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

The Olympics opening ceremony is always a real-time visual puzzle, full of abstract imagery and figurative dance saying something — I guess — about global ideals and national character. But you did not need a decoder ring to tease out the symbolism of the restrained pageant that began the Tokyo Games.

A video animation swooped downward and homed in on the image of a seed. On the field, a lone figure stood in a green spotlight, backed by the shadow of an unfolding sprout. Fluid lights undulated on the field surface, mimicking the coursing of blood. There was video of empty cityscapes and of athletes training in solitude.

You get the idea: Life. Life disrupted, persisting, driven nonetheless to express itself.

But there was a powerful counter-image in the broadcast, expressed in absence and negative space. Behind all the artistry were the banks and banks of stands in a mostly depopulated stadium, representing — not at all abstractly — the continuing danger for a world, and a host city, still struggling with a Covid-19 pandemic that is not over and not receding everywhere equally. The Japanese flag rose up the ceremonial pole against a ghostly backdrop of empty seats.

With few spectators on hand, this ceremony and these Games are a made-for-TV event even more than they usually are. And these images communicated the tension for both host and broadcaster. Is this year’s Olympic spirit one of resilience or of hubris? Is NBC covering — and participating in — a celebration or a catastrophe?

There were indications of both at once. The international athletes, who ordinarily join the Parade of Nations to massive cheers, entered a quiet stadium, smiling with their eyes while sporting face masks in festive national colors.

It was not the boisterous return-to-life party we might have hoped for a year ago, nor was it the retreat we might have expected. It was a halfway, transitional ceremony for a halfway, transitional, precarious moment.

And for NBC, covering the ceremony live for U.S. morning TV, it meant an awkward balancing act for an event that it is used to covering as an expensive party.

After a year’s postponement — the ubiquitous logo “Tokyo 2020,” no typo, was a constant reminder — the Games began over the objections of most people in Japan, fearful of a superspreader event as the country fought to keep Covid in check. These Games are something that much of the world needed and the last thing that many in the actual host city wanted.

There have been controversies in and about other Olympic Games; there have already been controversies at this one. But this time, the existence of these Games themselves is the biggest controversy — one that NBC is inevitably implicated in.

A big reason the Games are barreling ahead is money — the billions that would be lost if they were canceled or further postponed. A big source of that money is TV. And chief among the Olympics’ TV partners is NBC Universal. Like the life force visualized in the opening performance, corporate money pulses behind everything the Games do.

This leaves NBC to cover as a news story an Olympics that it is airing and funding as entertainment. And it left the network’s morning anchors, Savannah Guthrie and Mike Tirico, juggling tone and focus, trying to meet the moment without bumming out the audience it wants to tune in for two weeks.

Judging from the morning’s coverage, one strategy will be to focus on the feel-better stories of the athletes. “When you keep your focus on them, when you think about them finally getting their moment,” Guthrie said before the ceremony, “I think that’s why we’re still so excited to be here.”

And look, who wouldn’t rather focus on sports during the Olympics? Who doesn’t want to unclench and have fun and give these athletes their hard-earned attention?

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.