TOKYO — It will be an opening ceremony like no other.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics finally kicks off on Friday, having retained its name but little else in the year since it was delayed by Covid-19.
The Games will begin still in the shadow of that pandemic, with the Japanese capital under a state of emergency and many of the country’s residents adamantly opposed to holding the world sporting event at all.
Yet Japan has staked its international reputation on making these Olympics a success, in spite of the coronavirus and the various scandals that have dominated the preceding weeks and months.
“Over 4 billion people across the world will be watching these Olympic Games,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told NBC News before the ceremony. “In that context, overcoming the hardship of the coronavirus and to be able to hold the Games, I think there is real value in that.”
Instead of a 68,000-capacity crowd cheering as athletes from more than 200 countries parade with flags through Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, fewer than a thousand foreign dignitaries and diplomats, Olympic sponsors and members of the International Olympic Committee will be present as the Games officially begin.
Japan’s Emperor Naruhito will be among the guests, as will first lady Jill Biden.
The rest of the world — including the Japanese public — will watch, and cheer, on TV or via streaming services.
NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, owns the U.S. broadcasting rights to the Games.
The opening ceremony will begin at 8 p.m. local time in Japan. With the time difference — Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern United States, 16 hours ahead of the West — Americans who want to watch it live will have to get out of bed early.
NBC’s live coverage in the U.S. will begin around 6:55 a.m. ET. And the ceremony will be rebroadcast in prime time at 7:30 p.m. ET and once more overnight.
Follow NBC News’ Olympics coverage throughout the Games
Viewers will be treated to an extravagant re-enactment of a traditional Japanese festival, featuring hundreds of performers taking part in a tightly choreographed and well-rehearsed display of national pride, organizers said.
The traditional pomp and pageantry that accompany the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, symbolizing the start of the Games, will literally be a made-for-TV event as a result of the unusual circumstances of these most unusual games.
After the release of doves signifying peace, spectacular fireworks will illuminate the skies over Tokyo.
For the first time in Olympic history, each nation will be allowed to have two flag-bearers — a man and a woman — for the traditional Parade of Nations.
Carrying the Stars and Stripes will be the U.S. women’s basketball player Sue Bird and baseball player Eddy Alvarez.
But there will be no roar of applause in the stadium for them, or for the final torch-bearer, the Japanese kabuki actor Nakamura Kankuro VI, when he performs what is called the “torch kiss” and lights the cauldron.
That will symbolize the opening of the first major global gathering since Covid-19 began its march, infecting nearly 200 million people and killing more than 4 million around the world.
Outbreaks and setbacks
The pandemic has consumed much of the buildup to the Games, which have also had to contend with the fallout from a series of scandals.
Just Thursday, on the eve of the opening ceremony, its creative director, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired for a joke he made about the Holocaust during a comedy show in 1998. His predecessor had been ousted months earlier for comparing a female Japanese celebrity to a pig.
Composer Keigo “Cornelius” Oyamada also quit earlier this week after his admission that he bullied disabled classmates resurfaced and his music was removed from the opening ceremony’s score.
The Olympic torch began its 121-day journey to the stadium in March from the Fukushima prefecture, a region that was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and meltdown of three nuclear reactors that left some 22,000 people dead or missing.
That ceremony was also closed to the public because of the fear of spreading Covid.
As the first torch-bearer, the Japanese soccer star Azusa Iwashimizu set off running from a training center with 14 other members of the team that won the Women’s World Cup in 2011.
She was also carrying with her the hope that by now the pandemic would be tamed, if not contained.
But in an ominous sign of things to come, fans along the route in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures were warned to wear masks, practice social distancing and refrain from loud cheering to avoid infecting the torch-bearers racing by.
Now, fans have been banned from venues altogether.
In recent weeks, Japanese leaders and Olympic organizers have watched with alarm as Covid cases continued to rise and polls showed a stubborn resistance in much of the country to holding the Games in Tokyo.
That helped prompt Toyota, the biggest carmaker in Japan and a key Olympic sponsor, to yank Japanese TV ads related to the Games for fear of alienating its local market. Its top executives will not appear at the opening ceremony, though the company remains the supplier of the official vehicles being used in Tokyo.
Despite repeated assurances from Japanese officials and Olympic organizers that the Games would be “safe and secure,” dozens of people linked to the competition — including a dozen athletes — have already tested positive for Covid.
Two more athletes staying in the Olympic Village, a 109-acre waterfront section of Tokyo that had been sealed off to protect the 11,000 or so competitors staying there, tested positive Thursday.