Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and the world’s highest-paid female athlete, was given the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the Tokyo Olympics.
Speculation that Osaka might play a role in the Opening Ceremony was piqued when it was announced that her opening match in the women’s singles tournament had been pushed back from Saturday to Sunday following a request from Olympic organizers. It is tradition for the final torch bearers to be a surprise, a way to build excitement for the official start of the Olympic Games.
With no fans in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, only fellow athletes, organizers and performers watched Osaka light the Olympic cauldron in-person. The diminished attendance in no way impacted the honor for Osaka. The Japanese tennis player called the moment the “greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life” on Twitter.
Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life. I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness ❤️ love you guys thank you. pic.twitter.com/CacWQ5ToUD
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) July 23, 2021
In May, Osaka withdrew from the French Open for the sake of her mental health and wellbeing. Withdrawal from the tournament placed her in the middle of the exact media frenzy she hoped to avoid. Osaka then withdrew from Wimbledon last month.
ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: Tokyo’s youngest Olympian, Hend Zaza, carries Syrian flag in Opening Ceremony
The last couple of months have led to many takes on Osaka, how she and the French Open handled the situation, and whether the greater media industry has an obligation to, quite frankly, do better!
Osaka once again became the face and the voice – even in her silence – for important and difficult conversations regarding the crippling burden on Black athletes to explain racism, and the effect of societal expectations on athlete mental health.
Last year while competing at the US Open, Osaka wore seven masks for seven different Black victims of violence, including police brutality: Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice.
.@naomiosaka when asked what message she was trying to send wearing 7 masks with 7 names during her 7 matches:
“Well, what was the message that you got is more the question?”🔥👑 pic.twitter.com/WVg3G5d2CW
— Maya Harris (@mayaharris_) September 13, 2020
“I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness,” Osaka said during a press conference at the 2020 US Open. “It’s not going to dull the pain, but hopefully I can help with anything that they need.”
From uplifting the names of victims of police violence to advocating for her own mental wellness, Osaka has shown silent acts are powerful in the fight for justice.
Follow Erica L. Ayala on Twitter @Elindsay08
During the Olympics, you can also catch up on all of the major storylines in women’s sports by watching “On Her Turf @ The Olympics,” a 30-minute show that will stream for free on Peacock. Hosted by Lindsay Czarniak, MJ Acosta-Ruiz, and Lolo Jones, the show kicks off on Saturday, July 24, and will stream every day of the Games (Monday-Saturday at 7pm ET and Sundays at 6pm ET).