TOKYO - Japanese sports fans bid an emotional farewell to Tokyo's National Stadium at the weekend with a lavish ceremony to close the venue before demolition begins in July.
The stadium, built to host the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, will be dismantled over 15 months and replaced on the same site with a new US$1.6 billion venue to stage the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics.
A day of spectacular laser shows, fireworks, sports and music brought the curtain down on the 56-year-old stadium, before fans were invited onto the pitch to snap photos, lift replica trophies and loll around barefoot once the proceedings were over.
There were misty eyes among the 36,000-strong crowd as the Olympic flame perched atop the back stand finally went out for good.
"I was in my first year at Waseda University when the Olympics came to Tokyo, and my college friend Yoshinori Sakai lit the flame at the stadium," 69-year-old Tsuyoshi Hirata told AFP on the stadium's concourse.
"I couldn't go to the opening ceremony so I watched it on TV. It rained a lot the evening before, but on the day the weather was fantastic. When I saw Sakai light the flame, I felt so happy. I felt like Japan had recovered from the war." The 54,000-seat stadium holds a special place in Japanese hearts as the site of the first Olympics to be held in Asia and a symbol of Japan's post-World War II recovery.
Sakai, a member of Waseda University's running club who was born in Hiroshima on the day of the city's atomic bombing, was chosen to light the cauldron to symbolise Japan's peaceful postwar reconstruction.
The stadium, which was completed to host the 1958 Asian Games, has also staged a range of domestic and international sporting events including the 1991 World Athletics Championships and football's annual intercontinental Toyota Cup match between 1980 and 2001.
American Mike Powell leapt 8.95 metres to set a world long jump record that still stands during his epic tussle with Carl Lewis at the 1991 world championships here.
Argentine football legend Diego Maradona also graced the arena at the 1979 world youth tournament, while Japan's J-League held its first game at the stadium in 1993.
"Over the past half-century, the National Stadium has truly been a sanctum of Japanese sport," Tokyo 2020 organising chief Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, told the crowd.
"It has hosted numerous unforgettable matches and competitions, and has a special place in the hearts of people all over Japan.
"I am extremely happy that I have been able to share the incredible memories the stadium brings and realise anew the wonder of sport with the many fans gathered here today." The celebration came at the end of a week in which Japanese sport bosses gave the green light to a new 80,000-seat stadium, disappointing campaigners who say the planned arena is too big and too expensive.
The government-affiliated Japan Sport Council, which will run the new stadium, decided to trim the height of the new venue to 70 metres from the original 75 metres after criticism that it would blight the Tokyo skyline.
Detractors have argued that the design, originally conceived by prize-winning Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and shaped like a bike helmet, will jar with the surrounding area, which contains numerous tranquil parks and an elegant Shinto shrine.
The design has divided opinion among the Japanese public, with some arguing that the occasion of the 2020 Olympics deserves a grand stage to match.
"It's very futuristic, and I'm looking forward to it," said Masako Seki, a woman in her 40s from nearby Saitama.
"I want the Tokyo Olympics to be a big party, so I agree that they should make the stadium big for everyone to see."