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Many athletes dedicate their careers to one day reaching the Olympics. For nearly a decade, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka’s career has focused on becoming the face of the Tokyo Games.
Years of training, planning and marketing culminated in Osaka’s Olympic tennis debut on Sunday, in which he easily defeated Saisai Zheng of China, 6-1, 6-4. The first-round match came less than 48 hours after Osaka lit the Olympic flame, perhaps the highest symbolic role a host nation can bestow on one of its citizens.
“I feel a bit out of my body now,” Osaka said on Sunday.
In her young career, Osaka won four Grand Slam titles, transformed international conversations about racial injustice and mental health, and became the highest-paid female athlete in the world. But all those achievements have been the prelude to the Tokyo Olympics.
Osaka made her professional tennis debut when she turned 14 in October 2011. Japan was still recovering from the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster seven months earlier.
When the Olympics were awarded to Tokyo in 2013, they were a symbol of the country’s recovery from tragedy, as well as years of economic stagnation. In the run-up to the Games, as sponsors spent more than $ 3 billion to align themselves with a revitalized Japan, Osaka became the leading candidate to be their avatar: young, energetic, talented, and global.
“It was never a secret that I will play for Japan at the Olympics,” Osaka said in a documentary series about his life released this month on Netflix. But as she began to discover, other groups hoped that she, too, was a symbol to them.
Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka and her family moved to the United States, where she spent much of her youth. In 2019, he gave up his American passport to comply with Japanese law, which does not allow dual citizenship.
The move, required for her to retain eligibility to compete for Japan in the Olympics, sparked a debate over the nature of her identity.
“So I don’t choose the United States and all of a sudden people say, ‘your’ black card ‘is revoked,'” he said in the documentary. “The African American is not the only black, you know?”
By 2020, Osaka had become one of the most prominent voices behind the Black Lives Matter movement, which advocates for awareness of racial injustice on the way to a second US Open title.
His activism helped transform the sports marketing industry, as his unique appeal in both the East and West gave him influence over front-line sponsors who grew up to embrace his message, or at least not to distance themselves from it.
More recently, she has been an advocate for mental health, pulling out of the French Open over a tournament-imposed commitment to participate in post-match press conferences.
Her first-round win in Tokyo on Sunday marked the first time since spring that she spoke to a press scrum, though she said she “didn’t feel so weird about it.”
Since last year, Osaka has perfected the art of communicating through other mediums, such as the covers of Vogue and Sports Illustrated, the documentary produced in part by basketball player LeBron James, and his ever-evolving portfolio of corporate endorsements, including Louis Vuitton, Tag. This year and Sweetgreen.
All this has made its appearance in Tokyo, both as a symbol of the Olympic Games and of a multitude of causes, brands and communities, all the more surreal. In non-pandemic times, the center court bleachers at Ariake Tennis Park would have been packed to the rafters, bursting with energy and bursting with applause between the points.
On Sunday, only a few dozen people, mostly media outlets, volunteers and event staff, were in attendance. The air was still enough for the buzz of a motorcycle outside to be heard, and at one point, knuckles hitting a metal railing echoed from the upper decks of the stadium.
The spectator ban has been one of the most distinctive features of these Olympic Games, which are still in their infancy. But the absence can be felt most acutely in the space around Osaka because, at last, she is Japan to celebrate.
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