Tokyo 2020 Olympics briefing: let the Games begin


Today in a nutshell: a slow-burning and sombre opening ceremony in the Japan National Stadium ushered in the start of the Games as protesters gathered in the streets of Tokyo asking for the Olympics to be cancelled.

Tomorrow’s key moments: it’s the first full Saturday of the Games and there is going to be more Olympic sport than you can shake a stick at.

We knew it wasn’t going to be a normal kind of opening ceremony at the Olympics, and it wasn’t. The spectacular moments came not so much from the design and performance, but from who and what was included, and the emotions provoked.

Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata, who lost her possible place at the Games due to her qualifying bout being cancelled, was the star of one sequence, endlessly training alone on a treadmill. At another point a stark solo dance performance heralded a moment of silence not just for those who lost their lives during the pandemic, but explicitly for the members of the Israeli Olympic party murdered in the attack on the 1972 Munich Olympics. It is the first time the IOC has allowed such a remembrance to be included in an opening ceremony, after years of campaigning by bereaved relatives.

Arisa Tsubata performers with dancers during the light show. Photograph: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile/Getty Images

The athletes did their best to enjoy the parade in a stadium with no crowd and just a handful of dignitaries attending. The topless Tongan Pita Taufatofua was back leading his nation as flag-bearer. It’s worth reacquainting yourself with his incredible back-story getting to the Olympics. It might be that athletes from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan breaking Covid protocols and not wearing masks attracts more attention this time around than Taufatofua, who was sharing flag-bearing duties with Malia Paseka.

Tonga flagbearers Malia Paseka and Pita Taufatofua lead their team out during the opening ceremony. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

There was some sport today, but sadly perhaps the most notable thing, given the warnings about Tokyo’s temperatures, was that Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva collapsed in the heat shortly after completing the qualifying round during which she had qualified. She seems to have recovered. South Korea’s An San set a new Olympic record score of 680 during the contest.

One other thing you need to know is that bad weather predicted for Monday means the rowing schedule has been re-jigged, with Monday’s races now on Sunday, and the men’s and women’s eights heats moved from Sunday to Saturday to accommodate the schedule changes.

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Picture of the day

Hungarian archer Matyas Balogh aims for the target during the men’s individual ranking round. Photograph: Tibor Illyes/EPA

🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺 Australia update

If you thought Sweden beating the USA in the opening round of the women’s football was going to be the biggest shock of the pre-ceremony football matches, you’ll have to think again, after Australia’s men stormed to a 2-0 win over much-fancied Argentina watched by our Suzanne Wrack. She says:

Three points will no doubt fill the Olyroos with belief but perhaps most impressive was the manner of the dominant, pace-laden performance that avenged defeats by Argentina at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.

Swimming starts tomorrow, and Australia will again be expecting to do well. Kieran Pender is at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre and runs his rule over where the medals might come: Australian swimmers eager to entertain on the eve of Olympics duel with US

🇯🇵🇯🇵🇯🇵 The hosts and beyond

There will be huge domestic interest in the women’s football on Saturday, as Japan face Team GB in the Sapporo Dome at 7.30pm Tokyo time. Having drawn their opening game, Japan’s women are under pressure to get a positive result. But it is the whole Games that are under home pressure, really. In the next couple of days we’ll find out whether that opening ceremony will shift the national mood.

🇬🇧🇬🇧🇬🇧 Team GB update

Sprinter Dina Asher-Smith has criticised the IOC decision that peaceful protest is allowed on the field of play – but not on podiums. She said: “Protesting and expressing yourself is a fundamental human right. If you were to penalise someone for standing up against racial inequality how on earth would that go? How on earth are you going to enforce that?”

Team GB officials are also increasingly exasperated with the refusal of Tokyo 2020 authorities to say when the 10 British athletes and staff who have been forced to self-isolate at these Olympics for nearly a week can be released.

In actual sport news, both the men’s and women’s quadruple sculls will have to repechage after failing to finish in the top two in their respective heats. Victoria Thornley is through to the quarter-finals in the women’s single sculls, and Graeme Thomas and John Collins are through to the semi-final of the men’s double sculls.

Victoria Thornley competes during the women’s single sculls heats. Photograph: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 Team USA update

Team USA may have not made many friends today in a country that is nervous about hosting the event in a pandemic when it was revealed that about 100 of the 613 athletes heading to Tokyo are unvaccinated, despite vaccines having been freely available in the US for months.

Tom Dart writes for us today that, in the first post-Trump Olympics, US athletes will not be staying silent, noting that:

The pretence that the Olympics are apolitical is increasingly untenable in an era when athletes are politically engaged, wield powerful platforms on social media and are ready to call out what some view as censorship.

One other thing – for the USWNT it is their make-or-break second group game. They face New Zealand in the Saitama Stadium. That kicks off at 8.30pm, which is 7.30am in New York.

Did you know?

The Olympic flame will not be burning in the stadium at this Games. After the opening ceremony the flame will be transferred to a cauldron on Tokyo’s waterfront. Sadly, because of Covid, spectators are being advised to stay away from visiting it.

