Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony to Skip Usual Razzle-Dazzle

TOKYO—The opening ceremony of the Olympics on Friday is set to look and feel very different from the bustling celebrations that opened previous Games, with no crowd, no special effects and no stadium-wide synchronized dancing.

Only about half the athletes competing at the Games will be there.

Still, planners are hoping to hold the attention of the global television audience with celebrations of Japanese culture, sparks of humor and the traditional, though reduced, “parade of nations” featuring athletes from more than 200 countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic hangs over everything Olympic-related, with the opening ceremony happening after a year’s delay. Athletes such as U.S. tennis star Coco Gauff have had to withdraw because of infection. The theme of the opening ceremony is the goal of getting life back to normal.

“It will be a very, very sober ceremony, meaning very little cast and no mass choreography because Covid can’t allow it,” said Marco Balich, a senior adviser to the executive producer of the ceremony.

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“It will focus on the athletes and their difficulties because of the pandemic,” he said. “It is far from the pace and the flamboyant style that in the Western world we perceive as spectacular.”

Differences will be immediately obvious in the ceremony, which starts at 8 p.m. Friday local time at the National Stadium in Tokyo, or 7 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S. Fewer than 1,000 people—organizers, Olympics officials, dignitaries and others—are set to attend in a stadium that can seat almost 70,000.

Among those watching will be first lady Jill Biden and Japan’s Emperor Naruhito, who will declare the opening of the Games, though he is expected to avoid the word “celebrate” in deference to the pandemic.

The lack of people in the stands will likely be jarring for the athletes as they march into the stadium grouped by country.

“Normally, the thrill is seeing all the people in the stadium when you enter, and waving to friends and family,” said Matt Suggs, chief executive of USA Shooting.

There will also be fewer people in the parade. Around 5,000 to 6,000 athletes are expected to join, down from more than 10,000 in the opening ceremony in Rio in 2016. The U.S. group is set to be around 260, less than half of the 613 athletes in Team USA, according to a U.S. sports official.

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Athletes are free to join, but under Covid-19 restrictions they have been told not to arrive in the Olympic Village sooner than five days before the start of their competition. That means those who are competing later during the Olympics may not be in Japan for the ceremony.

Most coaches and officials have been asked not to take part in the parade. Athletes typically mingle together in the center of the stadium during Olympic opening ceremonies, but they have been told to keep to social-distancing guidelines this time and wear masks.

The ceremony was briefly thrown into crisis on Thursday when the director of performances was fired because of a joke he made in the 1990s about the Holocaust. The organizers of the Games later confirmed the ceremony would go ahead without any changes.

A leaked draft of a plan for the ceremony before the pandemic took hold showed it might feature Japanese pop culture, including manga, or cartoon, characters. Planning for the ceremony started from scratch when the Games were delayed by a year.

Mr. Balich, who was the executive producer for the opening ceremony in Rio, said the artistic feel of the Tokyo ceremony would be based around Japanese minimalism.

“There are no smoke and mirrors, no super special effects,” he said.

It won’t all be solemn and reflective, though.

“There will be some funny Japanese moments for the athletes. Minimal funny, but really funny. There will be joy towards the end,” Mr. Balich said.

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