The Olympics Begin on NBC With Abstract Imagery, Drones and Dancing

The Olympics opening ceremony is at all times a real-time visible puzzle, stuffed with summary imagery and figurative dance saying one thing — I suppose — about world beliefs and nationwide character. But you didn’t want a decoder ring to tease out the symbolism of the restrained pageant that started the Tokyo Games.

A video animation swooped downward and homed in on the picture of a seed. On the sector, a lone determine stood in a inexperienced highlight, backed by the shadow of an unfolding sprout. Fluid lights undulated on the sector floor, mimicking the coursing of blood. There was video of empty cityscapes and of athletes coaching in solitude.

You get the thought: Life. Life disrupted, persisting, pushed nonetheless to precise itself.

But there was a strong counter-image within the broadcast, expressed in absence and adverse house. Behind all of the artistry had been the banks and banks of stands in a principally depopulated stadium, representing — in no way abstractly — the persevering with hazard for a world, and a number metropolis, nonetheless battling a Covid-19 pandemic that’s not over and not receding in all places equally. The Japanese flag rose up the ceremonial pole in opposition to a ghostly backdrop of empty seats.

With few spectators on hand, this ceremony and these Games are a made-for-TV occasion much more than they normally are. And these pictures communicated the stress for each host and broadcaster. Is this yr’s Olympic spirit one in all resilience or of hubris? Is NBC covering — and participating in — a celebration or a catastrophe?

We’ve been through a lot, after all. The ceremony included a deeply moving image of solo figures on the field, training together but separately. It brought back a flood of feelings from the past year, memories of isolating and deferring plans and trying to keep hopes and plans alive. As the U.S. Olympic team entered, NBC took live commentary from the flag bearers, Sue Bird and Eddy Alvarez. “I know our country’s in a tough moment right now,” Bird said, “but right now, we all feel unified and it’s incredible.”

Even what was just about the athletes at this ceremony was not just about the athletes.

It made for some dissonant moments. As India took the field during the Parade of Nations, Tirico noted the country’s devastation in the recent wave of the pandemic. But as it was followed by Indonesia, there was no mention of that populous country’s having recently hit record levels of Covid cases and deaths. “Badminton is big in Indonesia!” Guthrie said. “Wildly popular!”

It is possible, maybe unavoidable, to both love these Games and fear them. But it will also be a test for NBC as a news outlet not to use the Olympians to avoid the Olympics.

Reality will intrude regardless, in more ways than one. As the Parade of Nations continued, NBC put some delegations — sorry, Haiti; better luck next time, Vanuatu — picture-in-picture with the ads (full of cheery, unmasked faces) during commercial breaks. These included an anime spot for Taco Bell, a cross-cultural reminder that the Olympics, in the end, are big business.

But there were still priceless moments. The ceremony also gave us a hovering globe composed of pinpoints of light from 1,800 drones; a torch relay involving athletes, health-care workers and a group of children representing regions of Japan devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami; and the tennis star Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic cauldron atop a stylized Mount Fuji.

Any Olympics in any year is bound to produce highlights. The challenge for NBC will be to capture the whole along with the parts, in a Games that is about more than just games.

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