TOKYO — Thomas Gilman wanted nothing more than to go to Japan this summer, to wrestle for the U.S. team at the Tokyo Olympics. He was much less certain about whether Japan wanted him to come.

The Iowa native had read countless reports describing the country as a reluctant host for the pandemic-delayed Summer Games. Public opinion polls showed a majority of citizens favoring another postponement, or even cancellation. Anti-Olympics activists had staged small demonstrations and circulated petitions denouncing the Games.

On the bus ride to a Tuesday practice in Nakatsugawa, a town outside Tokyo where the team is training before the Games, Gilman found out what the residents thought. It wasn't what he expected.

"The streets were lined with people, waving the American flag,'' Gilman said. "They were cheering us on. They had signs with words of encouragement, words of love.

"It was almost emotional. If you just watched the news, you would think they wouldn't want us here. But they wanted to welcome us and help us out.''

The Olympics started late Tuesday night with softball games and soccer matches, played in empty stadiums. The curtain officially goes up at Friday's Opening Ceremony, where the usual pageantry, parades and fireworks will go on despite the circumstances. With Tokyo under its fourth pandemic-related state of emergency, organizers said Thursday that only about 950 people will be allowed inside National Stadium to see the show in person. Changes were still being made in recent days to a ceremony that has been plagued by scandals. This week the creative director and a composer were forced out of the production after inappropriate behavior from the 1990s came to light.

A poll this week by The Asahi Shimbun newspaper showed 55% of Japanese still are opposed to holding the Olympics. Despite those reservations, many seem determined to meet the moment with hospitality and grace.

Hundreds of workers have greeted travelers at the airport, cheerfully helping them through the complicated process of entering a country experiencing another COVID-19 surge. Olympic sites teem with volunteers — easily identified by their blue-and-white uniforms—rushing to assist any confused visitor.

The pandemic still hovers over these Olympics, as it has since the March 2020 decision to put the Games on hold for a year. The 1,979 cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday in Tokyo were the most in six months, and 91 people with Olympic accreditation have tested positive for COVID-19 since arriving in Japan.

That made for a much more subdued atmosphere than usual on the day before the Opening Ceremony. Many athletes didn't seem to mind, given what it took just to get to the starting line.

"There's no fanfare,'' U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe said after Wednesday's 3-0 loss to Sweden in the teams' Olympic opener. "There is signage. You have the (Olympic-logo) lanyard, the things that feel like the Olympics. But it's definitely different.

"We understand how lucky we are to even have this, and hopefully we can bring a little joy and entertainment to everyone watching around the world.''

At a typical Summer Games, fans from dozens of countries would be flooding into the city this week, drinking and partying and wearing their nation's colors. Tokyo has banned foreign spectators, sharply curtailing the number of international guests. Restaurants, bars and shops are off-limits to visitors who have not cleared a 14-day quarantine.

The locals face their own restrictions. With COVID infections rising, government officials want to prevent crowds from gathering. There will be no public viewing sites, and a waterfront area that was supposed to be a hub for fans will be closed, sapping much of the host-city energy from the Games.

The Olympic Village and Main Press Center still accommodated global crowds, but with COVID-19 mitigation measures that put some extra distance into an event that's all about togetherness. Tall plexiglass dividers turned every communal table into a series of cubicles. Alcohol won't be served in public areas in the village.

Olympic organizers already have limited the amount of time athletes can reside in the village, and some teams are choosing not to stay there at all. The U.S. women's basketball team will stay elsewhere but stopped by the village on Wednesday so athletes could take in some of the atmosphere. Members of the U.S. track and field team who are living in the village are being extra vigilant about disease-prevention protocols.

"If it takes a COVID test every 12 hours, whatever it takes,'' said Clayton Murphy, who is entered in the men's 800 meters. "We're just super excited to finally have a Games.''

Many athletes plan to skip the Opening Ceremony, to avoid any risk of infection. The U.S. wrestlers were grateful to get their own private celebration during Tuesday's bus ride, a welcome dash of warmth amid the wariness.

"We were kind of zigzagging through the town,'' U.S. men's freestyle coach Bill Zadick said. "There were schoolchildren and adults and older people, with flags and signs and some great big banners that said, 'Go Team USA.'

"I sat back and took it in. It was a special moment, humbling and inspiring at the same time. We've had a very warm and gracious welcome, and they've been great hosts for us here in Nakatsugawa.''

How to watch the Opening Ceremony

Tokyo is 14 hours ahead of Twin Cities time. Friday's Opening Ceremony, with the theme "United by Emotion," begins at 5:55 a.m. Only about 950 spectators will be allowed, and the number of athletes in the parade of nations is expected to be greatly reduced. The ceremony will air live on NBC, with hosts Savannah Guthrie and Mike Tirico, and replayed at 6:30 p.m.