World erupts over 'iconic' Naomi Osaka moment at opening ceremony

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Naomi Osaka, pictured here becoming the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony.
Naomi Osaka became the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony. Image: Getty

Naomi Osaka has become the first tennis player in modern Olympic Games history to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony.

The Japanese superstar lit the Olympic cauldron to launch the Tokyo Games at the end of the opening ceremony on Friday night.

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Normally a star-studded display teeming with celebrities, the ceremony was low-key, with fewer than 1000 people in attendance, strict social-distancing rules and signs calling on spectators to "be quiet around the venue."

But the ceremony was still climaxed by the superstar appearance of four-time grand slam champion Osaka, who was bestowed with the honour of lighting the cauldron.

Rumours swirled earlier on Friday that Osaka would get the honour when her first-round match was rescheduled from Saturday to Sunday.

And the rumours proved true, with the Japanese superstar sending social media into a frenzy with her opening ceremony appearance.

After being passed from baseball legends to children, the torch was handed to the two-time Australian Open champion Osaka, who walked to the base of the stage, which split open to reveal a set of stairs as the cauldron unfolded like a flower.

She then climbed the stairs and lit the cauldron as fireworks briefly illuminated the sky.

In commentary for Channel 7, Bruce McAvaney described it as a "Cathy Freeman-like moment".

Naomi Osaka's incredible return to world stage

"Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life," Osaka wrote on Instagram afterwards.

"I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now, but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness."

It capped a dramatic series of events over the past two months for the 23-year-old.

Naomi Osaka, pictured here carrying the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony.
Naomi Osaka carries the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Photo by Bai Yu/CHINASPORTS/VCG via Getty Images)

Going into the French Open in late May, Osaka announced she wouldn't speak to reporters at the tournament, saying those interactions created mental health issues for her.

Then, after her first-round victory, she skipped the mandatory news conference.

Osaka was fined $15,000 and publicly reprimanded by the Grand Slam Board, who said she could be suspended if she kept avoiding the media.

The next day, Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros entirely to take a mental health break, revealing she has been battling bouts of depression since 2018. 

She later announced her withdrawal from Wimbledon as well.

So the Tokyo Games mark her return to competition and the world stage.

Not only is she the first tennis player to light the cauldron, but one of the few athletes to be given the honour while still competing.

She'll hope to emulate Cathy Freeman, who launched the 2000 Sydney Games and went on to win gold in the 400 metres.

with AAP

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