. The rules require they head home 48 hours after their event ends, and there are no opportunities for tourism.

There have been a handful of exceptions, though: two Georgian athletes had their credentials revoked after Japanese media reported that they had been seen taking photos at Tokyo Tower. They had already finished their event.

Hearing Milet sing “Hymne à l’amour” is making me long to get back to a small Tokyo jazz bar with some live music.

Credit…Alexandra Garcia/The New York Times

A reminder that Japan is also a syrupy ballad capital. With a proper back beat.

Hannah — indeed. And they love old jazz standards sung in a torchy way.

Motoko, absolutely true. What makes Tokyo so special is the serendipity of the streets, one moment all neon and noise, the next moment hushed and reverential at a shrine or perfectly shaped topiary.

Even through the pandemic, Tokyo has been incredible. It’s a shame it wasn’t given more of an opportunity to share itself with the world.

That brief interlude from DJ Matsunaga was awesome. He apparently won the world’s biggest DJ competition in London in 2019.

And a great reminder of how popular turntablism is in Japan (like so many countries). I hope the French organizers are taking cues from this…

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