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Can't-Miss Moments From The Olympics Opening Ceremony

Performers acted out pictograms of basketball and other Olympic sports during the Tokyo Olympics' opening ceremomy.
Cameron Spencer
Getty Images
Performers acted out pictograms of basketball and other Olympic sports during the Tokyo Olympics' opening ceremomy.

Pictogram people become unlikely MVPs

One of the most striking sequences in the Tokyo Olympics' opening ceremony revolved around pictograms. Tokyo organizers have been touting their "kinetic pictograms," which show figures bursting into motion across dozens of disciplines. For Friday's ceremony, they brought all 50 of those pictograms to life.

Dressed in the stark hues of white and dark blue, their heads encased in large spheres, pictogram performers jumped on blocks and posed with props to act out the iconography as upbeat techno-pop blared in the background.

The performers are a collection of mime artists and actors who normally work either solo or in a duo, Tokyo organizers said.

"Are they the real MVPs of the Opening Ceremony?" the Tokyo Olympics Twitter feed asked.

The last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics was in 1964. That was also the year organizers debuted the Olympic pictograms.

Pita from Tonga continues his Olympic tradition

Tonga's flag bearers Pita Taufatofua (left) and Malia Paseka lead their delegation as they parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Odd Andersen / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Tonga's flag bearers Pita Taufatofua (left) and Malia Paseka lead their delegation into the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

A highly anticipated standout moment came midway through the opening ceremony, when Tonga's Pita Taufatofua once again vied to steal the show by marching into the stadium bare-chested (and well-oiled).

It's the third consecutive Olympic appearance for Taufatofua: He competed in taekwondo in Rio's Summer Games and took on cross-country skiing for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Along with Taufatofua, big-name athletes who led their delegations include Japanese NBA star Rui Hachimura and Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.

"Imagine" plays in a near-empty stadium

It's a tradition for Olympic opening ceremonies to culminate with a new rendition of "Imagine," the call for unity written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Tokyo version nourished those international roots, with artists from different continents — Angélique Kidjo, John Legend and Alejandro Sanz trading verses.

The song began quietly, with the Suginami Children's Choir singing its first lines. From there, it built into a global collaboration as stars joined in remotely. The choir, whose members range from 3 years old to university students, was formed in 1964 — the same year Tokyo last hosted the Olympics.

Naomi Osaka lights the cauldron

Tennis star Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.
Bai Yu / VCG via Getty Images
VCG via Getty Images
Tennis star Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

When the 2020 Olympic flame at last illuminated an enormous cauldron in Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, it was lit by Naomi Osaka, Japan's 23-year-old tennis superstar.

There was speculation that Osaka would have a role in the ceremony after organizers pushed her opening tennis match from Saturday to Sunday, without an immediate reason given. With the opening ceremony taking place on Friday night in Tokyo, Osaka would have had little rest before a Saturday morning match.

The Olympics will be Osaka's first competition since she dropped out of the French Open in May, after being penalized for refusing to attend post-match news conferences. She said she has suffered long bouts of depression and experiences intense anxiety when speaking with the press.

The Olympic cauldron Osaka lit is powered by hydrogen. Sitting atop a structure that recalls Japan's famed Mount Fuji, the cauldron was revealed after a huge white orb slowly opened itself, like a flower.

An athlete, alone, runs on a treadmill

The ceremony began with an artistic display reflecting on the isolation witnessed globally over the past year. Performers were seen on treadmills and rowing machines, highlighting how athletes had been confined to working out by themselves.

But at the same time, it highlighted how sports can serve as a mechanism to unite and bring people together in times of trouble.

A moment of silence was also observed to remember the lives lost during the pandemic.

"Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined," International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said. "But let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together."

Joint flag bearers (mostly) share their country's flag

This is the first Olympics where male and female athletes could share honors as joint flag bearers. That left pairs of athletes to figure out the best way to share their country's sole flag.

There were mixed results: Some did so very politely, while others seemed to compete to see who could wave the banner more vigorously. Some pairs took turns holding the flag, while others maintained joint control.

Vigorous flag-waving — and seeming moments of uncertainty — by Uruguay's Deborah Rodriguez and Bruno Cetraro Berriolo quickly set off discussions, as people wondered whether the pair might be struggling either for control or to make sure their flag was upright.

Team USA enters Olympic Stadium

Flag bearers Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez led Team USA into Olympic Stadium toward the end of the parade of nations — a spot designated not by the Japanese alphabet but by the U.S. hosting the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Alvarez won a silver medal in speed skating at the 2014 Winter Games and is on the U.S. baseball team in Tokyo. Sue Bird is a perennial star in women's basketball who is now at her fifth Olympics.

Alvarez is a Cuban-American who hopes to become just the sixth athlete ever to medal in both the Winter and Summer Games.

A drone world floats above Olympic Stadium

A drone display is seen over the top of Tokyo's Olympic Stadium during Friday's opening ceremony.
Toru Hanai / Getty Images
Getty Images
Exactly 1,824 drones were used to form the massive orb over Tokyo's Olympic Stadium during Friday's opening ceremony.

A glittering spectacle took center stage during the opening ceremony: nearly 2,000 drones moving in perfect concert to form a revolving globe as they soared over Tokyo.

Exactly 1,824 drones were used to form the massive orb, floating above the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

Remembering those we have lost

A moment of silence was held around 20 minutes into Friday's opening ceremony, as Olympic organizers encouraged people around the world to take a private moment to remember loved ones they've lost.

The sparse crowd of attendees in the stadium stood for the observance.

Similar moments have been held at previous Olympics — but this year's is particularly poignant, as the world mourns millions of people who have died during the pandemic.

The moment of silence also recognized the 1972 deaths of Israeli Olympic athletes who were killed by terrorists at the Munich Games. It was the first time the Olympics has noted that massacre during an opening ceremony.

The ceremony later featured a striking kabuki performance, which brought a serious tone to the jubilation on the field at Olympic Stadium. That juxtaposition promises to be a recurrent theme at an Olympics held in a city under a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

"This invigorating performance where tradition meets modernity contains our wish to cleanse the stadium of negative energy," the organizes said, "while offering up a prayer that all disasters and misfortunes in the world will come to an end."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
William Jones
William Jones is a Supervising Editor for Morning Edition and the Up First podcast. He's no stranger to public media, having worked previously as a reporter and producer for New York's PBS station, WNET. During his time there he was nominated for an Emmy for his piece on New York's oldest bar, McSorley's Old Ale House.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.