Japan's confronting moment with megastar

2 months ago 16
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In an Olympic Games where precious few moments may divert from the global pandemic crisis, Naomi Osaka set fire to the norm.

The four-time Grand Slam champion lit the Tokyo Olympics flame as Japan's most famous current Olympic athlete, ala Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000, and may yet have such resounding cultural impacts as the iconic Australian.

For Osaka, in colloquial terms, is a 'haafu' - a mixed race person, of a Haitian father and Japanese mother. It would be of little consequence in many countries yet is a significant matter in Japan, one of the world's most mono-cultural nations; which has struggled somewhat to come to grips with its latest sporting megastar.

'Haafu' had long been a negative slight in Japan. Certainly, it would previously have been unthinkable that a mixed-raced person would have been selected above all others to light the Olympic flame.

Osaka's moment is thus a watershed moment in Japanese society, in which the nation as a whole must come to grips with matters of fundamental national pride and identity, at a time when its racial norms are finally being eroded.

Naomi Osaka of Team Japan lights the Olympic cauldron. (Getty)

ABC broadcaster Kumi Taguchi, whose father is Japanese, was commentating on Seven and offered the following observation.

"Inspired choice but I have to put this cultural spin on it as well," she said.

"Naomi Osaka, haafu as they say in Japan, she has waxed and waned over the years and she had some issues in Japan with a lot of people saying is she really Japanese and there was a discussion going on behind the scenes.

"For me, it's a hugely inspired choice when you're looking at issues like diversity and acceptance for Naomi Osaka to light that flame.

"It's not only the mental health aspect, which has been so rightly brought out, but this kind of sense of who someone is and their identity and that being put to the fore and being totally celebrated regardless of how many parts of your skin colour is built up over the years."

The Olympic torch is passed on to Naomi Osaka of Japan before the lighting of the Olympic Flame during the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony. (Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Osaka has just skipped Roland Garros and Wimbledon due to mental health issues, heightening the focus on her. She is a firm medal fancy in Tokyo and the host nation would love her to claim gold.

She was greatly honoured to light the flame. Tennis was greatly honoured by her doing so.

"What a special moment for @naomiosaka, the final Olympic flame torchbearer, who had the honour of lighting the #Olympics cauldron," tennis icon Billie Jean King tweeted.

Tennis commentator Nick McCarvel said: "Still digesting Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic cauldron. What it means for tennis - for her, for Japan. For mixed race kids all over the world. Outstandingly iconic. Representation mattersss."

New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg noted that is was historic even before taking into account Osaka's racial background.

Osaka is up against the likes of Australian world No.1 Ash Barty in the Olympic women's singles tournament. Barty was the Australian flag bearer, alongside Indigenous basketball hero Patty Mills.

The Japanese megastar has proven herself the world's foremost player on the surface, having won both the US and Australian Opens twice.

"The Olympics are a special time, when the world comes together to celebrate sports. I am looking forward most to being with the athletes that had waited and trained for over 10 years, for celebrating a very hard year (2020) and having that happen in Japan makes it that much more special," Osaka wrote in an email interview when she was selected as the 2020 AP Female Athlete of the Year. "It's a special and beautiful country filled with culture, history and beauty. I cannot be more excited."

Clearly, she was never going to skip the Games, despite her personal struggles this year. Active athletes are rarely chosen to light the flame and Osaka has joined the likes of Freeman by fulfilling the transcendent honour.

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