For a glimpse of how deeply unusual the Tokyo Olympics will be, look to the dinner arrangements for the Australian softball team in Ota, Japan. The athletes, among the first to land in Japan ahead of the Games, gather at round tables divided into sections by clear plastic barricades. Each player sits inside their own wedge of the circle, eating in silence.
“We are requested not to talk while we’re eating because we have our masks off,” says shortstop Clare Warwick.
The Olympics are supposed to be a showcase for athletic achievement, and organizers have pinned their hopes on an international event that can both salve and stimulate a world crawling out of a pandemic.
But the Games have also become a platform for the strange state of the world at the moment and the intensity of COVID-19 anxiety that remains – particularly in Japan. Tokyo will remain under a state of emergency throughout the Olympics, with authorities worried about the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant in a country where vaccination rates remain low.
The next few weeks will determine whether the decision to proceed with the Games (July 23 to Aug. 8) was a gamble worth taking or a disastrous roll of the dice.
The International Olympic Committee and political leaders in Japan have pressed forward despite widespread reservations among the Japanese public and the athletes themselves, some of whom have opted to skip Tokyo altogether out of fear that the assembly of tens of thousands of people from around the world will create a cauldron of coronavirus.
The IOC expects as many as one in five athletes and officials to arrive unvaccinated. The number of unvaccinated members of the media may be even higher. The organizers have not made immunization mandatory for participants, and Japan has relaxed bans on international travel to allow people to enter the country with minimal quarantine requirements.
Japanese Olympic volunteers have been offered vaccines, but the organizers only began inoculating them in June. Some 10,000 volunteers have dropped out, many expressing concerns about the virus.
Some of those concerns have been borne out by the first arrivals: At least three people have already tested positive.
It’s a sign of just how difficult it will be to hold the Olympics in the midst of a viral outbreak that continues to spread rapidly in many parts of the world.
For organizers, the positive cases among athletes have also underscored just how important it will be to demand adherence to a long list of rules that threaten to suffocate the joy of the event, if not the sports themselves.
Among the restrictions: No shopping at airport stores upon arrival. No hugging. No chatting in elevators. Silence and solitude at meals. Only clapping – no cheering or singing – on the field of play. Physical distancing off the field of play. Athletes and those they interact with must submit to daily COVID-19 tests and, in most cases, must leave Japan within 48 hours of the final event in their discipline.
“It will be a tournament that asks what sports should be and what the Olympics should be,” said Yoko Tanabe, a three-time Olympic medalist for Japan in judo.
For this year, at least, the answer is: cheerless and strictly regimented. Most venues will stand empty owing to the state of emergency. Athletes will be barred from sightseeing outside their training venues, accommodations or the Olympic Village.
“Our world is going to be really small. We’re performing on the biggest stage – in probably the smallest space,” said Marnie McBean, the three-time gold medalist and Team Canada’s chef de mission to Tokyo.
The decision to ban most spectators left her disappointed. “We would have loved some of that energy to be in the stands,” she said. “Had the people of Japan jumped on the vaccinations” the way other wealthy countries have, “this would all be a different situation,” she added. “But that is not their culture or their norms, and we need to respect that.”
The organizers have clamped down in ways intended to largely suffocate festivities but allow the competitions to live on – particularly for the television audience, for whom the Games are primarily staged. Broadcast revenues, after all, are the chief source of Olympic revenue.
Even so, this is unlikely to be a typical Olympics. Empty stadium seats and a ban on attendance by family members will preclude some of the emotional scenes that stand at the core of televised Olympic storytelling. “What made London 2012 such a triumph was not just the performances of the athletes but the intensity of the crowds and the buzz of excitement across all the Olympic venues,” said Roger Mosey, a celebrated British sports broadcaster and director of the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics for the BBC. “Sadly, it is very hard to see how Tokyo is going to capture this. The Olympics are about great sport but they are also about human interaction – the people of the world coming together – and this awful pandemic has made that close to impossible.”
