As Eddy Alvarez held up the Stars and Stripes Friday in Tokyo, he joked that fellow Team USA flag-bearer Sue Bird needed to hold him up just in case he became overrun by emotion again.
Alvarez — a 31-year-old minor-league baseball shortstop and the son of Cuban immigrants — had choked back tears as he described the honor of representing the nation.
“Just to get the honor to represent the United States of America, to hold the flag — the symbol of liberty, of freedom — my family came over to this country from Cuba in search of opportunity, and if it wasn’t for them doing that, I wouldn’t be in the position that I am now,” he told NBC’s “Today” show. “I mean, this has been such a whirlwind of emotions.”
In a statement to The Post, Alvarez, a 2014 Olympic silver medalist in speed skating and now a member of the US baseball team, added, “Being a first-generation Cuban-American, my story represents the American Dream. My family has sacrificed so much for me to have the opportunity to wave this flag proudly.”
Alvarez and four-time Olympic basketball gold medalist Bird led their teammates into an Olympics unlike any other. The stands were empty, many of the athletes were masked because of the COVID pandemic, and the sound of Japanese protesters outside the stadium — calling for the games to be canceled — sometimes seeped into the ceremony.
First Lady Jill Biden wore a mask and was among the dignitaries at National Stadium. The 68,000-capacity facility hosted about 5,700 athletes from 206 delegations and a mostly working crowd of an estimated 10,000, as country contingents marched in, snapped selfie photos and returned to buses rather than sticking around to applaud each other.
Previewed by NBC co-hosts Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie as “modest, more spare” and “gentle” compared to over-the-top ceremonies of recent Olympics, “surreal” seemed like an apt description.
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The opening image of a lone athlete running on a treadmill (Japanese boxer Arisa Tsubata) portrayed the message “Apart, but not alone,” striking a note for athletes who trained an extra year in isolation after the postponement in 2020.
Reaching into its history, Tokyo displayed Olympic rings created using wood from 160 pine and spruce trees grown out of seeds planted around the world by athletes who participated when the city hosted the 1964 Olympics.
The familiar sites of pyrotechnics, fireworks and Tongan flag-bearer Pita Taufatofua offered comfort for those hoping to replicate Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. Taufatofua — a 37-year-old martial artist — returned shirtless and slathered in oil, though his patented heartthrob look was copied by Vanuatu flag-bearer Rillio Rii, a rower with oil-shining muscles.
Naomi Osaka, the Japanese women’s tennis star who started an international conversation on athletes’ mental health under pressure when she withdrew from Wimbledon in June, lit the Olympic cauldron.
“I know we’re pushing through a tough moment right now,” said Bird, a Syosset, LI, native. “But right now we all feel unified and it’s incredible.”