Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron with the Olympic torch, which was handed off several times after entering the stadium

Advertisement
Naomi Osaka of Team Japan is handed the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Naomi Osaka
| Credit: Dylan Martinez - Pool/Getty Images

For the Tokyo Summer Games, the Olympic flame is more symbolic than ever.

On Friday, Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron with the Olympic torch, which was handed off several times after entering the stadium, including from New York Yankees legend Hideki Matsui and a Japanese doctor and nurse. NBC Sports' Mike Tirico later said during the broadcast that the tennis star's opening match was pushed back to Sunday so she could take part in the ceremony.

Paralympian Tsuchida Wakako passed the torch on to several local students, who in turn took it to Osaka.

Osaka's mother, Tamika Osaka, is Japanese, and the tennis star is representing Japan in the Olympics.

"The most important thing was to deliver a message of diversity and inclusion. In the end, we decided on [Osaka] because she is a great athlete and she has been delivering a variety of messages so we thought she was the best person to be the final torchbearer. It was a decision that the whole organizing committee came to," said Hioki Takayuki, who was the executive producer of the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony.

When asked whether Osaka's appearance contributed to improving the image of the Tokyo Games, Takayuki said, "It's more about the absolute values that Naomi Osaka offers. That's what we focus on. Of course, for the Games as a whole and also for Japan, she is a jewel, she is a treasure for us, so that is why we selected her."

Osaka's big moment comes shortly after she took a step back from the spotlight, citing her mental health, and opted to sit out the 2021 French Open and Wimbledon. In her first match in nearly two months, Osaka is set to take on 52nd-ranked Saisai Zheng of China in the opening round of the Olympic tournament.

The torch paid homage to the cherry blossom, a symbol for the host country, with its shape of five "petals" from which the flames emerged, according to NBC Olympics, which also reported that the torch was made out of aluminum using the same technology used to produce Japan's bullet trains.

The torch carriers enter the stadium with the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony
Credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Olympic flame, which goes out in Tokyo on Aug. 8 during the Closing Ceremony, first became part of the modern Olympic tradition in 1928 when it appeared at the Games hosted in Amsterdam. Eight years later, the lighting ceremony and the torch relay were introduced in the Opening Ceremony program.

With a slogan of "hope lights our way," the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay began with the traditional lighting ceremony at Olympia, Greece, on March 12, 2020, which was the first lighting ceremony since 1984 to be held without spectators due to the COVID pandemic. In addition, the global health crisis forced the Games to be postponed by a year thus the torch relay was put on hold.

Naomi Osaka of Team Japan is handed the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Naomi Osaka
| Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

A year later, on March 25, the torch relay resumed in Fukushima and traversed all 47 prefectures across Japan. The start of the relay coincided with when cherry blossoms hit their peak bloom and the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Organizers wanted the torch relay and its slogan to "showcase the recovery of the areas worst affected by the disaster," and amid the COVID pandemic, "hope lights our way" additionally symbolizes the "light at the end of the dark tunnel; a beacon of hope for the world in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, themselves a symbol of the resilience, the unity and the solidarity of humankind."

Notably, 2021 also marks the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Atlanta Games where the late boxing icon Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron.

Even before the official start of the Tokyo Games, this current Olympics cycle has been unlike any other and its reception from local residents has been deeply unpopular. Many fear that hosting the international competitions will result in superspreader events as the country is largely unvaccinated due to a relatively slow rollout and COVID cases continue to rise amid the threat of the delta variant. In addition, major Olympic sponsors and leaders in Japan continue to speak out against moving forward with the Games.

To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. The Tokyo Olympics begin July 23rd on NBC.