The weight of the past year was not lost on organizers, who paid tribute to first responders and those we lost during Friday's Olympic opening ceremony in Tokyo


The Tokyo Olympics officially kicked off in Japan on Friday, and while the opening ceremony had serious sparkle, the gravity of the past year also took center stage.

To open the show, entitled "United by Emotion," Japanese champion middleweight boxer Arisa Tsubata took to a treadmill, as performers around her appeared exercising solo, too.

The moments represented the isolation of the past year-and-a-half, and were extra meaningful to Tsubata: she's also a nurse who treated COVID-19 patients at a hospital outside of Tokyo through the pandemic. 

As performers continued with a routine that carried more symbolism related to time spent apart from loved ones, the Japanese national flag was brought into the stadium by six people including one healthcare worker, as a way "to express to the entire world our utmost gratitude for the healthcare professionals who supported us in our day-to-day lives during the COVID-19 pandemic," according to a release. Firefighter Mizuki Asaba was the honoree; he joined the Tokyo fire department in April of 2013 and is a working paramedic as well. 

Tokyo 2020 - Opening Ceremony
Credit: David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock

Minutes later, spectators in-person and at home were asked to observe a moment of silence for "all those we have lost," an announcer shared. The moment was also held for the members of the Israeli Olympics team who were killed by Palestinian gunmen at the 1972 Munich games; NBC's Mike Tirico noted it was the first time ever those 11 athletes have been acknowledged during an Olympics opening ceremony.

Arisa Tsubata at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games
Credit: Stanislav KrasilnikovTASS via Getty Images

In speeches before the lighting of the cauldron, Tokyo Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto and International Olympics Committee president Thomas Bach gave passionate speeches about all that Olympic athletes overcame through the pandemic, urging unity among countries as the world remains divided.

"Today is a moment of hope," said Bach. "This is the unifying power of sport. This is the message of solidarity, the message of peace and the message of resilience. This gives all of us hope for our further journey together."

As the ceremony began to wind down, the Olympic flag was carried into the stadium by six athletes who also gave "their time and talent to serve as essential workers in their local communities," per a tweet from the official Olympics account.

Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Credit: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

And for the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, essential workers were again honored: as various Japanese athletes carried the torch through the stadium, they briefly passed the flame to Dr. Hiroki Ohashi, a family physician who treated COVID-19 patients onboard a cruise ship last year, and nurse Junko Kitagawa, who has also taken care of many sick with COVID-19.

"The organizers and creators have taken pains to place this ceremony in its time," said NBC's Savannah Guthrie, "match the moment, remember that we're in a pandemic and remember the people that have worked so hard to make this moment possible."

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit Watch the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23 and the Tokyo Paralympics beginning August 24 on NBC.