A torchbearer passes the flame during the Olympic torch relay on Friday. Photograph: Keizo Mori/UPI/Rex/Shutterstock

Key events for Saturday 24 July

Hoo boy, this is a big one. You can take your pick today from all of these sports which get started: 3×3 basketball, badminton, baseball and softball, beach volleyball, boxing, road cycling, equestrian, fencing, handball, hockey, judo, shooting, swimming, table tennis, taekwondo, tennis, volleyball, water polo, weightlifting.

There are 11 gold medals up for grabs in archery, road cycling, fencing, judo, shooting, taekwondo, and weightlifting.

All events are listed here in local Tokyo time. Add an hour for Sydney, subtract eight hours for London, 13 hours for New York and 17 hours for San Francisco. Your maths is going to get better by the end of this Olympics, isn’t it?

🌟If you only watch one thing: 11am Cycling men’s road race – it’s a wide open field on a course that may slightly favour climbers. You are guaranteed spectacular scenery, and the race finishes at the Fuji Speedway. And maybe Team GB’s first medal? Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Tao Geoghegan Hart are all in. William Fotheringham previews it here. It’s on at noon in Sydney, 3am in London,

8.30am-3.30pm Shooting – the women’s 10m air rifle starts qualifying at 8.30am, and then the final is at 10.45am and should be the first gold medal of the Games. The men’s final in the same discipline is at 3.30pm 🥇

8.30am-12.30pm Rowing – Helen Glover is seeking to become the first British rower to compete at an Olympics after having children. She described it to our Donald McRae as “a lockdown project that’s gone too far”. There’s heats and repechages all morning at Sea Forest Waterway.

9am-9.15pm Fencing – it is the women’s épée individual and the men’s sabre individual day. The women’s gold medal bout is at 8.45pm, the men’s final at 9.15pm 🥇

9.30am-4.45pm Archery – it is the mixed team event today, which will conclude with the gold medal match around 4.45pm 🥇

9.30am-9.15pm Hockey – the men’s tournament opens with hosts Japan v Australia, and Team GB men face South Africa at 6.30pm. Ireland feature in the last match of the day, which is a women’s match-up against South Africa

9.50am and 1.50pm Weightlifting – it’s the women’s 49kg, and after a first qualifying session, the gold medal will be awarded at the end of the afternoon 🥇

A competitor from Venezuela during training. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters

11am Tennis – the tournament starts, with Team GB’s Andy Murray defending his back-to-back gold medals from London 2012 and Rio 2016 in the men’s singles. Murray actually begins his campaign though with a round-of-32 doubles match at 11am with Joe Salisbury.

11am-2.30pm and then 5pm-7.50pm Judo – hosts Japan are the most successful nation of all-time at Olympic judo, and they will expect to do well this year. Today’s evening session finishes with the women’s -48kg final and the men’s -60kg final 🥇

5pm Equestrian – it is the qualifier day for team and individual dressage, and it should feature Charlotte Dujardin, the most successful British dressage rider in Olympic history.

7pm Swimming – no finals, but more than 20 heats are on in an evening session at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. World record holder in the men’s 50m breaststroke, Adam Peaty, goes at 8.40pm. Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström, who dominated the women’s 100m butterfly in Rio starts her defence slightly earlier, at 7.33pm.

You can find our full interactive events schedule here.

So, now you can see how it is going to work, and how useful this email is going to be at making sure you remember to set your alarms or reminders for the best moments. We’ve created a bundle of 17 more emails like this for the rest of the Olympics that we hope makes it easier to follow the Games. If you can, please consider supporting our open, independent journalism with a single or recurring contribution. You can give from as little as £1 and it only takes a minute, but powers everything we do. Thank you.

Get in touch

One thing I’ll be looking out for today – the handball. David Ekstrand from Sweden messaged me last week and pointed out that: “It’s arguably the biggest team sport in the world not to be played professionally in any English-speaking country, which means it always goes under the radar in international media. It’s fast-paced, athletic, powerful and often completely nerve-wracking in the final stages. Sweden have four silver medals but no win. Will it change?” Between 9am and 9.30pm on Saturday there are six pool games on, Sweden go up against Bahrain at 2.15pm Tokyo time.

Players from the Dutch women’s handball squad in practice. Photograph: Hollandse Hoogte/Rex/Shutterstock

Charles Tedesco was in touch from Malta as well, pretty much summing up how I feel about the event slightly more eloquently than I managed in yesterday’s newsletter. He wrote: “I feel for the Japanese people. This event was meant to showcase their country in front of the whole world but instead has managed to divide the nation. If they can pull it through successfully it would be a miracle.”

In difficult circumstances, that opening ceremony wasn’t bad though, was it? I found it quite moving in places. Don’t forget you can get in touch with me at [email protected] I’ll see you all at the same time tomorrow – until then take care, stay safe.

The last word

With the world in a tough situation because of the coronavirus pandemic, I would like to pay my respect and express my gratitude to medical workers and all those who are working hard every day to overcome the difficulties – President of the organising committee, Seiko Hashimoto