Tokyo Olympics 2020 opening ceremony: Here were the real stars

The situation was desperate. Sport’s greatest show on earth was in peril. With 48 hours to go, there was still a risk that Tokyo’s Olympics could be cancelled. What the 32nd edition of the Games needed was a woman. Not Dina Asher-Smith, not Laura Kenny - not yet - but please, somebody, get Hazel Irvine, give her a microphone and let those fascinating facts tumble!

I can still remember London 2012 and Hazel’s stunning contributions to what TV folk, scrabbling for words when not very much is happening, term “fill”. Did we know that of all the competing countries, Bhutan was the last to get television? Did we know that Cambodia possesses the longest alphabet? And consider Kyrgyzstan, which most of us dutifully did for the very first time: only one vowel!

Hazel gave good fact that night and these three have stayed with me, making a mockery of the theory that, having been long since cast adrift from the Scottish education system when it was considered to be Olympian standard, my generation simply stopped remembering stuff. And the thing is: she didn’t have to fill in 2012. London’s opening ceremony was phantasmagorical. Everywhere you looked, every second, something happened. She gave us the facts for free. What a trouper.

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But Tokyo for Irvine and fellow Scot Andrew Cotter, hotfoot from his wryly brilliant narration of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon comeback, would be different. A ceremony with no one standing on it, nobody in the National Stadium and, huddling under the Covid cloud, not too many of the city’s 37 million inhabitants wanting the Games. Oh, and the welcome party’s director had just been sacked.

Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka lit the flame to signify the start of Tokyo's Olympics

The pair got off to a knockabout start with Irvine remarking that the entertainment in acknowledgement of the global pandemic would be “stripped-down and thoughtful … the Marie Kondo of opening ceremonies” and Cotter quipping: “I just had to look up Marie Kondo … ”

It began with traditional Japanese dance shapeshifting into mass running on treadmills, illustrating the lot of lockdown Olympians around the world. “Quiet, intimate, empathetic,” said Irvine, “and not just speaking for athletes but mirroring everyone’s experiences recently.” Then the treadmillers were cut to a solitary figure - Arisa Tsubata, a boxer and also a nurse, whose final qualifier was cancelled by Covid, so this would be the sum total of her participation.

It was all very sonorous and serious but our twosome know just when to crack a funny, such as during a sequence celebrating the ancient traditions of Japanese carpentry - daiku - when the hammerers became hoofers and skipped across tabletops with Cotter speculating: “This must be the lunch-break or something.”

And then, rather quicker it seemed than London where there was the entire history of everything Brit, including Bond, Bean and the Beatles, it was time for the parade of athletes, trailed by footage of mass physical jerks. “Hazel and I have been training, too,” said Cotter, and indeed they had.

Athletes like this competitor from China were masked-up for the opening ceremony

Most in masks, but if anything waving their flags with greater vim, the teams arrived via the Japanese syllabic alphabet - kana - but this didn’t throw our hosts. Not a quirk or a myth or a precise geopolitical situation was missed. Not the oldest table-tennis competitor (58) or the youngest (11). Not the race-walking team who’re husband and wife. “Don’t go for a stroll with these two,” said Irvine. Well, don’t challenge her and Cotter to a game of Trivial Pursuit. Or indeed Mastermind.

They riffed in perfect harmony such as during a debate on karate venue the Budokan’s history as a concert hall for live rock albums. Cotter began with Abba. Irvine namechecked Cheap Trick’s “classic”. Cotter was forced to concede Bob Dylan at the Budokan hadn’t been that - “Of his three live LPs, the least essential.”

It seems a long time ago now that venerable Beeb commentators describing opening ceremonies would solemnly intone deathless phrases such as: “ … And here come the Dutch in their clogs.” Cotter and Irvine get the tone just right with none of the mild sneering of the Eurovision Song Contest or the at times imbecilic guffawing of the Winter Games, such as when toboganners have crashed.

Irvine would probably be categorised as a “girly swot” by Boris Johnson for the amount of research she crams into her little pen-portraits of the nations. Cotter is slightly Presbyterian (“Hang on … wackiness!”) and just cheeky enough. It takes a lot of skill to switch, without clunkiness, from civil wars and assassinations of presidents to Albanian adulation of Norman Wisdom and Bulgaria’s version of Celebrity Big Brother but these two are fearless.

Just a tenth of Team GB were at Tokyo'a National Stadium

Bet you didn’t know that Uzbekistan is one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world. Or that Swaziland has one of the last remaining “absolute monarchies”. Or that in - where else? - Kyrgyzstan the traditional four-sided cap has Unesco recognition and its own national holiday. This info came from - who else? - Irvine. She out-Kyrgyzstan-ed herself. The equivalent of dismounting the isometric bars straight into the diving pool.

All 205 countries present and correct, the Olympic rings were created in a giant origami display, then in the night sky with 1,800 shimmering drones. Light was a theme of the speeches - the absence of it during Covid’s darkest days and the hope that the Olympic flame, lit by Japan’s tennis queen Naomi Osaka, can be a beacon of hope for better times ahead. The Games motto has been expanded: Higher, Faster, Stronger - and now, too - Together. Cotter and Irvine are certainly the latter. And that other double-landlocked country? Come on, keep up - Lichtenstein.

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