TOKYO – The Olympic flame is officially out in Tokyo.
The closing ceremony in Olympic Stadium was fairly relaxed, and perhaps most poignantly, it aimed to show the athletes a small taste of ordinary life in Japan --something they haven't been exposed to due to pandemic restrictions.
It wrapped up more than two weeks of athletic competition and the largest international gathering to take place during the pandemic.
The ceremony celebrated the athletes, the volunteers and the organizers of the postponed Tokyo Games, which involved about 230,000 people, including more than 41,000 people who traveled from abroad.
"You inspired us with this unifying power of sport. This was even more remarkable given the many challenges you had to face because of the pandemic," Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, told the athletes. "You give the world the most precious of gifts – hope."
And the Japanese organizers have now passed the torch to the next city hosting a Summer Games – Paris.
A moment to relax, and move forward
After the heated competition of the Games, the ceremony organizers tried to create an atmosphere of relaxation for the athletes and spectators, acknowledging that the "atmosphere was far tenser than usual."
And the athletes did appear relaxed, freely mixing with each other and dancing on the field as music played. Some even lay down on the field.
Of course, this event is happening in a stadium with only dignitaries and a small group of press in the seats. And the actual group of competitors present for the Parade of Athletes is much smaller that usual, because they were required to depart shortly after their competition wrapped up.
The organizers said the closing ceremony is celebrating the world coming together to make these Games happen, despite the enormous challenges.
Celebrating the last 17 days of competition
The ceremony kicked off with a video showing some highlights from the events of the Games, and fireworks lit up the sky. The scenes — across countries and sports — celebrated the efforts of all the athletes, not medals in particular.
A musical theater troupe performed the national anthem of Japan, wearing formal traditional Japanese dress in many colors.
Then, flag bearers from each country walked in together, in a parade of colorful flags. The U.S. flag bearer is javelin thrower Kara Winger who was selected by fellow athletes. Japan's flag bearer was karate gold medalist Ryo Kiyuna.
When the athletes entered, they streamed in from four corners of the stadium, waving flags and smiling to the cameras. They came in to the sounds of the "Olympic March," written by a Japanese composer and played at the 1964 Games in Tokyo.
Unlike the opening ceremony, when each walked in as a group with their compatriots, the athletes all walked in at the same time. According to the organizers, it's the first closing ceremony where the athletes all came in en masse.
Then, the shape of the Olympic rings formed over the field using lighting effects.
Bringing the athletes into Tokyo
The athletes have not been able to explore Tokyo during their time at the Games due to pandemic restrictions. For nearly 15 minutes, the field transformed into an "imaginary park in Tokyo," to try to give them the impression of being around a stylized version of ordinary life.
With the athletes walled off from them by cast members, actors did normal things you'd see around Tokyo, like ride bikes, play soccer, throw a ball around, dance or do yoga as a group.
A DJ scratched on turntables as breakdancers spun on stage.
The highly choreographed number was a bittersweet acknowledgement that despite a full competition schedule, the kind of cultural exchange that usually characterizes the Olympics was not possible for these athletes.
The ceremony also took a moment for two final medal ceremonies — the winners of the men's and women's marathon.
Showcasing Japanese culture
The ceremony took a moment to remember and reflect on the difficult past year. A single dancer stood on stage, wearing a green and brown costume meant to evoke a tree. "Even if the outer layer is no longer alive, the trunk continues to live on and strengthen its centuries-old connection to the earth and land in which its roots stretch deep," the organizers said. People surrounded the stage and slowly walked, holding softly lit lanterns.
A video highlighted traditional festivals from around Japan, another way to show the athletes more about the country. Dancers in traditional dress performed four dances from different parts of the country.
The program ended with a handover to the Paris organizers, and a preview of the Games to come there in 2024. A video from the Paris organizers included a bike ride around the rooftops of Paris starring French BMX athletes, and a massive flag with the Paris 2024 logo unfurling over the Eiffel Tower. According to the Paris organizers, it is the largest flag ever flown — nearly the size of a football field.
Finally, the Olympic flame slowly flickered out, officially drawing the Tokyo Games to a close.