Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony Review: Naomi Osaka & Tonga Man’s Return Couldn’t Elevate Downbeat Affair Of NBC’s Live Morning Broadcast

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SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of this morning’s Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony live on NBC.

Ever imagine what it would be like if they held an Olympics and almost nobody came?

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Well, with Japanese-born tennis superstar Naomi Osaka holding the flame and lighting the cauldron, today’s opening ceremony of the coronavirus hobbled Games of the XXXII Olympiad live from the island nation provided an answer to that query — and it was ultimately neither engaging nor enjoyable.

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Leaning chillingly more Death Star than Panhellenic, the nearly four-hour long NBC broadcast event from a virtually locked down Tokyo was a made for TV event in almost all the worst ways. Or rather, when your penultimate kicker is a Tonight Show-like skit literally turning on all the lights in the 13 million populated metropolis, you might want to reconsider your global audience’s expectations.

Sixteen hours ahead of LA and held in the vast, new-ish, and virtually empty National Stadium, the “modest, more spare” and “gentle” opening ceremony, as co-host Savanah Guthrie cautioned, began with a confusing and downbeat video presentation that wobbled between acknowledging the realities of the ongoing global health crisis and subsequent athletes in isolation.

Unfortunately, among 1980s graphics, it was indicative of what the rest of the morning was going to be.

Now, like the always too long and regularly bloated Academy Awards, Olympics opening ceremonies are repeatedly plagued by shortcomings and missteps. However, if the opening ceremony of London 2012 was the last gasp of Cool Britannia and Rio 2016 was a dull but hot mess, the first Tokyo Olympics since 1964 was all about obligation and grind.

With the sounds of protests outside the National Stadium often audible and coronavirus cases surging in Japan, today’s 17th broadcast of the Games by NBC saw about 5,700 masked athletes from 205 delegations and the Refugee Olympic team emerge as little more than muted warm props in many ways. More than 1,800 coordinated drones captured most of the glory, tweets and immediate headlines, confirming the stunted status of the athletes. Worse, the competitors waved to the cameras against a backdrop that looked like a big budget movie without the CGI and other special effects yet added.

No matter the pandemic politics playing out in the surrounding streets of Tokyo, the swath of dark lite empty seats in a stadium that is intended to hold 68,000 and the video game soundtrack tunes that played were a profuse drudgery, to put it bluntly. Faltering off the starting blocks and praying to contain more Covid outbreaks among the athletes, right now the beleaguered Tokyo Olympics is a nearly $16 billion price tagged assembly in search of enthusiasm.

Relentlessly seeking to get in their comfort zone and playing hype squad to the arrival of Team USA, hosts Mike Tirico and Olympic rookie Guthrie admittedly had a thankless task today.

As new cases of the coronavirus bordered on 2,000 yesterday in Tokyo and overall cases of infections were close to 200,000, the NBC stalwarts were charged with trying to sell something almost nobody but Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga, the greedy IOC and their own Comcast-owned media giant wants to buy into.

“This is so exciting,” exclaimed Today’s Guthrie right near the top of the opening ceremony in what was distinctly the first of many overstatements of the morning. Not that the network was avoiding the obvious. In fact, with the very reason to still go ahead with the Tokyo Games a constant source of controversy internationally and domestically amidst a literal state of emergency due to the pandemic’s latest uptick in Japan, the plan clearly was to re-appropriate the narrative from the jump.

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In a primarily stripped down ritual, the approach had mixed results. On, the one hand, the direct approach sought to meet the moment. On the other hand, the sanitizing of the conflict over the staging of the Games fraying Japan and organizers’ desire to power though at all costs and consequences was nowhere near medal worthy.

“Everything is so unique this time around,” a teleprompter bound Tirico went on to sportssplain nearly a year to the day that the pandemic postponed 2020 Summer Olympics was originally set to begin. “This is the most unique and challenging games since the modern Olympics began 125 years ago, bringing together the world in the middle of a global pandemic,” the NFL commentator added, upping the understatement game.

Guthrie reinforced the reality of the situation by noting that “these games are controversial, especially here, with many of the Japanese people worried about inviting in the world as the virus spreads.”

Yes, and?

After initially dropping out due to Covid concerns, Guinea’s five athletes were in the Asian metropolis today. That bit of news aside, American superstars like Grand Slam champ Osaka and record holding gymnast Simone Biles – – both big draws for viewers and sponsors — were also on board.

