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President Herzog: 'Hoping to hear Hatikva on Japanese soil'

Troubled Tokyo Olympics set to open under COVID-19’s cloud

Ahead of opening ceremony at 2 p.m. (Israel time), head of Israel’s delegation says team is focused and excited, despite heavy restrictions and fears of a super-spreader event

  • An athlete exercises during a diving practice session at the Tokyo Aquatics Center at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
    An athlete exercises during a diving practice session at the Tokyo Aquatics Center at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
  • This picture shows the Olympic rings and Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 20, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)
    This picture shows the Olympic rings and Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on July 20, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Behrouz MEHRI / AFP)
  • Christina Kallberg, of Sweden serves the ball during a table tennis training session at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
    Christina Kallberg, of Sweden serves the ball during a table tennis training session at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
  • Japan's national flag is hoisted on the field prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games softball opening round game between Mexico and Japan at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, Japan, on July 22, 2021. (KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP)
    Japan's national flag is hoisted on the field prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games softball opening round game between Mexico and Japan at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, Japan, on July 22, 2021. (KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP)
  • A woman walks along a street in downtown Tokyo on July 20, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Loic VENANCE / AFP)
    A woman walks along a street in downtown Tokyo on July 20, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Loic VENANCE / AFP)
  • Japan's Naomi Osaka looks at her phone at Ariake Tennis Park ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. (Tiziana FABI / AFP)
    Japan's Naomi Osaka looks at her phone at Ariake Tennis Park ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 23, 2021. (Tiziana FABI / AFP)
  • Athletes take part in a swimming training session at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP)
    Athletes take part in a swimming training session at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP)

TOKYO, Japan — The most troubled Olympics in modern history finally open in Tokyo on Friday, struggling to shake off lingering virus fears after a one-year postponement and a build-up marred by scandal and controversy.

Eight years after Japanese newscasters shed tears as Tokyo celebrated winning the right to stage the Games, Friday’s opening ceremony will take place before empty stands and with the city in a state of emergency.

Fears that the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could trigger a super-spreader event have prompted organizers to clamp the Games in a biosecure straitjacket.

Overseas fans are banned for the first time ever, and domestic spectators will be kept out of all but a handful of venues.

Athletes, support staff and media are subject to strict COVID-19 protocols, including regular testing and daily health checks.

Israel’s delegation to Japan is the country’s biggest-ever by far, numbering 90 athletes.

A water polo ball floats as a member of the Chinese women’s team swims to it during a practice session at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

On Friday morning Igal Carmi, head of Israel’s Olympic Committee, told Army Radio that Israeli athletes’ “mood is good” despite the threat of coronavirus.

“There is great care. The team is either training or isolated. So far we’re okay, I believe and very much hope it will stay that way to the end,” he said. “We are being tested from morning till night, but we’re very focused.”

He added that at the Olympic Village, “Hundreds of athletes are milling around outside. Yes, there’s coronavirus, yes the atmosphere’s different from usual, but in the end it’s sports, it’s youth, it’s people who are coming to show what they’ve been working on for years. It’s exciting. And of course we’re representing the country, which is always a wonderful addition.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog sent his good wishes to the Israeli delegation on Friday morning, ahead of the opening ceremony.

“When you enter the stadium hoisting the Israeli flag proudly, our hearts will skip a short beat. You are our representatives in front of the whole world,” Herzog told Israeli swimmer Yakov Toumarkin in a phone call, according to a statement from the President’s office.

“Go with your strength, and I am sure you will reach many achievements, break records and also bring medals,” Herzog said. “We are waiting and hoping to hear the ‘Hatikva’ anthem on Japanese soil,” he added.

Even before the opening ceremony, Israel’s Itai Shani was the first Israeli to take part in the contests, in the archery category. Shani ranked 60 in the preliminary ranking stage and will compete in the next stage on July 28.

Polls have consistently found a majority of Japanese are against the games, with opinion ranging from weary indifference to outright hostility.

A man stands in front of Yoyogi National Stadium, the venue for handball, badminton and wheelchair rugby events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the opening ceremony of the games. (Philip FONG / AFP)

But in the hours before the opening ceremony, there were glimmers of excitement building, with thousands turning out in Tokyo to watch an aerial display by the Japanese air force’s Blue Impulse team.

