Naomi Osaka a symbol of progress as well as hope at ‘no protest’ Olympics

Osaka: "Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life" (Image: REUTERS)

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She was down to make a low-key return to public life in an empty tennis stadium in Tokyo.

But Naomi Osaka had other ideas and on a balmy evening swapped relative obscurity for the biggest stage going.

Fifty-three days after withdrawing from the French Open citing mental health concerns, the tennis superstar stood in front of a watching world and lit the Olympic torch.

Her first round match against China’s Zheng Saisai had quietly been pushed back 24 hours, freeing her up for a late one.

She took full advantage, receiving the flame before climbing the steps of a symbolic Mount Fuji and setting the pyre ablaze.

"Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life," she said later.

Hers was a striking booking, a rebel with a cause at a Games where podium protests are banned.

Osaka receives the Olympic flame to light the Olympic Cauldron
(Image: CIRO FUSCO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

A passionate advocate for racial equality, a globally influential role model for women, an icon who speaks to the younger generation in a way the International Olympic Committee does not.

Osaka’s homecoming evoked memories of Cathy Freeman in Sydney at the turn of the century.

A home-grown star very much regarded as a symbol of her changing country.

Cathy Freeman lights the torch at the 2000 Sydney Olympics
(Image: Getty)

Japan is not one of the more ethnically diverse nations around yet here was a mixed race athlete, of Japanese and Haitian descent, commanding centre stage.

For the four-time grand slam winner to be the Face of a Games in which taking the knee is outlawed smacks of contradiction.

Perhaps that is the point. It is a hat tip to the future from an Olympic movement unable to move as fast as others demand yet aware enough to realise that, like it or not, change is coming.

Team GB flag Bearers Hannah Mills and Mohamed Sbihi enter stadium
(Image: RITCHIE B TONGO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

They knew what they were booking, other than the long red hair braids which took everyone by surprise.

Osaka turned up at last year's US Open with seven different face masks, each bearing the name of a black American who died because of alleged police or racist violence, and wore one before each round.

She is a campaigner for social justice unafraid to speak uncomfortable truths at the still tender age of 23.

Osaka: 'I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right'
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“Believe it or not, I am naturally introverted and do not court the spotlight,” she told Time magazine this month.

“I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right, but that often comes at a cost of great anxiety.”

Yesterday, in the presence of Japanese Emperor Naruhito, she coped with it all wearing a smile as wide as Tokyo’s famed Shibuya Crossing.

Bach: 'Solidarity means much more than just respect and non discrimination'
(Image: REUTERS)

She did so after IOC president Thomas Bach spoke of the need for solidarity among and within societies.

“Solidarity means much more than just respect and non discrimination,” he said. “It means helping, sharing, caring.”

Osaka would second that.

She returns to the tennis court tomorrow knowing that, whatever lies in store, she has already struck gold at these Olympics.

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