In an opening without most of the mass spectacle that has become such a ritual of the modern Olympics, and marred by last-minute resignations over previous abusive behaviour from several core members of its creative team, one element in the opening ceremony of the ‘2020’ Games gave viewers much-needed continuity with fondly-remembered ceremonies of the past – the Parade of Nations, where each competing country’s athletes march behind their flag.
Every Summer and Winter Games since London’s first Olympics in 1908 has opened with a flag parade, though the tradition actually dates back two years further to an oddity of the Olympic calendar – the Intercalated Games held in Athens in 1906, during the brief period when the early Olympic movement planned to hold an extra Games in Greece halfway through every regular Olympiad, and now no longer recognised as an Olympics by the International Olympic Committee.
(The first Athens Games in 1896 did see standard-bearers lead athletes into the stadium before a rendition of the Olympic anthem and a short speech from the King of Greece – but since the 100m dash began immediately afterwards, perhaps that doesn’t count now as a proper ‘parade’.)
The ritual of each team parading behind an athlete carrying their national flag, carrying over the practice of military and uniformed organisations’ parades, could hardly be a more effective symbol of an idea the sociologist Michael Billig called ‘banal nationalism’ in his 1995 book of that name, which scholars have been using to think about international competitions ever since – the idea that the surface of the world and the whole of human culture are perfectly, cleanly and naturally divided into nations, bounded pieces of territory where national cultures are handed down.
So expressive of international competition as a format are flag parades that they have been adopted by other multi-sports events (like the British Empire Games, first held in 1930, which became the Commonwealth Games after the Second World War when the decolonisation of the British Empire began), and even Eurovision – the producers of the 2013 Malmö contest staged one for the first time in what might well have been a nod to the London 2012 Olympics, and the tradition has stuck.
Some past parades have enabled national Olympic committees to take stands on international political issues, such as North and South Korea marching under a unified flag when PyeongChang in South Korea hosted the Winter Games in 2018, or the British Olympic Association’s secretary Dick Palmer marching alone in 1980 to express British displeasure at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – an act of compromise with several sports bodies (and Margaret Thatcher) who had wanted to join the US in boycotting the Moscow Games.
Yet the parade has also started to reveal ways in which the fiction of banal nationalism breaks down. Since the Rio 2016 Games, the IOC has operated a Refugee Olympic Team for athletes who have had to flee their country of citizenship and could not otherwise compete because they are not yet eligible for citizenship of any other country. (Among their 29 members in Tokyo is the former Iranian taekwondoka Kimia Alizadeh, a bronze medallist in Rio, who fled Iran for Germany just before the pandemic began and had not formally competed since 2018; her unusually low seeding meant she met and eliminated the defending champion in her weight class, Great Britain’s double gold medallist Jade Jones, in the last 16.)
Eligible Russian athletes, meanwhile, currently parade and compete under neutral colours as the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ as a result of IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency sanctions against Russia: punishing the Russian state for sponsoring its extensive doping programme but not athletes who have proven themselves to be drug-free, the exclusion of Russia’s flag and anthem will last through the 2020 and 2022 Games. (The many Russian gold medallists we can expect in the meantime, including shooter Vitalina Batsarashkina who’s already won hers, will hear Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 during their medal ceremonies instead.)
Then, of course, there’s the ongoing fudge that means Taiwan has to take part under the name, anthem and insignia of a nominal ‘Chinese Taipei’ so as not to invite protests from China, which has been in place since the IOC recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
Flags are the universally recognised symbols of nations in the Olympic-style parade – but the bodies of athletes, and teams’ choices about how to style them, do just as much symbolic work under the Olympic gaze.
Performance on parade
Even in everyday life, dress and style are imbued with meaning: both consciously and less consciously, we signal aspects of our identity through at least some of our choices about what we wear and our responses to who we expect to see us; other people draw conclusions about aspects of our identity from what they notice about the choices we’ve made, whether or not those are the conclusions we meant. Uniforms, designed to signal a collective identity to insiders and outsiders as well as to create a sense of conformity and discipline within a team, bring with them an extra level of deliberateness altogether.
As dress historian Geraldine Biddle-Perry writes in her study of very early British Olympic teams’ opening ceremony uniforms, ‘[t]here is a need to examine what is at stake when bodies participate in the spectacular culture of nationalism’ – which, in modern Olympic opening ceremonies, they now do in front of some of the largest simultaneous television audiences in the world.
Creating a team uniform for an Olympic ceremony, especially outfitting the flagbearers who will be the focus of the audience’s collective gaze, puts teams and their designers in the position of deciding how to embody the nation on a spectrum from traditional to modern, and how to signal the team’s relationship towards the social institution of world sport. All these considerations influence design as well as the practical factors of cost, climate, and the multitude of body shapes that Olympic uniform designers need to clothe.
