Opening Ceremony Barred Fans But Volunteers Saw it Up Close
TOKYO – Norie Kosaka knew not to hope. A volunteer at the Olympics, she had been assigned to work during the opening ceremony on Friday night and naturally assumed she would be among the workers placed outside the Olympic stadium or hidden in a distant hallway.
Instead, her supervisors informed her that she would be stationed inside the lower bowl of booths, a few rows away from the multi-hour glittering extravagance. Her heart swelled.
“They said to me, ‘You can watch a bit,’” she said of her bosses. “So I was very happy. “
Kosaka’s job was to watch one of the seats and she took it seriously. But a few glances would be OK, she thought. She smiled and showed her face.
“I want to put it in my memory,” she said.
Kosaka, 54, a bank manager in Tokyo, was one of the few locals who even got the chance to do so.
Fans have been excluded from the Olympics this year due to the pandemic. As a result, the 68,000-seat stadium was nearly empty of spectators on Friday night. An endless number of vacant seats formed a dark backdrop to the multicolored spectacle unfolding in the infield in front of her.
The crowd that had access to it was small and exclusive: sports sponsors and officials, dignitaries and journalists, no party representing the populist spirit of the fandom that the Olympic Games claim to represent.
“I’m lucky,” Kosaka said. “I wish more people could see this.”
She was wearing gray athletic pants, sneakers and a face mask. On the small shoulder bag were a handful of Olympic pins.
And in the hall behind her, there were signs of what could have been: signs to direct the crowds that would never materialize; concessions with lowered shutters; sprawling bathrooms in total darkness; with fans banned, no one bothered to turn on the lights.
Many in Japan would have preferred the Games not to be open at all. Outside the stadium on Friday, hundreds of protesters raised their opposition, their voices and noise makers filling the brief silences of the ceremony.
Kosaka’s feelings on the stages in front of her were convoluted, difficult to fully decipher. His bursts of excitement were cut off with a twinge of heart.
“I’m so sorry they can’t be here,” she said of the tens of thousands of fans who had planned to attend. “I would feel more proud to be here, proud to be a volunteer, if everyone was allowed in.”
She pinched her light blue uniform and explained how anxious she had started on the streets of Tokyo on the way to work.
“I’m a little scared to wear this because some anti-Olympic person might attack me,” Kosaka said. “But I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to support the athletes.
Public polls throughout the year showed that the majority of Japanese wanted the Games canceled or postponed.
On Friday, protesters gathered outside the stadium chanting slogans denouncing the event. Whenever the booming music of the ceremony faded, the sounds of horns and the screams of activists echoed from the bleachers inside. They marched around a sign that read “Stop the Five Rings”.
But others, even though they were barred from entry, were just anxious to be close to the marching band. Yoka Sato, 28, arrived three hours before the ceremony with her boyfriend to claim a seat on a bench near the stadium gates. “I came to see the fireworks,” she said.
Phuong Thai, 28, an architect living in Tokyo, had signed up to work as a volunteer to have a “once in a lifetime experience” and absorb what she presumed to be an electric atmosphere. Instead, she lingered outside the stadium for a sleepy shift that mainly involved traffic control for the pack of international journalists. She said she hoped people could make the most of a bad situation, but found it hard to do it on her own.
“I feel a little sad, actually,” she said.
Kosaka said she was forced to volunteer after hearing stories about the Olympics from her friend Erick Wainaina, a marathon runner who won a bronze medal for Kenya at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He told her about the noise, the color and the excitement. (Kosaka is an avid runner herself, and she said she and Wainaina went to the same massage therapist when they met almost 15 years ago.)
She quickly became obsessed with participating in the Games. In 2018, she asked her boss if she could take 10 days of leave to work as a volunteer. In 2020, when the Games were postponed, she created an Instagram account where she positioned minifigures in intricate Olympics-related poses to face the void.
So it was with an added sense of appreciation that Kosaka watched the intricate dance numbers and the endless parade of athletes through the sweltering night air.
“I’m lucky to be here and I’m lucky to be healthy,” she said. “I have to think about the people who can’t be here.
Sometimes captivated by these scenes, she stood on her tiptoes to take pictures with her phone, sat down and then quickly stood up to take more.
Emotions – pride, guilt, excitement, grief – combined to overwhelm her as she stood listening to Japan’s national anthem, watching the performers hoist the country’s flag.
“I felt tears fall,” she said, running a finger across the skin over her face mask. “It was the most beautiful Japanese flag I have ever seen.”
Hikari Hida contributed reporting.
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