‘Let Space Speak’ | Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony

This Olympic Opening Ceremony offers poignant images of what is ‘not’ there

One of the things that struck me the most during Japan’s 2016 Forum of Sport & Culture was a talk by a Japanese living national treasure on the importance of empty space – and nothingness – in Japanese culture.

The opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 has had to be reconceived beyond anyone’s imagination, with organisers working on myriad alternative narrative threads from the outset. By the 23rd August 2021, we ended up with a ceremony memorable for its restraint and careful waiving of difficult subjects from the go.

It was good to see the inclusion of some humour – a few vignettes, such as the lighting of Tokyo’s iconic sights or the clever representation of all pictograms – were reminiscent of London 2012, the first ceremony to openly include unabashed humour, with the figure of Mr Bean bored while playing Chariots of Fire or the Queen jumping-off a plane – but the most striking visuals involved outstanding markers of emptiness and void.

Markers of empty space were the row after row of unpeopled seats in the 68,000-capacity stadium, a prominent background to flag raising and formal speeches; other such markers included the generous ‘social distancing’ space between performers, particularly during the scenes representing the isolation of athletes in training throughout 2020.

“markers of empty space were … rows of unpeopled seats…
or the generous social distancing space between performers…

These are all iconic images that will survive the test of time and, like the sight of athletes and dignataries wearing masks, they will take a prominent place in future symbolic representations of the Tokyo Games.

Japanese commentators have referred to Japanese culture’s capacity to ‘let space speak’. Space – empty space – certainly spoke during the opening of the postponed Tokyo Games and this added credibility and reflective beauty to the experience of what may have been one of the most expensive ceremonies ever while also, by far, the most understated and sober opening of a Games in living memory.

When the Games can’t go on

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed. It is only the fourth time this happens in 124 years, the only three previous occasions being due to World War I and World War II.

The global virus pandemic of 2020 is forcing a halt on all international sport and cultural mega-events and this raises meaningful questions regarding the significance of such large celebrations and the extent to which it is essential or not to see them happen.

In this collection of articles and short film, Dr Beatriz Garcia discusses the importance of finding creative ways of sharing stories about major events and what makes them meaningful. Beatriz argues in favour of artists – as distinct from marketing and communication teams – playing a leading role to tell such stories while on lockdown.


Reflections from Beatriz Garcia

the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide.

As I have argued for the last 20 years, the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide. In this sense, far from seeing current cancellations and postponements as a route into oblivion, organisers should find alternative ways of sharing what it has taken them to prepare for their event and the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people are not just financially but emotionally invested in such grand occasions.

The Tokyo Games organisers were starting their story-telling on the 12 March, with the initiation of their torch relay, which was lit in Ancient Olympia and promoted through pre-recorded promotional films of open air runners and cheering crowds. It was the worst timing imaginable and the narrative, unadapted as it was to the news of the day, felt inappropriate to a week marked by growing numbers of nations going into population lockdown. With the formal postponement of the Games, organisers now have time to rethink and repurpose their narrative. There is much that can be shared about what has taken place since preparations started in 2013, what Japan has been building for and what explains the value and significance of these Games in our times.

Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and this was the chance for Japan to tell the story of rebuilding their nation in the aftermath of World War II. It will be fascinating to observe how Japan may tell us the story of what it takes to host the Games again in the aftermath of a global pandemic. In this sense, it is a valuable challenge to have the leaders of the largest sporting mega-event in the world use their skills and resources to share and explain the stories behind the Games, that is, the cultural and societal context to the sporting competition and theit multibillion infrastructure investments.

Why do the Olympics continue to attract the attention and support of over 206 nations, 124 years after they were originally launched?

Why do the Games matter?

Why do we care?

  • See my article for The Conversationfocusing on Tokyo 2020.
  • See my article for Arts Professional, discussing why now is the time to look beyond mega-events as catalysts for real estate growth and commercial profit and rethink why we need them.
  • See a short (home made!) video, here

Follow additional stories on the Olympic Games via  Culture @ the Olympics.


Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad

Youth, heritage, empowerment and nationwide celebration

Article originally published by Beatriz Garcia via Net TAM in 2018 (In English | In Japanese)

The Cultural Olympiad has been an essential component of every edition of the Olympic Games since 1912. Despite its long history, the Olympic cultural programme is one of the least well known dimensions of the Olympic Games. This is in part due to the varied ways in which the programme has been delivered and named over the years (from Olympic Art Competitions, to Olympic Art Festivals and, since Barcelona 1992, Cultural Olympiad).

Tokyo is committed to delivering a Cultural Olympiad and launched it in 2016, just after the end of the previous Games in Rio 2016. The promise was that of a four year journey (an ‘Olympiad’) in order to ensure a strong cultural foundation for the Games.

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The World Forum on Sport and Culture in October 2016
contributed to launching the Cultural Olympiad
© Beatriz Garcia

I have been observing the positioning and development of Tokyo’s cultural programme and the following are my highlights and expectations for the future.

Explaining Japan to the Japanese

A noticeable aspiration of the Tokyo Cultural Olympiad is its emphasis on reaching out to today’s Japanese youth in order to help them reconnect with Japanese culture. In my discussions with organisers during 2016 and 2017, I was struck by their aspiration to explain Japan to the Japanese first, before going out to explain it to the rest of the world.

During an interview with the team at the organising committee (TOCOG) in 2016, one representative noted that:

“Japanese students don’t experience much Japanese traditional culture. 2020 will feature and involve Japanese students – so that they can experience their own culture.”

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I believe this is a fantastic aspiration and I have already noticed some important steps forward, such as the contributions by kyogen actor Ippei Shigeyama to the World Sport and Culture Forum. Shigeyama, a young actor, was able to explain the ancient traditions of kyogen in a language and style that was attractive to the younger generations and explained how through the Cultural Olympiad and other international initiatives he is working on renewing the genre, combining it with contemporary forms and even inviting international interpretations and collaborations.

Advancing the disability arts movement

Tokyo has been looking into London 2012 as its key referent for the Cultural Olympiad. Representatives from London 2012 have been invited numerous times to give talks and share the learning out of what counts as one of the largest Olympic cultural programmes in recent history. An important aspect of London 2012 was the high profile billing offered to its disability arts programme – Unlimited – which bridged across the Olympic and Paralympic Games and made it apparent the sophisticated and wide ranging approach taken by disability artists across the UK – their work was long established in Britain, but the Games helped reach out to the mainstream and be noticed internationally in ways that had not been possible before.

For Japan, exploring and showcasing the work of disabled artists comes as an important step forward, as there is not as much tradition in supporting and promoting the work of artists with disabilities as was the case in the UK pre-Games. From discussion into how to improve accessibility to existing theatres, to discussion about the diversity of artistic expression regardless of physical ability, this is an important dimension of Tokyo’s Olympic programme that the Cultural Olympiad aims to spearhead across the country. The leading programme in this area is titled Turn and it started with pioneering collaborations taking place between London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 disabled artists.

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Turn is one of the flagship programmes for Tokyo Cultural Olympiad,
involving support and collaboration with disabled artists from London 2012 and Rio 2016.
© Beatriz Garcia

Nationwide programming

Another aspiration of Tokyo’s Cultural Olympiad that has been inspired by London 2012 is the commitment to make the programme nationwide, well beyond Tokyo as the principal host city. This has been broadly welcome by cities and regions across the country, keen to show to the world that Japan is much more than Tokyo and Kyoto, and that Japanese culture flourishes in every region. I am keen to observe how the Cultural Olympiad builds on the extensive work of existing Japanese cultural networks, from the network of Japanese creative cities to the growing positioning of Japan’s cities of culture.

From Tokyo 1964 to Tokyo 2020

But it is clear that Tokyo 2020 does not need to learn everything from London 2012. Tokyo has in fact a rich tradition to look back to, thanks to its hosting of the Olympic Games in 1964, a significant time for national re-building post World War II. Tokyo 1964 was a Games edition that left a noticeable cultural mark, particularly in terms of its world-leading approach to graphic design. I believe that re-telling and re-connecting with the cultural legacy of 1964 offers a great – and relevant – opportunity for positioning and demonstrating what is unique to Tokyo 2020 from a creative as well as Olympic heritage point of view. I would hope the Cultural Olympiad can contribute to telling this story.

