Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka joined the ranks of Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky and only a few others after having the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron for the start of the 28th Summer Games.
Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, is representing her mother’s home country instead of the USA in the Olympics that kicked off July 23. Her first match is Sunday, July 25, against China’s Zheng SaiSai. The 23 year-old’s Olympic debut comes just months after she withdrew from the 2021 French Open and Wimbledon to tend to her mental health.
Her taking part in the torch relay and lighting of the cauldron is both a milestone in her career and a marker of her return to the tennis courts this season. The tradition of a burning flame during the Games dates back to 1928 at the Amsterdam Games, athough the relay and lighting ceremony did not occur until the 1936 Berlin Games.
This year’s cauldron symbolizes the Japanese cherry blossom — a popular flower that draws crowds during its blooming season in the spring — and is made from recycled aluminum that is utilized in the construction of the country’s bullet trains.
“For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully. The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day,” said Tokyo 2020 President Shikoku Hashimoto during the relay’s open.
The weight of returning to the Olympics amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, sans spectators, was not lost on Osaka. She acknowledged the milestone as being “undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life.”
The athletic superstar’s fans were equally as thrilled to see at the end of the opening ceremony.
“WOW!! This is an iconic moment in history. Love how she embraced both cultures. Lover her braids!! 🔥🔥” and “Iconic! Legendary! A moment! We love to see it!” wrote some under countless ceremony photos circulating Instagram.
Elsewhere on social, people marveled at the barriers that were being broken by an American athlete of mixed heritage being able to represent Japan.
Leading up to the Games, Osaka dropped her self-titled Netflix docuseries, where she addressed those who took issue with her choosing to represent Japan instead of the USA, where she has lived since she was 3. “I’ve been playing under the Japan flag since I was 14. It was never even a secret that I’m going to play for Japan for the Olypimics,” said Osaka during the episode. She continued by stating that backlash included, “‘Your Black card is revoked.” She further shared that part of the issue is people not understanding “the difference between nationality and race because there’s a lot of Black people in Brazil, but they’re Brazilian.”