“Before the Olympics began I expected the atmosphere to be a little sad,” said Maki Hasumoto, 25, as she waited for the display.

“But now it’s very atmospheric and now I’m looking forward to it.”

Friday is a national holiday in Japan and families set up picnic blankets in Tokyo parks to watch the jets draw the Olympic rings in coloured smoke.

“It’s impressive here. It really feels like the Olympics is going to start,” added 38-year-old Megumi Taguchi.

Nearby, locals patiently lined up in the heat to take photos in front of the Olympic rings mounted next to the stadium that will host this evening’s opening extravaganza.

Traditionally a highlight of any Summer Games, featuring the parade of nations and the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, Tokyo’s opening ceremony will be drastically pared back.

Fewer than 1,000 dignitaries and officials will be present at the 68,000-seat stadium when events get underway at 8:00 p.m. local time (2 p.m. in Israel).

Japan’s Naomi Osaka (top) attends a training session at the Ariake Tennis Park ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on July 20, 2021. (Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

Most world leaders have opted to stay away, though US First Lady Jill Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron — whose country will host the 2024 Paris Olympics — will be in the stands along with Japan’s Emperor Naruhito.

But in a sign of how divisive the Games remain, several top sponsors including Toyota and Panasonic will not be sending executives.

A few hundred protestors demonstrated against the Games on Friday morning near the Tokyo government building where Governor Yuriko Koike welcomed the Olympic flame.

“Even though the pandemic continues, we will hold a safe and secure Games,” Koike said.

Blue Impulse, Japan’s Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) aerobatic team, perform a display to form the Olympic rings in the skies over Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Philip FONG / AFP)

“We are determined to see it through. Today is the first step towards that.”

Tokyo is battling a surge in virus cases, and is under emergency measures that means bars and restaurants must shut by 8:00 p.m. and cannot sell alcohol.

Dogged by controversy

But Olympic officials have put a brave face on the unusual circumstances, with IOC chief Bach insisting cancellation was never on the table.

“Over the past 15 months we had to take many decisions on very uncertain grounds,” he said this week. “We had doubts every day. There were sleepless nights.

“We can finally see at the end of the dark tunnel. Cancellation was never an option for us. The IOC never abandons the athletes… we did it for the athletes.”

There are also hefty financial incentives in play. Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for around $1.5 billion in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been canceled.

People gather in front of Yoyogi National Stadium to watch a performance by Blue Impulse, Japan’s Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) aerobatic display team, in Tokyo on July 23, 2021, ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. (Philip FONG / AFP)

The pandemic has not been the only hiccup in preparations though, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo.

The controversies kept coming right up to the eve of the Games, with the opening ceremony’s director sacked on Thursday for making a joke referencing the Holocaust in a video from 1998.

Back in the sporting arenas, a new generation of Olympic stars are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

US swimmer Caeleb Dressel could target seven gold medals, and in track and field, 400-meter hurdlers Karsten Warholm of Norway and the USA’s Sydney McLaughlin are among those hoping to emerge as household names.

Gymnastics meanwhile will see Simone Biles attempt to crown her dazzling career by equalling Larisa Latynina’s record of nine Olympic gold medals.

New Olympic sports will also be on display in Tokyo, with surfing, skateboarding, sport climbing and karate all making their debut.

Israel’s best hopes for medals are in gymnastics, judo, swimming and windsurfing.

Italy’s Leonardo Fioravanti(R) and Lucas Peru’s Lucca Mesinas ride a wave during a free training at the Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, in Chiba, on July 23, 2021 during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Olivier MORIN / AFP)

The country is also making Olympic debuts in the fields of baseball, archery, surfing and equestrian sports.

The website Olympic Medals Predictions — which gathers data from world championships and other international competitions, in an attempt to guess the outcome of the games — has suggested Israel will take home five medals this year, while The Associated Press has predicted seven medals.

The country has taken home a total of nine medals in its history, and has never won more than two medals at the same Olympics.

See the full schedule for Israeli athletes here.

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