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Quiet Olympics opening ceremony sees loud public protest over virus concerns

Usually a star-studded show, the Tokyo Olympics opened with a quieter ceremony. National teams paraded to a nearly empty stadium. It was noisier outside, as protests against holding the games in the middle of a pandemic continued. Only 23% of Japan's population is fully vaccinated. William Brangham speaks to Associated Press reporter Philip Crowther about the situation on the ground in Tokyo.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    When the Tokyo Olympics officially kicked off today, it was under the most unusual circumstances in modern times.

    While 16 days of international competition are what is planned, William Brangham takes a closer look at the tensions behind these Games.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    The strange dynamics of opening day were yet another sign of the times. Today's ceremony acknowledged the pandemic and the isolation experienced by many over the past year, and paid tribute to medical workers. Usually, a star-studded show, this was a quieter ceremony. National teams paraded in, waving to a nearly empty stadium.

    One of the more notable moments, tennis star Naomi Osaka, arguably Japan's most famous athlete, lit the Olympic torch. It was noisier outside, as protests continued against holding the Games in the middle of a pandemic. Just 23 percent of Japan's population is fully vaccinated.

    For more on this, I'm joined by Philip Crowther. He is reporting on the Games from Tokyo for the Associated Press.

    Philip, thank you very much for being here with us.

    This sounds like a very unusual Opening Ceremony by Olympic standards. Can you just give us a sense of what it's like there?

  • Philip Crowther:

    Yes, look, it was extraordinary., because, usually, these Opening Ceremonies are celebrations, aren't they?

    There clearly wasn't the mood for a celebration here in Tokyo. You mentioned it already. This was much more of a solemn occasion and just an extraordinary thing to see that this Olympic Stadium, where there should be 68,000 people, was almost empty. Just under 1,000 people were inside, and none of those members of the public.

    They will not be allowed to see a single second of Olympic sport in person. That is quite something to get your head around.

    As to the atmosphere, you just mentioned those protests. This is also something that doesn't tend to happen with Opening Ceremonies, that, actually, on the inside of the stadium, you can hear the protesters during those quiet moments. And it is, of course, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that there were those quiet moments of reflection. You could hear those people chanting right outside, calling for those Games to essentially not be held at all.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that right?

    I understand that you were at that protest today for a period of time. Is that what they would like? They think that, in the midst of a pandemic think, that this is just simply too dangerous to go forward?

  • Philip Crowther:

    Yes, that's basically it, actually.

    And that is what leads to those polls that you just mentioned. There is a very clear majority of the Japanese people who do not want these Olympic Games to happen during a pandemic that is getting worse in this country and, specifically, also, in this city.

    They do not want these Games to be held. They think it's a money-grabbing exercise by the International Olympic Committee, by the Japanese prime minister, and that, for the good of the people, this is something that should not happen.

  • William Brangham:

    And speaking of the pandemic, it was revealed today that at least 100 of the U.S. athletes have not been vaccinated, which I think is somewhere like one in six athletes are not protected from COVID.

    How are officials explaining that, how so many came to Tokyo in the middle of a pandemic and did not get vaccinated?

  • Philip Crowther:

    Well, look, according to the U.S. Olympic Committee, this is actually a good number. The medical experts there were — seemed to sound pretty satisfied with this statistic that was actually only revealed in the last 24 hours.

    Now, one of the reasons for this might be athletes that were a little bit reticent to get vaccinated because of a fear that it might somehow influence their performance. That is absolutely possible.

    But what this also does, the fact that other athletes now know that, in the same Olympic Village, there are American athletes who have not been vaccinated, will they now get close to them? Because there is always that fear of becoming what is called a close contact.

    That means that you might have shook hands with somebody once who tested positive for COVID-19, one of those 19 cases we have had here so far among athletes. If you have been close to one of those people, then you're also going to be checked for COVID-19. And you might be isolated for a short while, putting into serious peril your Olympic dreams.

    That is why there is this nervousness that I know about among athletes, having spoken to a few. As soon as they hear a rumor about a new case, you always have to check right away, have you been with that person? Have you trained with them maybe? Did you have a meal with them?

    That's the kind of atmosphere, partly, at least, that we have in this Olympic Village here in Tokyo right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Philip, lastly, we were talking about the protests that happened outside the stadium, but we have also seen some protests by athletes themselves.

    The U.S. women's soccer team, many of them took a knee before their first game in solidarity with the racial justice movement happening here in America. That, too, seemed unusual for an Olympics.

    Do you know, are there rules about protests? And is it your sense that the athletes will actually abide by them?

  • Philip Crowther:

    Yes, there are some rules, some of them more strict than others.

    The International Olympic Committee made it relatively clear that some types of protest would be not necessarily welcomed, but would definitely be accepted. And when you see the female soccer team from the United States taking a knee, that is absolutely allowed within the rules of the Olympic Games.

    Other things are not, though. And there is an increasing pressure, actually, for other types of protest to be allowed. And that would include protesting on the actual medal podium. That is where, of course, if you want to make your case, you will get a much, much bigger audience.

    It is probably only a matter of time before we see some more protests, be it on the soccer field, maybe on the track and field — in the track and field stadium, the Olympic Stadium you see right behind me, and maybe even an attempt to protest against or for something on a podium. That, though, would, again, go against the rules of these Olympics.

  • William Brangham:

    But, as we well know, protesters don't always abide by the rules.

    Philip Crowther, joining us from Tokyo for the Associated Press, thank you very, very much for your time.

  • Philip Crowther:

    Thank you.

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