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The (Bizarre, Uncomfortable, Precarious) Life of Being An Olympic Athlete In Tokyo

One member of the Canadian team told Triathlete that it took eight-and-a-half hours for their group to get tested, processed, and approved for entry.


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As a quick Google search will confirm, “an Olympics like no other” is the go-to trope for the Tokyo Olympic Games. Seemingly every media outlet worldwide has run with that for their headline of choice as the Games officially open today. That doesn’t make it any less apt for everyone involved in these Games—not least of all the athletes set to compete over the next two weeks.

Arrival In Japan: The Testing Gauntlet

Athletes around the world have had to pick their way through the global pandemic, the Olympics’ one-year postponement, and the uncertainty up through June of whether the Games would actually happen at all. Plans for the Olympic period carefully worked out years in advance have had to be reworked on the fly. And then reworked again and again. Each country usually has an agreement with a town in the Olympic host nation to serve as its pre-Olympic base—an agreement that can include years of cultural exchange visits in the lead-up to the Olympics. An Olympic team will travel to its host town weeks in advance of the Games to get over any time difference, acclimate to local conditions, and focus on final training efforts in peace. This time, dozens of countries didn’t go to their host towns, cutting trips much shorter and heading straight to the Olympic Village in central Tokyo.

Julia Hauser (R), a member of Austria's triathlon team, and a teammate arrive at Tokyo International Airport in Tokyo on July 16, 2021 to take part in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP via Getty Images

Both for them and for the ones that did go to their host towns pre-Games, they faced a litany of requirements outlined in the “Olympic Playbooks”—the Tokyo Olympics’ definitive guide published in late June on how to hold a massive international sports event in the middle of a global pandemic. At the core, athletes and support staff are to remain isolated from the general population throughout their stay. Action plans of where they would go and when they would move during their stay had to be registered in advance for official approval. Athletes had to install tracking apps—one for daily health monitoring and one for tracking close contacts. Multiple negative PCR tests were required in the days prior to flying, and another test upon arrival before being cleared for entry. Fail one of those, and your Olympic dream is over. You’ll have to pack it up and go home immediately.

That meant long wait times, in many cases around five hours. One member of the Canadian team told Triathlete that it took eight-and-a-half hours for their group to get tested, processed, and approved for entry—all right after a long-haul international flight.

There was more than one case of an incoming athlete or coach having a positive result, which meant quarantine and elimination from the Games. Close contact with anyone like that, or having been on a plane with totally unrelated passengers who tested positive on arrival, meant isolation and quarantine. The first scenario happened to part of the Ugandan team and the second to part of the British team.

Update (7-23-21): Belgium’s Jelle Geens tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago and will be unable to compete in the men’s individual event, according to his Instagram account. A more recent negative test keeps his chances alive to compete for his country at the mixed relay.

Restricted Movement

Vaccinations are encouraged; masks a must. Throughout their stay, athletes are barred from using public transportation and are required to use only official transport or approved private transport. In host towns and at the Village, athletes and staff have to be tested daily and have their temperatures monitored at facility entrances, with the same consequences as above for anyone or their close contacts who test positive. As in the Yokohama WTS event in May, all of this also applies to Japanese athletes in their own home country to minimize any kind of home ground advantage.

South Korean flags hang on balconies inside the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Village in Harumi. Usually the heart piece of Olympic Games, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic village in Harumi is secured behind tall metal fences with military and police on patrol duty and check points with roadblocks. Inside, athletes and other members of the Olympic teams have to adhere to strict protocols to minimize the risk of contracting Sars-CoV-2-Coronavirus. Photo: Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

With arrival and departure schedules as tight as possible, time in the Village is kept to a minimum, and teams are at least hypothetically operating in designated sub-groups to minimize crowding and opportunities for the virus to spread. That’s a big change from the normal atmosphere at the Village—where the chance to meet people from other countries and swap kits (among other things) is one of the major parts of the Olympic experience. In that same vein, ever since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, truckloads of free condoms have been handed out in the Village. Not so in Tokyo.

As part of their efforts to control potential coronavirus spread, the 150,000 condoms organizers had on order will be offered to departing athletes with a polite bow at the airport on their way home—presumably as souvenirs for friends and family.

Olympic Accommodations, Food, Training

On a related theme, it was part of the original plan that bedding in Tokyo’s Olympic Village would be made of cardboard to facilitate recycling before units in the Village are turned over to tenants who have already bought them to live in after the Paralympics. Since the Village’s opening, the gossip has been that the beds discourage occupancy by more than one person due to their lightweight construction—prompting the manufacturer to publish a press release claiming they are capable of bearing weight up to 440 pounds and are “sturdier than bed frames made of wood or steel.” Athletes like Cape Verde’s Jordin Andrade have demonstrated on their social media that the beds are more than adequate for most needs.

