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After a year of apathy, swirling uncertainty and widespread anxiety about Covid, the Japanese public appeared to suddenly catch Olympic fever on Saturday as the games exploded into life on the opening day of competition.
The International Olympic Committee reported that 69.4 million people in Japan – about half of the population – had watched some part of the Games on TV – far higher than expectations – while thousands defied calls to stay at home during the men’s cycle road race to line the streets to cheer and applaud the riders.
Some of Team GB’s biggest stars had a successful first day. Andy Murray, playing with Joe Salisbury, won their first round doubles match, knocking out the second seeds. Meanwhile in the pool, Adam Peaty underlined why he is considered Britain’s banker at these Games by swimming the eighth-fastest 100m breaststroke time in history to reach Sunday’s semi-finals. The defending Olympic champion also holds the other seven quickest times.
Peaty admitted that he wished that spectators had been in the aquatics centre to cheer him and the other swimmers on, and said it didn’t feel like a normal Olympics without them.
There was also joy for Team GB’s female footballers, who qualified for the knockout stages with a game to spare with a tense 1-0 win over hosts Japan, while on Sunday Jade Jones could become the first British woman to win three gold medals in successive Games in taekwondo.
But Britain’s hopes of starting with a bang fell short as Scottish shooter Seonaid McIntosh failed to make the final in the opening event, the women’s 10m air rifle final. There was also no luck for Team GB’s cyclists in the men’s road race, with grand tour winners Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart both crashing, although Adam Yates finished ninth.
The hosts had a gold medal to celebrate as Naohisa Takato won the men’s under-60kg judo title after defeating Taiwan’s Yang Yung-wei in the final. However there was also disappointment for Japan as gymnastic legend Kōhei Uchimura, a seven-time Olympic medal winner, failed to qualify for the final and swimmer Daiya Seto, the odds-on favourite for the 400m individual medley, was knocked out in his heat.
Back in the UK there was an outpouring of frustration as the public came to the belated realisation that the BBC is now only allowed to show two Olympic events live at one time. As a result of Discovery securing a pan-European rights package for £920m in 2017, the BBC had to subcontract the rights – meaning that much of the gymnastics and rowing can only be seen with a £30 subscription.
As Dan Walker, who anchored the BBC’s coverage, explained on Twitter: “I know we’ve got used to being able to see every sport – on various streams – at the Olympics, but this time the BBC is only allowed to show two sports at the same time. It is an issue about TV rights and not an editorial choice.”
The message was reinforced by the four-time Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent, who added: “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the channel can’t show more than two things at once. It’s a contractual thing with Discovery. Rowing will get pushed aside often.”
Such explanations were not universally accepted. A Team GB tweet about Max Whitlock competing in the artistic men’s gymnastics qualification attracted complaints from viewers who couldn’t see it. As one put it: “Why is there now double cycling on the BBC instead of this?”
The BBC said it would continue to bring extensive coverage from the Games “including all the must-see moments”. However, it also admitted: “The BBC is no longer able to offer live streams of every sport during the Olympics due to the terms of the licensing arrangements laid down by the rights holder [Discovery].”
Earlier in the day, IOC and Tokyo Olympic officials said they were delighted with the numbers of viewers in Japan, although they admitted to some trepidation due to the threat of Tropical Storm Nepartak, which could hit land later this week.
The storm, which formed on Friday and has already caused the rowing on Monday to be cancelled, is considered unlikely to strengthen into a typhoon, but could still cause heavy rain and gusts of more than 50mph as it nears Japan. A Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said the issue was being discussed at the highest level and organisers would monitor the weather closely in the coming days.
“Of course it has been discussed in crisis management, and unlike an earthquake we are able to predict its path,” he said. “And especially when it comes to rowing we have decided to change the schedule for the event. But such a change is not a rare event – it has been experienced in past Olympic Games as well.
“We are looking very closely at the path of the typhoon and should it make landfall and whether there could be damages both human and physical. And if that should be the case we will take a responsible message,” he added.