The embattled 2020 Tokyo Olympics—pushed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic but still bearing last year’s branding—looks to finally kick off this Friday in Japan. The historic sporting festival is scheduled to commence after more than a year in limbo, even as its organizing chief declined to rule out an eleventh hour cancellation as recently as Tuesday.
Its rocky, controversial road to the opening ceremony is the first sign that these games will be dramatically unlike those past. Here are some of the ways:
Perhaps the most stark of differences is Tokyo’s stadiums, built to house tens of thousands, will be nearly devoid of people, save the lone athletes at their centers and a smattering of socially distanced team members and journalists.
The handful of authorized spectators will be asked to simply clap, and refrain from shouting or cheering. Signs will be posted imploring: “Clap, do not sing or chant.” Rules aside, there will not be enough of them to form a rowdy crowd.
No handshakes or high fives
Sportsmanship has long been a hallmark of the storied Olympic tradition, but this year, it will have to be conveyed by other means. Perhaps the handshake’s pandemic cousin, the germ-evasive elbow bump. Or a thumbs-up.
Athletes in isolation
In past years, Olympic athletes enjoyed roaming their foreign host cities—discovering popular tourist sites, viewing national landmarks, tasting local foods, and being spotted as celebrities about town. This year, that’s out of the question. Athletes are effectively quarantined for fear of contracting COVID-19 before one of the most consequential performances of their lives. Some reportedly take all meals in their hotel rooms, and leave only to be shuttled to and from practices.
A pared back opening ceremony
Tokyo’s opening ceremony, which takes place Friday at 8 p.m. Japan time, will be sparsely populated, with only 950 stakeholders as an audience (compared to roughly 75,000 spectators for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro). Much of the ceremony will be prerecorded, including the bulk of the artist showcase. The heralded Parade of Nations, in which competing athletes march into the arena waving flags of their countries, will boast a new addition to its uniform: stylish face masks designed to match the athletes’ tracksuits.
Face masks, everywhere
It’s not just the opening ceremony: Expect to see masks in abundance—on officials, volunteers, referees, and athletes when not eating, drinking, or competing. Aside from that, the only figure you will probably see unmasked is Japan’s Olympic mascot, Miraitowa.
Contactless medal ceremonies
In order to make the games as contactless as possible (for an event that celebrates dozens of contact sports), the hallowed Olympic medal ceremonies will see athletes grace themselves with golds, silvers, and bronzes—plucking them off trays held by gloved and sanitized volunteers and slinging them around their own necks. In case you forgot what normal looks like, in pandemic-free times, a high-ranking official bestows the medal over a winner’s bowed head.
Four new sports
A bright spot in the games will be the debut of four new sports, which Japan elected to introduce to the Olympic roster: karate, climbing, surfing, and skateboarding. It will also revive Olympic baseball and softball, and pilot new events including 3×3 basketball and freestyle BMX. Officials say the four new additions, which are all classified as “extreme sports,” are targeted to inspire a younger generation of viewers. This could hopefully dispel some of the clouds over this year’s games.
Athletes making political statements
The International Olympic Committee has historically sought to keep the games apolitical, infamously expelling American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos for raising a fist in the spirit of the civil rights movement during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Games. One of its charter rules states, “no kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” But as the times have shifted, so has its stance: After a year in which deep-rooted injustices roiled the world, demonstrations will be allowed as long as they occur before competition and not at awards podiums. It will also allow footage of protests to be broadcast in media highlight reels.
Protests from Japanese citizens
But perhaps most jarring is the absence of the national pride and honor long associated with hosting the Olympic Games. For Japan, Olympics have punctuated watershed moments in the country’s history—in 1912, its participation in the Stockholm Games ushered out its isolationist era, and in 1964, it reinvented itself after World War II by hosting the summer games—but this year, in the wake of a devastating pandemic, Japanese citizens are at best wary of the Games, and at worst angry that the country’s officials appear to be putting blind ambition ahead of constituents’ safety.
While Japan has achieved relatively low numbers for COVID-19 cases, citizens worry that a massive international festival could render their sacrifices futile, and the decision to move forward with the Olympics has sparked protests in the streets of Shinjuku. In May, a poll revealed 83% of Japanese citizens opposed the games, a startling majority for a nation that rarely expresses such vehement disapproval.