The relatively thin mattresses evoke images of the futon familiar to anyone who has ever stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, but while the manufacturer’s press release said their design makes them adaptable to different body types, they haven’t drawn rave reviews from everyone. Asked if they were comfortable Andrade replied simply, “No.”

Bearing in mind that units in the Olympic Village have been sold as family-sized apartments by Tokyo standards and built accordingly, some athletes have been less than pleased. Russian athletes cleared to compete by anti-doping authorities took the opportunity to complain publicly about conditions in the Village being of “medieval” quality and griping about the small size of bathrooms, while admitting that they love the view of Rainbow Bridge and Odaiba. (This is, of course, ironic given the well-documented rancor from the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.) Overall though, said one volunteer working in the Village, “most athletes, staff, volunteers have a positive vibe.”

Athletes and staff are also not allowed to eat outside the Village, and the Playbooks call for them to eat within their sub-groups at staggered times to reduce COVID risks. The food on offer is wide-ranging and prepared by actual chefs. One chef, the owner of a central Tokyo restaurant specializing in high-end Japanese cuisine, said, “It’s a big commitment since we have to stay inside the bubble too. We’re not allowed to post photos or talk about it on social media, but it’s great fun to cook for the world’s best athletes.”

Vegans have complained about a lack of options—in one case asking a triathlon support crew member working on the exterior side of the isolation bubble to bring vegetables when they came to work on their bikes.

The Olympic Village is a spacious 34 acres—big enough that there are bikes available to rent, and rough room for the Netherlands’ Olympic team to bring its own bikes to get around (so very Dutch). One Japanese triathlete reported that they had been able to find places in the Village to ride, but for many sports, restrictions on access to the outside world cut into training opportunities. Training outside the Village is limited to specific times and locations. “It’s like that at every Olympic Games,” said one coach. “The same thing happened in London. It’s not a unique situation caused by COVID-19.”

Triathletes are limited to two one-hour slots—6:00 to 7:00 a.m. on the mornings of July 23 and 24—to ride on the official course. “It’s a really short window,” said Shoji Onishi, Japan’s top tri bike mechanic who is working with both the Australian Olympic team and some of the Japanese athletes in Tokyo. “It’s not likely they’ll be able to ride hard enough to really check their bike’s mechanical condition, but I guess every team is in the same kind of situation.”

Let The Games Begin

One of the main events of any Olympic Games is the opening ceremony, and here, too, it was not the norm. The brand-new Tokyo Olympic Stadium seats 68,000, and in the original ticket lottery the opening ceremony was the hottest draw. With the July 9 announcement that all Olympic events in Tokyo would be held without spectators, attendance at the opening ceremonies was cut to 950 VIPs—an estimated 800 from abroad and 150 from the crème of domestic society. But earlier this week, influential Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda announced that he would not attend, and since then, others followed suit in bowing out. The biggest to abandon ship at the last minute was former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who as PM had personally sold Tokyo’s bid as a signal of recovery from the 2011 disasters and even appeared onstage during the closing ceremony in Rio.

The opening ceremony for Tokyo 2020 took place in a nearly-empty Olympic Stadium. Photo: Michael Kappeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Competition itself will be in line with protocols established in international events over the last year. Athletes will be subject to temperature controls, are expected to wear masks when not in competition or warm-up, and are to restrain post-race expressions of celebration. All of it will happen in empty venues, with crowd sounds playing over speakers, with the actual fans far away on the other side of electronic screens. That’s bound to have an impact on performances in some sports, but triathlon may actually be one of the luckiest. The stands built overlooking the swim and transitions will be mostly empty, but the bike and run are the only events happening on Tokyo city streets. Organizers will no doubt be aiming for minimal crowds, but even so triathletes may be some of the very few to hear the actual voices of the people of Tokyo cheering them on.

The absence of fans in the stands means medal ceremonies will also be more subdued than usual, and with guidelines calling for athletes to depart Japan within 48 hours of the completion of their final event there’s not much time for celebration in the Village, and certainly not out in Tokyo’s bar and club scene. They’ll be shipped back to the airport on official transport, handed their prophylactic goody bags for the plane ride home, and left with memories of, yes, an Olympics like no other. At least until next year. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics set to kick off in February, at the rate things are going, athletes there can expect to see more of the same, and a lot more beyond that.