Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games, ending the flame’s long journey from Greece to these delayed Olympics.
The four-time Grand Slam winner, who will represent Japan at the Tokyo Olympics, carried the torch up the stairs to the cauldron that sat atop a peak inspired by Mount Fuji. It’s design includes a sphere that opens like a flower, “to embody vitality and hope,” organizers said. The elements of the torch also reinforces the theme of the relay, "Hope Lights Our Way."
Sadaharu Oh, Shigeo Nagashima and former New York Yankees player Hideki Matsui were among the baseball greats who took part in bringing the flame into the stadium. They passed it to a doctor and nurse, Hiroko Oohash and Junko Kitagawa, who ran a couple hundred yards with it.
Wakako Tsuchida, a Paralympic athlete, took it from them and passed it to a group of six students who brought it closer to the stage before handing it off to Osaka.
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Oskaka brought it to the center of the stage. A staircase emerged, the cauldron opened and Osaka walked to the top, the Olympic and Japanese flags blowing in the breeze to her left. She dipped the flame in, igniting the cauldron as fireworks filled the sky. Inside Tokyo’s National Stadium, performers from throughout the night's ceremony held sunflowers — famous for blooming toward the sun.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka wrote on Instagram next to a picture of her smiling while holding the flame. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now, but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
Osaka was born in Japan and raised in the U.S. The 23-year-old gave up her American citizenship in 2019 because under Japan's Nationality Act, those with dual citizenship have to choose one before their 22nd birthday.
The opening ceremony is Osaka's first major public appearance in nearly two months after she withdrew from the French Open following the first round to take a mental health break.
There was a big hint that Osaka might have an important role in the ceremony when her opening match in the Olympic tennis tournament was pushed back from Saturday to Sunday without an explanation earlier in the day.
She was originally scheduled to play 52nd-ranked Zheng Saisai of China in the very first match of the Games on center court Saturday morning. But clearly by lighting the flame as midnight approached, she wouldn’t have had enough rest for an early morning match.
Osaka became the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron. She’s also one of the few active athletes to be given the honor. Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the cauldron for the 2000 Sydney Games and went on to win gold in the 400 meters.