Tokyo Olympics open hoping sport takes centre stage amid lingering shadow of Covid-19

Games officially get underway with Friday's opening ceremony after an unprecedented delay, controversy in the build-up, and a sense of unease among the Japanese public

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It's a year late and the Olympic Games open on Friday today amid turmoil, distrust and the ever-present threat of Covid-19.

The Tokyo Olympics were originally billed to the Japanese people as the "recovery Games" as it comes 10 years after the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent Fukushima power plant explosion. This notion has been somewhat lost, as the Games, which were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are largely unpopular among the Japanese public. They fear the risk of further infection, so much so it has spurred rare scenes of protests in the capital.

As the Olympic torch relay completes its 121-day journey around the country, it is headed towards the new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo. Rebuilt on the site that hosted the 1964 summer games, it now has the capacity to hold 68,000 people. On Friday night, however, it will host just 950 for a grand opening ceremony, as most fans and spectators have been barred from events to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

As well as potentially feeling like a dress-rehearsal, the ceremony itself, which is often a celebration of hope and national identity and pride, will no doubt be overshadowed by the news that its show director, Kentaro Kobayashi was just dismissed from his role, as videos emerged of him making jokes about the Holocaust in the 1990s.

The composer for the music of both the opening and closing ceremonies has also stepped down after old interviews of bullying behaviour resurfaced.

But amid the gloom, the many sporting events could still find a way to thrill, excite and inspire. With organisers nervously watching the number of infected athletes, the world’s greatest athletes have endured multiple PCR tests and made it through the tightly regulated entry processes into the Olympic village.

With some sports already underway there have been exciting and unexpected results. On Wednesday, the Swedish women’s football team ended the USA’s 44-game unbeaten run with a confident 3-0 victory. Mexico’s men then beat World Cup champions France a resounding 4-1 on Thursday.

The Japanese softball team has given the host nation something to celebrate, winning both of their opening games against Australia and Mexico. The host nation has an array of talent to support, and will no doubt be looking to tennis world No 2 Naomi Osaka to bring home a medal, as well as legendary wrestler Kaori Icho, who is the first female in any sport to win individual gold medals in four consecutive Olympic Games.

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic is another aiming to create history at these Games. With a gold medal in Tokyo, the world No 1 will keep alive his bid to become the first man to win the golden Grand Slam having won the first major tennis titles - Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon - of the season with just the US Open to come.

Among the big names from other sports to look out for include the sensational US gymnast Simone Biles, hoping to build on her success from the 2016 Rio Games where she collected four gold medals. Keep an eye out too for men’s 400m world-record holder Wayde van Niekerk from South Africa.

Jamaican ‘Pocket Rocket’ Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce will be looking to rubber stamp her name into the history books. The fastest woman alive is aiming to be the first woman to medal in the 100m for four consecutive Olympic Games. Having run her personal best only last month she might just do it.

With Usain Bolt out of the picture, many are wondering who are the leading contenders for the 100m and 200m titles. Eyes are on Americans Trayvon Bromell and Ronnie Baker, and Canadian Andre De Grasse for the 100m gold medal, while Noah Lyles is the favourite for the 200m.

Noah Lyles is the favourite to win 200m gold

With recent losses against Nigeria and Australia, could Team USA's men’s basketball stars be about to relinquish the gold medal for the first time since 2004 or can they bounce back?

We can also expect a fierce rivalry in the pool between the US and Australia. Five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky will have tough opposition in Ariarne Titmus, who swam the second fastest women’s 400m freestyle in history at the Australian swimming trials in June. Meanwhile in the men’s events, many will be wondering if Caeleb Dressel can fill the shoes of retired Michael Phelps.

There will be five new sports on this year's rota: surfing, skateboarding, karate, softball, and sport climbing all make their debuts, with baseball making a return for the first time since the Beijing Games in 2008.

The Tokyo Olympics will face a number of unprecedented challenges over the next few weeks but hopefully it will be a Games to remember for the right reasons.

Updated: July 23, 2021, 10:17 AM