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Copyright © International Olympic Committee (IOC) – All rights reserved. Reproduced under licence from the IOC

An Asian era for the Olympics

Finally, I am keen to see how the relationship between South Korea, Japan and China is explored through the Cultural Olympiad. Having three subsequent editions of the Games in such prominent Asian nations with such rich and complex cultural relationships brings a remarkable opportunity to engage in cultural diplomacy and making a significant contribution to cultural narratives of Asia, well beyond the Games. PyeongChang in 2018 ensured there was a strand of Korea-Japan-China programming within its Cultural Olympiad.

I recommend Tokyo 2020 follows on these foundations and uses the Cultural Olympiad as a platform for this internationally significant dialogue. A possible point of referent for this is the well-established East Asian Cities of Culture network, which is a collaboration and exchange between these three Olympic hosting nations.

Related links

How have the Olympics changed Rio?

A reflection from Beatriz Garcia, originally published in 2017

As academics, we have no choice but to jump onto the sound bite bandwagon if we want to remain relevant in the era of the 140 character statement. Punchy headlines and short articles (“800 words max, please”) have become important vehicles for scholars to shape the debate about important – and indeed complex – issues that one might feel are best left to the informed nuance of refereed journals and monographs. (Who has the time and will to read those, in small screens, on the go?).

On the morning after the Rio 2016 Closing Ceremony (Monday 7am – Brazil time) I decided to put forward a piece on the immediate to medium term cultural legacies of post Olympic Rio. I had been asked for 800 words, of course, but I delivered 1,600. The subsequent edits were dramatic. From headline to bottomline. A sharper piece. An easier to read piece. Probably, as well, an easier to misjudge piece. But I agreed to these changes. And a noticeable bunch of email, direct commentary and tweet reactions later, I have experienced the consequences.

The piece ran “Don’t believe the doom mongers”. In its edited form, it argues in favour of the many existing examples of positive urban change for Rio in the wake of the Olympics. It makes a point about the need to acknowledge that there are positive changes. The reason for such emphasis is not based on evidence (nor belief) that everything is rosy and wonderful in Rio – nor that the Games have been exclusively a force for good. It is rather an attempt to counter balance the dominant (academic and journalistic) narrative around everything that is wrong about Rio as an Olympic city – a call for some ‘white’ in the otherwise consistently ‘black’ take around the urban dimensions and consequences of these Games.

International commentators on the Rio Olympics have generally focused their attention on two areas: on the one hand, the staged events (ceremonies) and sport competitions, which, in line with tradition, have mainly been presented with the euphoria of the committed sports fan; on the other hand, commentary around organisational scandals and abuses against local communities. The latter is an important (and well documentend) side of the story that is common to all mega-event media narrative cycles – see reporting on Athens, Beijing and London – but that, in Rio, has been accentuated due to Brazil’s chaotic political climate and, understandably, due to the extreme urban tensions and unequal conditions in the city.

I have chosen to highlight what has gone right in Rio because we are witnessing some truly important opportunities for ‘transformation’ (the ‘go-to’ word in the official Games narrative). Transformation in Rio has been made possible despite the apparent chaos and deeply embedded tensions thanks to some (yes, some) good institutional planning and a lot of dedicated entrepreneurial – as well as socially conscious – individual initiative.

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My own observations of Rio during the Games have convinced me that the Boulevard Olimpico is a major coup for the Olympic city that has changed (and will continue to change) the way residents relate to each other and their city. Rio’s ‘Centro’ has now an actual centre that reflects the best learning in public realm management. It has been immediately appropriated by the city at large thanks to the impetus provided by a ‘big party’ everyone wanted to be part of – after much scepticism and doubting. Now, of course the latter sentence is ‘journalistic’ rather than academic. Did absolutely ‘everyone’ want to be part of the party? Probably not (though four million – or even three, if you doubt the official line – is not a bad start). However, my claim that this area is a major cultural legacy of the Games and one of the best examples of sustainable transformation for Rio is not just a catch-phrase: detailed academic papers could (and will) be written about this and prove the elements that evidence good planning – and good timing.