For the majority of countries in the Olympics, the spectrum from traditional to modern is also a spectrum from national authenticity to the aesthetics of the homogenising West (even if, in many of their cases, the idea that certain traditions were national emerged from anti-colonial resistance once the Western colonisers had already come) – and, designers will be aware, is simultaneously yet another balancing beam for the nation to perform on in the endless test of how well it has ‘kept up’ with the West.
‘Western’ styles of opening ceremony outfit – the kind that go unmarked as ‘normal’ by most viewers in the West – run on their own spectrum, linked to ideas of modernity and class. Classic ensembles with blazers, pocket handkerchiefs and sometimes even boaters stem from the summer wear of the white British and North American upper classes at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the fashion of the elites who founded world sport’s institutions for themselves – and the ideal that outsiders would have to match impeccably in order to assimilate.
(Back in that era during the first few Games, the idea of team uniforms for the opening parade was only starting to bed in: according to Biddle-Perry, even though the US team in 1908 had been issued with matching suits in national colours on the voyage to London, most of the athletes who marched in the parade turned out in ‘everyday leisure attire of tweed knickerbockers or dark lounge suits’ topped with a stars-and-stripes cap, while the British team’s vests were each edged in their own club or college colours, with a Union Flag cricket cap again the only completely homogenous piece of uniform.)
Modern, casual performance wear might suggest the opposite: a technologically advanced and forward-looking nation, secure enough about how the world sees its modernity to be confident in its meritocracy. The simple business suit probably falls somewhere in the middle, while Team USA has defaulted to Ralph Lauren’s country club aesthetic every Games since 2008 (and counting). Opening ceremony outfits have lent themselves to instant nation-branding since before the word ‘nation-branding’ was invented: a famous image from the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid shows the US team in shearling jackets and Stetsons and the Soviet team in equally iconic fur coats and hats, with the smaller Yugoslav team in chic alpine winter wear directly between them on the field, exactly where socialist Yugoslavia’s geopolitical identity would have wanted it to be.
Tradition has its own spectrum too. At one end is full-on reproduction of ‘authenticity’, concealing any adaptations out of plain sight; at the other is showing off the nation’s modernity through how skilfully its designers have been able to incorporate traditional elements into creativity recognisable by global standards – that is, by a Western gaze – as fashionable and contemporary. (‘Folk music’ and ‘world music’ work exactly the same way; at Eurovision, it’s the difference between ‘Hora din Moldova’ and Ruslana).
Post-Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, with national folklore infrastructures shaped by decades of Soviet cultural policy that aimed to construct national cultures for each of the USSR’s titular republics, might be some of the most likely to bring traditional dress to the Olympic opening ceremony. Budget constraints and the extreme heat of Tokyo in July/August probably explain why that’s been slightly less in evidence this year (the ‘2020’ Games are likely to see the highest temperatures of any Olympics to date, though who knows how long that record will stand) – certainly compared to 2016, when the Georgian team offered a perfect illustration of the gender politics of tradition, modernity and nationhood by outfitting the men in charcoal suits with folk details and the women in full-on folk-style dresses, reportedly inspired by the medieval Georgian past.
This year’s Georgian team opted for white suits with red arm stripes matching the national flag; Kyrgyzstan carried the metaphorical flag for post-Soviet neotraditional fashion at the Olympics by dressing its athletes in long white embroidered jackets and having its men wear kalpaks, the Kyrgyz national hat, which was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2019.
Athletes and designers from island states in the Global South, meanwhile, know very well that their countries’ costume traditions exist within a complex web of coloniality and exoticism on the global stage. Under colonial rule, these were among the very practices Western missionaries and educators sought to stamp out. Despite that – or equally, in the erotics of colonialism, because of it – both the Caribbean and Oceania have seen their folk costumes relentlessly sexualised for Western gazes and Western profit.
No Olympic flagbearer has created as much anticipation around themselves as a flagbearer as Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua has done since 2016 when he first carried the Tongan flag wearing a traditional ta’ovala around his waist and a bare, oiled chest.
In Rio, Taufatofua had to craft his entrance behind the back of team officials, who reportedly asked him to ‘please just wear the suit’ – suggesting how sensitive they might have been over the risk of being seen as conforming to stereotype rather than reclaiming tradition. (‘I was representing 1,000 years of history,’ Taufatofua told The Guardian in 2019; ‘we didn’t have suits and ties when we traversed the Pacific Ocean.’)
