Abrahamson: How will we write the history of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

Posted at 8:11 AM, Jul 23, 2021

TOKYO — Since the dawn of time, the Olympic Games have stood for the best of us, coming together, moments when we try to bring to life our hopes and dreams. 

Destiny has offered these Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games a special calling. 

Now the question: how will we write their history?

Postponed by a year because of a worldwide pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games got underway Friday night in an island nation now wary indeed of the Olympics with a muted Opening Ceremony, one that sought to pay tribute to the millions lost to the coronavirus. For the first time at an Opening Ceremony, the IOC also formally paid silent tribute to the 11 Israelis murdered at the 1972 Games.

The stadium, which seats 68,000, held but some 950 officials and several thousand journalists. For that most limited in-person audience and, of course, literally billions worldwide watching on television, the tone Friday resolutely reflected an Olympics forging ahead despite unprecedented challenges. One scene featured a female boxer, alone, on a treadmill, a spotlight on her in the middle of the stadium —  emblematic of training alone through the darkness that was the pandemic year of 2020. 

A japanese athlete runs on a treadmill
Getty Images

Then came the contrast of the parade of nations, which — though downscaled in numbers — offered the first sparks of light: heartfelt joy and the communion of athletes.

Exuberant, the Argentinian team jumped into and around the stadium. Jamaica's Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the track star, showed out with her hair dyed bright red. The Bermuda shorts on the guys from Bermuda: fabulous in pink.

That reliable ray of sunshine, Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua, back for a third straight Games, Summer and Winter, turned up —  as usual —  shirtless and oiled up. He is due to compete Tuesday in taekwondo. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: Flag bearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua of Team Tonga lead their team out during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Pita Taufatofua led Tonga during the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremony.
Hannah McKay - Pool/Getty Images

Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis star, lit the cauldron.

As Britain’s Andy Murray, the two-time tennis gold medalist, said a few days ago, “For those that are still experiencing the worst of the pandemic and others that have lost so much over the last year, this Games can be a beacon of hope.”

Because of Covid:

All who marched Friday wore masks. 

A delegation of but 22 appeared from Great Britain, the smallest since the boycott-marked 1980 Moscow Games.

The U.S. team numbers more than 600. Fewer than half walked in the parade. Many are not here yet. 

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 23: Flag bearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvares of Team United States lead their team out during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
Eddy Alvarez and Sue Bird lead the USA during the Parade of Nations.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

With the exception of North Korea, which opted out of these Games, the parade counted every other delegation, 206, including the Refugee Olympic Team. Comoros, in eastern Africa, sent three athletes. So did Suriname, in South America. War-torn Syria sent six, including one female, tennis table player 12-year-old Hend Zana, youngest competitor at the Games.

Can the athletes, over 17 days, offer that hope, lift these Games out of their many complexities and uncertainties? 

Even the name. In opting last year to postpone — a first in Olympic history — the International Olympic Committee opted to call a Games taking place in 2021... Tokyo 2020.

Essentially, there will be no fans in any stands. How will that affect — everything? 

How many athletes, if any, will be out because of positive tests? Or contact tracing?

How, if at all, will the virus affect the medals count? Will the United States remain on top? Will the Chinese surge?

These other uncertainties, too:

The IOC has added surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing. Also: 3x3 basketball. A one-timer: karate. Back: baseball and softball. Will any prove a draw?

A player handles the ball in basketball 3x3.
Learn about the competition format for basketball 3x3.
RvS.Media/Monika Majer

Michael Phelps is out of the pool, Usain Bolt off the track. Is there a next worldwide star?

The U.S. men’s basketball team, a lock for gold since 2008— Can it happen again in Tokyo?

How many Olympic or world records, if any, will drop? What about the super-shoes in track and field? 

The loosened rules on athlete expression — how will that play out here?

As human beings, we crave what is sure. So much about Tokyo 2020 remains uncertain. 

This is sure: a year late, they are on, finally. With the spotlight on the athletes. Deservedly.