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Yet, to NBC’s undoubted further frustration, there is no Serena Williams and no Sha’Carri Richardson in Tokyo to help snare in more of those Stateside viewers needed to cushion the inevitable ratings fall and the bitter pill for advertisers coming over the next few weeks.

Thank God that Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua was back, shirtless, and as oiled up as he was in Brazil five years ago as his nation’s flag bearer. The appearance of Tonga Man, as he became widely called in 2016, allowed Guthrie to go full morning host with her perfectly timed “et’s just take a moment” remark as the taekwondo competitor strutted his stuff. Taufatofua’s presence and Guthrie’s quips also permitted Tirico to let out a genuine laugh or two.

Beyond that instance and a few others, the seasoned and mostly off-camera NBC duo were pretty much two cue cards in search of a bona fide connection.

Outside of the hosts themselves, that lack of connection was most profoundly exemplified in the echoes of the stadium, literally and figuratively. Now a standard at the Olympics, this year’s misplaced multi-national rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ with John Legend, Keith Urban, Angelique Kidjo and Alejandro Sanz only made the venue’s emptiness more acute.

Intended to house tens of thousands, the centrally located National Stadium Friday had barely 10,000 viewers under its oval open roof.

Almost a simulacra of an Opening Ceremony, masked Japanese Emperor Naruhito entertained around 1,000 VIPs like First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and IOC boss Thomas Bach in the Imperial Box, as approximately 6,000 members of the media spread out around the stadium covered the event and seemingly each other. The inclusion of a “Faster, higher, stronger, together” motto on the stadium floor just before the torch lighting rang hollow among the pyrotechnics

And, as with many an opening ceremony before, there were a lot of pyrotechnics bookending the now fired Kentaro Kobayashi directed event.

A brief firework display opened the show, before cutting to a lone athlete on a treadmill with more Olympians appearing on the vast Stadium field under a sparkling light display. Moving to a red light bathed “connecting the dots” segment, the mournful approach appeared to embrace less is more after a year that in many ways demanded nothing less.

And if that passed early rising viewers by as they sipped their first of many coffees this morning, NBC was right there to crack the fragile mood and unnecessarily hold your hand.

“Thematically, the show begins with the idea of apart but not alone, recognizing and conveying the emotional connection for athletes training around the globe the past 17 months, much of that in isolation,” play-by-play vet Tirico noted in an unusual monotone for the NBC Sports frontman.

Perhaps Tirico was hampered by the trip wire of navigating an increasingly clunky script and finding the right tone in an introspective presentation that easily could have been part of famed dance troupe La La Human Steps choreography back in the 1980s. The aesthetic would be absurdly revived right near the end when fuzzy clothed performers cavorted as living pictograms.

Thankfully, a moment of remembrance for all those who have died from the coronavirus also saw a moving mention of the slain Israeli athletes in the ever bloodied 1972 Games in Munich, Germany. The first official tribute to those terrible September days nearly 50 years ago was promptly followed by a moment of silence that saw almost all the onlookers stand in honor “of all those we have lost,” as the stadium announcer said.

Honesty, in a solemn and deridingly far too lumbering opening ceremony, the moment of silence and a single dancer spotlighted in the middle of the massive stadium was probably the most emotional and oddly exuberant portion of the morning.

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Otherwise, while full of ingenuity and a fitting display of the depth of the host nation’s culture and history and some great tap dancing by Kazunori Kumagai, today’s opening ceremony was a made for TV event not truly ready for primetime or the early morning. As the competing nations plodded out waving their respective flags, NBC constantly cut to Team USA on the bus to the stadium and Guthrie offered another self-described “fun fact,” the pomp reeked more of contractual obligations than a celebration.

Now, NBC’s awkward live broadcast was the first of many opening ceremony presentations over the next 24 hours for the Molly Solomon executive produced Olympics.

Perhaps the lack of chemistry between the trivia and statistics blathering Tirico and Guthrie will be smoothed out with the full bells and whistles of the primetime version later today. Certainly athlete backstories galore and the pre-show presence of Dwayne Johnson, and Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. will inject some adrenaline into the proceedings, appropriately or not.

“Finally we are all here together,” IOC chief Bach proclaimed to light applause in the late Tokyo evening in a protracted welcoming speech. “We are always stronger together,” the 1976 Olympic gold medal fencer insisted, attempting to paper over the prominent cracks in the facade.

Maybe stronger together, maybe not — only the Games and the coronavirus will tell.

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