Since then, his flag parade appearances (including the 2018 Winter Games, where he competed in cross-country skiing) might just have made him the most famous Tongan on the planet – though more people probably know him as ‘the topless Tongan flagbearer’ than by his name.
Taufatofua, formerly a youth counsellor in Australia, has used his fame to become a UNICEF Pacific Ambassador and work with the Tongan government on sport in schools – and seems to have inspired Vanuatuan rower Riilio Rii to make a shirtless entrance in Tokyo as well (serendipitously accompanied by an orchestral version of the Final Fantasy theme, no less – as part of the parade’s medley of famous soundtracks from Japanese video games).
The only country in the Global North to incorporate Indigenous dress into its flagbearer outfits is New Zealand, whose flagbearers since the last Athens Games have worn Te Māhutonga, the kākahu or feathered cloak that Māori master weavers spent thousands of hours creating for the team’s future heritage in 2004. As the weaver who keeps it safe between Olympics, Rānui Ngārimu, explains:
For me it is about telling the story of New Zealand and our team from Aotearoa … Many hands went into the making of the kākahu, Māhutonga. Whether it was by the gathering and preparing of the fibres and feathers, and the weaving itself. And many hands went into helping those athletes to become Olympians. That’s what I think about when I see it.
The entrance of flagbearers wearing Te Māhutonga – this year David Nyika, a boxer of Ugandan and European descent (a last-minute switch for rower Hamish Bond), alongside women’s rugby sevens captain Sarah Hirini, who has Māori heritage – also symbolised the extent to which New Zealand has incorporated Māori symbols, tradition and language into its state identity, decentring European primacy more than any other settler colonial nation has attempted. (Nyika wore Te Māhutonga itself, Hirini was presented with another kākahu before the team travelled to the Games.)
Outfitting a pair of flagbearers wasn’t a prospect Ngārimu and her fellow weavers had to think about in 2004 – but the Tokyo Games are the first where flagbearers of both genders recognised at the Games have been allowed and encouraged, though not required. In May 2021 the IOC hailed Tokyo as ‘the first gender-equal Olympic Games ever’, with at least one female and one male athlete on each team, though the United Arab Emirates chose not to act on its invitation to enter a woman in the 100m sprint. (The UAE and Oman both fielded all-male delegations in the flag parade, though Oman’s Mazoon al-Alawi is due to compete in the women’s 100m later this Games.)
Only some 10 per cent of Olympic committees chose not to select two flagbearers (the UAE, Ethiopia, Oman, Samoa, Djibouti, Suriname, Tajikistan, Nigeria, Niger, Nepal, Vanuatu, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Brunei, Mali and Libya only had men; Congo, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Bermuda and Bulgaria only had women), leaving 90 per cent of the parading countries (including Afghanistan and Iraq, the training grounds for NATO’s implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda) appearing as gender-equal as the IOC is able to imagine.
These 400-odd athletes all carried the weight and honour of representing and symbolising their nations – while, in Olympic ritual, the host nation’s chosen torchlighter carries the extra prize and burden of symbolising the Olympic community’s hopes for the entire Games, and thus the world.
Carrying the torch
The Olympic torch relay, notoriously, dates back to 1936, when the Nazi regime which had inherited Germany’s right to stage the next Summer and Winter Olympics used the Games to attempt to tie together their myth of Aryan racial origin and superiority – which grafted smoothly on to the Eurocentrism of Baron de Coubertin’s vision for the Olympic movement itself.
Though Amsterdam’s organising committee in 1928 had instituted the convention of lighting the Olympic flame at the opening of the Games, in homage to the ancient Games’ tradition, lighting the torch at Olympia and transporting it overland to the host stadium was the invention of the Berlin organisers, who realised they could use the symbolism of flame to cast the Third Reich as the inheritor of classical Greek virtue. Such was its propaganda value that the flame-kindling ceremony at Olympia was even restaged by Leni Riefenstahl for her film of the Games, because she considered the organisers had staged it in an unphotogenic setting.
Fritz Schilgen, the final torchbearer in the relay, was chosen as what the Olympic Museum euphemistically describes as a ‘symbol of German sporting youth’ – or rather, as any photo of the ceremony makes clear, an embodiment of the Nazis’ Aryan athletic ideal from head to toe.
Post-war Olympics have kept the torch relay but made various efforts to democratise the figure of the torchbearer, partly perhaps to distance the ritual from its Nazi past. A surprising number of final torchbearers have not even been athletes: Norway’s two Olympic cauldrons have been lit by Fridtjof Nansen’s grandson (at Oslo in 1952) and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, in honour of his father and grandfather who had been Olympic sailors (at Lillehammer in 1994).
