Fireworks light up the sky over the Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Friday. TOKYO: The Tokyo Olympics were declared open in an eerily empty stadium on Friday after defying a year’s pandemic delay and lingering coronavirus threats that will make them perhaps the most unusual Games in history. Japan’s Emperor Naruhito made the announcement against the backdrop of thousands of vacant seats at Tokyo’s 68,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, after Covid-19 forced organisers to ban spectators at all but a handful of venues. “I declare open the Games of Tokyo,” said the monarch, wearing a white surgical mask. The stripped-down ceremony, simplified to reduce coronavirus risks, unfolded in front of fewer than 1,000 VIPs and several thousand athletes. In one visual highlight, nearly 2,000 synchronised drones formed a revolving globe over the stadium, to a cover version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. A reduced parade of about 5,700 athletes, far lower than the usual numbers, filed into the stadium, not all of them socially distanced but all wearing masks. Tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron. Osaka was handed the Olympic torch by a group of six children who hail from the area around Fukushima that was ravaged by a 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach acknowledged the Games would be “very different from what all of us had imagined.” But “today is a moment of hope”, he said in an address. The 16-day Games, with 339 gold medals across 33 sports, have a surreal air after the pandemic compelled organisers to make this the first Games with virtually no spectators. Athletes are tested daily but they are performing on the biggest stage under the constant risk that a positive test could wreck their Olympic dreams. In an Olympic opening ceremony like none before, one tradition held firm on Friday as athletes from across the world paraded into an eerie, almost empty National Stadium to represent their nations, for the first time their smiles hidden behind masks. Most countries were represented by both male and female flagbearers in an Olympic first, but not everybody took pandemic measures–teams from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and the Pakistan flagbearers paraded maskless in an awkward contrast to protocol. The opening ceremony, normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, lacked the usual glitz with fewer than 1,000 people in attendance, strict social distancing rules and signs calling on spectators to “be quiet around the venue.” Regardless, it marked a coming together of the world, with an audience of hundreds of millions around the globe and at various stages of the pandemic tuning in to watch the start of the greatest show in sport. The opening also featured fireworks in indigo and white, the colors of the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and gave a nod to Japanese tradition represented by giant wooden Olympic rings linked to the 1964 Games. A vastly smaller number of athletes, about 20 per nation, marched in the teams’ parade, with many flying in just before their competitions and due to leave shortly after to avoid infections. The Olympic flag is carried during the openingceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on Friday. New era starts: Fears the global gathering of 11,000 athletes could become a super-spreader event have made the Games deeply unpopular in Japan, where polls have shown opposition for months. But hundreds of people gathered outside the stadium cheering and applauding as the fireworks exploded overhead. Mako Fukuhara arrived six hours before the ceremony to grab a spot. “Until now it didn’t feel like the Olympics, but now we are by the stadium, it feels like the Olympics,” she said. Japan has spent nearly $15 billion on the Games, including $2.6 billion in extra costs after they became the first to be postponed in modern Olympic history in March 2020. Tokyo is also battling a surge in virus cases, and is under emergency measures though they fall short of a strict lockdown. Organisers will hope public opinion turns when the full sporting programme starts on Saturday, with swimming, gymnastics, road cycling and tennis among the top attractions. Attention will focus on a new generation of Olympic stars who are looking to shine after a decade dominated by the likes of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. The pandemic has not been the only hiccup, with scandals ranging from corruption during the bidding process to plagiarism allegations over the design of the Tokyo 2020 logo. Insiders estimate the IOC would have been on the hook for around $1.5 billion in lost broadcasting revenues if the Games had been cancelled. The Games run until Aug. 8.