Broadcasters have dramatically pared back their overseas crews, stationing hosts thousands of kilometres and numerous time zones away. Between the closeups and slow-motion footage of athletic feats, networks will dip into the shaky images of Zoom interviews with medalists. The CBC is sending 140 people to Japan, roughly half a regular Games crew. Hosts such as Scott Russell will remain in Toronto, “interviewing athletes through the magic of television as opposed to live in the studio. That part is definitely going to be noticeable,” said Chris Wilson, executive director of CBC Sports and Olympics.
“We understand this is going to be an Olympics like no other,” Mr. Wilson said. But even if the stands are empty, he expects plenty of drama. Competing after five years of waiting “is likely to bring up a whole other different type of emotion, good and bad,” he said.
Broadcasters expect big audiences. These Olympics are “coming along at an incredible time for Canadians to come together and have a real rallying moment,” Mr. Wilson said. “I really believe it’s going to mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic.”
And television has a way of glossing over catastrophe. In 2016, for example, the coverage of individual events provided little evidence of the chaos on the ground in Brazil. In Japan, NBC has already promised to “enhance the sound” to artificially create a more energetic stadium atmosphere for viewers.
It’s unlikely to be all fun for the athletes, however.
“Being trapped in the Olympic Village and not being able to go out will be a very painful experience,” said Ms. Tanabe, the judo Olympian who is also a professor at Nihon University.
The athletes’ village may be comfortable, but it’s a high-pressure environment. At any other Olympics, “you can go out to the city and enjoy it, but this time that won’t be possible,” she said. “In addition, there is the fear of being infected with coronavirus and spreading that to other athletes.”
The rules are extensive, but public-health experts worry that enforcement may prove difficult. “Can you control those people properly? It is very difficult to take measures that can really prevent media and Olympic officials and relatives from breaking the rules,” said Kazuhiro Tateda, the president of the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases, who also serves on an advisory committee to the Japanese government.
He’s hoping that for athletes, at least, self-preservation will dampen the urge to get out and have fun. The consequences of a misstep are simply too great.
“If you are infected, you will not be able to participate, so you should comply completely with the infection countermeasures,” Prof. Tateda said. “However, after the competition is over, it’s natural that people want to have fun, so some may try to escape the bubble.”
For now, however, teams are primarily concerned with managing the anxiety that comes with preparing for competition amid a complex regime of rules that put tight constraints on freedom of movement. Only athletes can take part in activities related to their sports. That means only runners can run outside accommodation areas and only cyclists can ride on public roads. Mike Wilkinson, the Canadian Olympic Committee’s chief medical officer, has taken to jogging 10 kilometres in laps around the hotel parking lot – while wearing a mask, another strict requirement.
“We basically wear a mask all the time, except when we’re sleeping or eating,” he said. Authorities want to “minimize the chance of infection being transmitted from any of the visitors into their community, and vice versa.”
Guidebooks are the only option for Olympians with travel ambitions.
“We are not getting out to experience any of the local culture or any of the local highlights of the city,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
“It’s actually a very beautiful area we’re in. We can read about it.”
Isolation has advantages: It means fewer distractions from Games preparation. Still, Canada’s Olympic authorities worried enough about the uncertainty of a pandemic Games that they dispatched extra psychological support staff to Japan. “It’s really helping give the athletes and the team members the tools to deal with the constant change and the unknowns,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
The Canadian Olympic Committee played a role in scuppering the Tokyo Olympics last year. Two days after Canada said it would withdraw from the 2020 Games, citing pandemic health risks, organizers officially postponed the event. Now, Team Canada says it has confidence in the pandemic protocols in place, even if the atmosphere won’t be what athletes hoped for.
But Ms. McBean, the chef de mission, dismissed any concern that a buttoned-down Games could make for lacklustre results.
“The truth is, athletes can achieve world-record performance in the isolation of a training environment. And at the Olympics, it won’t be a training environment. It’s going to have the consequences and the energy of having competitors in the room.”
As for the pandemic constraints, they aren’t much different than the health protocols at Canadian sports institutes. And sightseeing should not be a priority, she said. Athletes are going to Japan “to work. They’re not going on vacation. … This idea that an athlete is, like, just so disappointed they can’t be a tourist in the Olympic city – that’s never been their focus.”
If anyone finds themselves bored in Japan, she has a suggestion: “There’s this really cool event that’s going to be on TV called the Olympics.”
With reporting from Naoko Mikami
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