Naomi Osaka lights Olympic cauldron at Tokyo Opening Ceremony

Posted at 9:36 AM, Jul 23, 2021

World No. 2 tennis player Naomi Osaka, who represents Japan, served as the final Olympic torchbearer for the Tokyo Olympic Games, lighting the Olympic flame during Friday night's Opening Ceremony. 

The flame was originally lit at a ceremony in Olympia on March 12, 2020, but as a precaution against COVID-19, the Greek portion of the torch relay was canceled. After keeping the flame lit for a year because of the Olympic postponement, the Olympic Torch Relay began in earnest on March 25, 2021 from the J-Village National Training Centre in Fukushima Prefecture, and then traveled through all 47 prefectures across Japan over a period of 121 days before reaching Tokyo on July 9.

The 23-year-old Osaka, who has a Haitian father and Japanese mother, has represented the host nation in international competition since she was 14 years old. She was born in Japan but moved to New York with her family when she was 3.

In order to compete for Japan at the Tokyo Olympics, her first Games, Osaka had to give up her U.S. citizenship before she turned 22. 

When Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics, a then 19-year-old Japanese man named Yoshinori Sakai, who was born outside Hiroshima just hours after the atomic bombing, served as the torchbearer who lit the cauldron. 

SEE MORE: Opening Ceremony dazzles in Tokyo with performances, emotion

Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam champion, with her first title coming at the 2018 U.S. Open, when she became the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title. After winning back-to-back Slams in late 2018 and early 2019 — the U.S. Open and Australian Open — Osaka became the first Asian tennis player to be ranked No. 1 in the world. 

In 2020, Osaka emerged as one of sports' most prominent advocates for social justice, wearing a mask bearing the names of Breonna Taylor, Elijiah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice at each of her matches during her championship run at the U.S. Open. 

Her international appeal has translated into major commercial success. From May 1, 2020 to May 2, 2021, Osaka beat her own record for the highest-earning year for a female athlete, taking in $60 million from endorsements ($55 million) and prize money combined, according to Forbes. She first set the mark — which surpassed a Serena Williams record — from May 2019 to May 2020, when Osaka earned $37 million. 

Ahead of these Olympics, Osaka took a two-month hiatus from tennis after withdrawing from the French Open following her decision not to do press conferences at the tournament — one she said was for the sake of her mental health. The choice drew public backlash from Grand Slam organizers and incited debate around the sports world about athletes' obligation, or lack thereof, to the media. 

Osaka begins her Olympic tournament against No. 52-ranked Zheng Saisai on Sunday.