Naomi Osaka, the four-time tennis Grand Slam winner, lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics on Friday.
It was a choice that could be appreciated worldwide: in Japan, of course, the country where Osaka was born and the nation that she plays for; in embattled Haiti because that’s where her father is from; and surely in the United States, because that’s where the globe’s highest-earning female athlete lives and where she has been outspoken about racial injustice.
But she has often received an uncomfortable welcome in Japan because of her race, with her family having moved to the U.S. when she was 3.
Her emergence as a top tennis player has challenged public attitudes about identity in a homogeneous culture that is being pushed to change.
But there she was at the center of the stage when a staircase emerged, the cauldron opened atop a peak inspired by Mount Fuji and Osaka ascended with the Olympic and Japanese flags blowing in the breeze off to her left. She dipped the flame in, the cauldron ignited and fireworks filled the sky.
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life,” Osaka wrote on Instagram next to a picture of her smiling while holding the flame. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now, but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness.”
Osaka became the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron. She’s also one of the few active athletes to be given the honor.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.