After seventeen-years directly observing and documenting experiences in nine Olympic cities (plus the legacy in my hometown, Barcelona) I am totally confident about this observation and the significance for Rio to have achieved this: creating a new, shared space where very diverse communities (in a continuously divided city) feel safe, welcome and happy to spend their leisure time.

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The commentary I offer on the benefits to favela life is not as deeply informed. I have not spent years in Rio’s favelas and I am not an expert in slum-living conditions, so of course I must exercise caution and have taken reactions to my piece seriously. Rio has been the first Olympic city where I have dedicated time and thinking to the particularities of such communities so as to understand whether Games-related legacies can trickle down beyond ‘formal’ (census-captured) neighbourhoods. I accept that I have had mixed views throughout my documentation process: the organisers told me that the Olympic education programme, Transforma, included all schools in Rio (favela schools too); that Games workforce opportunities were passed on to favela residents and special training programmes put in place to encourage applications; further, projects like Fight for Peace have targetted favelas especifically using the Games as an inspiration for community engagement. At the same time, it is apparent that there were many misunderstandings, that people felt excluded and not sufficiently visible in the Games’ central narrative. The cancellation of a large part of the official cultural programme (Celebra) also contributed to curtailing opportunities for direct participation and symbolic representation.

Despite all this, it is simply not true that the Games have only had negative effects on favela life. Forced evictions and the dark side of rushed pacification processes are important issues that have been extensively discussed. This discussion is the dominant background to favela-related Olympic city stories and includes well-informed and reflective pieces, as well as sensationalistic takes – with the latter particularly prominent in social media environments but also present in and amplified by many mainstream media. I have not found many pieces that embrace a discussion of both the negative and positive angles. It looks like we must take sides: black or white.

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Google search results to the request : “Rio 2016” “favelas” (29 August, 2016)

I have chosen to highlight the positive. And, one week on, with a bit of perspective, I accept that my angle may not have been precise enough. I accepted the catchy headline and the possibility to stir debate. But I was not clear enough on my actual purpose and concern: to bring a bit of ‘white’ to this ‘black’-dominated narrative so as to ensure we engage with less clearly-cut angles; and more than anything, to make a strong point about Rio as a complex and evolving city that has not just been a disaster zone ‘ravaged’ by the Olympic machinery. It is a city that, like Barcelona before it, was in need of a push to reconnect with its port spaces, needed to improve its public transport routes and needed to reclaim and rediscover public spaces, beyond the beach.

Porto Maravilhas, Parque Madureira and the fast-developing range of new arts community driven projects, new public transport links and extended facilities in a growing number of favelas are examples of improvement across Rio. The initiatives I mention in my article were pushed forward (and completed) thanks to the imperative for  ‘joint thinking’ that was imposed by the mega-event hosting process. Of course, there have also been many important fails (do I need to repeat that referring to achievements, completed and in development, does not deny that other projects have gone wrong?)

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If we are happy to look at Barcelona 1992 as a good – or at least, decent – reference model for urban change, we need to embrace the possibility that Rio has done ‘some’ things right and that ‘some’ positive urban legacies will emerge and grow in the years to come. Barcelona also excluded some communities from its Games hosting process and its Vila Olimpica was riddled with problems. It had no favelas but it had La Mina. It was not all rosy in 1992. But (particularly, mainstream) commentators have been keen to focus on what worked well and Barcelona is hailed as one of the top examples of post-Olympic “success”. Why do we want to stereotype Rio as a failure?

Olympic-driven urban change poses challenges and opens opportunities. We seem to want ‘perfect’ examples of Olympic city success or failure. Rio is being targeted as an example of everything that is wrong. But I have seen a lot that is right – and as an academic, as well as a commentator, I believe it is essential to raise the debate and recognise both the black and white dimensions in this rapidly evolving post-Olympic city narrative.

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My edited story is published here

The extended version of the original is here

Other stories about my research on Rio 2016 are here