Montreal’s cauldron in 1976 was lit by two teenagers representing the confederation of Anglophone and Francophone Canada; several other Games have given the honour to young people, and the London 2012 Games, performing (in Olympic terms) a radically cosmopolitan and democratic identity for Britain after the ultra-regimented Olympics of Beijing, split the symbolic role of torchbearer up altogether among seven teenage athletes and sports volunteers.
Tokyo’s first Olympic cauldron, in 1964, was lit by Yoshinori Sakai, an emerging sprinter who had been born in Hiroshima on the day of the US atomic bomb in 1945. For the ‘2020’ Games, held in 2021, Tokyo’s organisers chose a Japanese sporting celebrity like no other – Naomi Osaka, the Japanese-Haitian tennis star and winner of double Australian and US Opens whose family have lived in the US since she was three years old.
In 2020, moreover, Osaka had become an icon of athlete activism through her support of Black Lives Matter. After Kenosha police shot Jacob Blake in August 2020 she temporarily withdrew from the Western and Southern Open to join a strike called by NBA, WNBA and MLS players, and a few weeks later at the US Open came out for each round in a mask honouring the name of a different African American who had lost their life to police or vigilante racism (Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice) – harnessing all the attention that sports spectatorship draws towards the athlete’s body and dress through a compulsory accessory that had not even existed a year ago.
(For Tokyo, Osaka had her hair put into red box braids with white accents echoing the colours of the Japanese flag – another way of affirming her Black and Japanese identities at once.)
Though no other Japanese athlete has a profile like Osaka’s, choosing her as torchbearer also made the Tokyo Games appear to stand on the side of global racial justice, in a country where anti-Black racism is widespread and until recently almost unquestioned (Tokyo witnessed its own Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and Osaka’s activism has had ripples in Japan as well). Indeed, even the opening ceremony reportedly failed to live up to its own ideals behind the scenes – as a Senegalese percussionist who lives in Japan, Latyr Sy, claimed he had been cut from the ceremony with only weeks to go because an official had thought he would look out of place in the drumming display.
Osaka’s stand against the exploitative infrastructure of contemporary sport this year, protecting her mental health by refusing to take part in confrontational press conferences even at the expense of her French Open and Wimbledon places, meanwhile reminds us that behind athletes’ bodily performances there are choices and costs.
Until very shortly before Tokyo, athletes whose teams had become accustomed to taking the knee in collective commitment to the struggle against racism could not be certain whether or not they would fall foul of the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50, which bans any ‘kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda’ across Olympic sites.
After a ten-month review – that is, a review that must have started in autumn 2020 after the summer’s unprecedented displays of athlete anti-racist activism – the IOC relaxed Rule 50 to allow peaceful gestures on the field of play before the start of competition, though podium protests like Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute in 1968 would still be banned. (The British Olympic Association, for its part, had confirmed as early as last October that it would support any GB athletes who chose to protest at the Games.)
Reportedly, the IOC has also prevented its own social media channels from relaying images of athletes taking the knee. With media organisations, national team accounts and athletes themselves all sharing content into the same digital space, that ban’s impact might be limited in the digital publics where Black Lives Matter activism is already being debated (and already showing signs of how national identities like England’s could refresh) – suggesting it might instead have been a containment measure against its further transnational spread.
Coming back full circle to the question of dress, a parallel focus of athlete activism this summer has been the revealing nature of women’s traditional competition outfits in many sports (the German women’s gymnastics team started wearing full-length bodysuits in this year’s European championships to feel ‘the most confident and comfortable’, and have brought them to Tokyo; the Norwegian women’s beach handball team, who aren’t in the Olympics, were fined during their European championships for defying their international federation’s imposition of bikini bottoms; while Paralympic long jumper Olivia Breen was told by an official at the British championships that her Adidas competition briefs were too short).
These cases have predominantly involved white women (though Kim Bui, on the German gymnastics team, has Vietnamese and Lao heritage) – but taken in parallel with the racism athletes like Osaka have been exposed to through social media and the press, and the anti-trans, anti-intersex measures that have prevented some women of colour like Caster Semenya taking part in the Games at all, they hint at how racism and sexism have intersected to produce double standards for women in sport that athletes are starting to name openly but sports institutions are yet to properly address.
Whatever meanings viewers make from athletes’ bodily performances, in parade or protest, the choices that athletes make about how to enact them in the instant of a live broadcast are ultimately their own – and in this second year of the pandemic, they, plus everyone else who has made the Games in person, are the ones who have put their own bodies’ health of the line so that athletes can gather to achieve the feats they trained for and the IOC can deliver its spectacle with only a year’s delay.