The Hottest Ticket in Tokyo? Olympic Triathlon.

With the Tokyo Olympics effectively on lockdown for the majority of fans, the triathlon event presents one rare opportunity to spectate. Meet the tri fans who rolled the dice against the authorities.

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The Tokyo Olympic Games are happening mostly behind closed doors, with the public shut out over pandemic fears while only officials, volunteers, national team staff, and global VIPs are able to attend events in person. Only road cycling and triathlon offer the average Tokyo resident the chance to see Olympic action live. The road cycling races started in Tokyo’s western suburb of Chofu, and despite another wave of COVID-19 cases currently building steam, thick crowds in the tens of thousands turned out for both Saturday’s men’s race and Sunday’s women’s race to watch and cheer.

With the triathlons happening in Odaiba on the eastern side of the city center, the potential was there for even bigger crowds. But road cycling happened mid-afternoon on a weekend, while the men’s triathlon was set for 6:30 a.m. on a Monday. Age-groupers and diehard fans were sure to be there, but how many of the casually curious would take the time off work or turn out en route to the office, and how hard would the authorities try to make them leave?

The Scene On Race Day

The relatively tightly-looped course configuration meant spectators would be concentrated within a few blocks around Odaiba-Kaihinkoen Station. With the swim and transition zones off-limits, crowds were initially positioned most densely on the bike course’s corners, three to four deep in the most popular spots. As the race went on, these clusters spread out as people went point-to-point, and much of the course ended up with a single-file line of spectators numbering in the thousands.

Crowds line the streets in Tokyo despite the ban, as volunteers carry signs asking people to disperse. Photo: Mika Tokairin

Lining up against them was a heavy security presence in multiple tiers. Tokyo Metropolitan Police in blue were everywhere, with matching riot vans at every major intersection. Uniformed private security patrolled entrances to the mall at the main loop’s center. Tokyo 2020 staff in red and volunteers in blue, walked the streets, some shouting instructions for the crowds to disperse. Pairs of orange-vested staff circulated around the course, one carrying a double-sided sign and the other a loudspeaker, both requesting in Japanese and English for people not to watch the race there. Other orange-vesters stationed every hundred yards or so wearing Japanese-only versions of the same sign around their necks.

Volunteers carry signs asking people not to watch the races. Photo: Mika Tokairin

And yet there was a complete and total peaceful coexistence between the two sides. Both did what they had come to do, with no direct interaction with the other. Police here and there politely asked overzealous amateur photographers not to lean over the barriers, but neither they nor the other layers of security made any actual effort to get people to leave. Fans totally ignored the signs and announcements telling them not to be there and enjoyed the race like responsible adults, all wearing masks and most showing consideration for the risk to those around them by only clapping, not cheering out loud.

Tokyo Metropolitan look on as fans cheer and watch, despite orders not to. Photo: Mika Tokairin

The Fans

Eiichi Ando came to watch the men’s triathlon from Nagoya—an hour and a half west of Tokyo by bullet train. “I came up last night and am going back today,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time. I was a little worried about coming to Tokyo during the State of Emergency, especially with the COVID numbers going up right now, but I’ve been doing triathlons for 20 years and this is a once-in-a-lifetime event.”

Eiichi Ando on right, white mask. Photo: Mika Tokairin

Yoshifumi Tadokoro traveled from Hyogo further west, likewise just to see the race. “I’m here because I know [Japanese professional triathlete] Junpei Furuya and was planning to cheer for him. He didn’t make the team, but I came anyway because I’m a big fan of the sport. The race officials aren’t that bad. In the early morning they were more aggressively telling people not to stand along the course, but now that it’s started they’ve backed off.”

Yoshifumi Tadokoro on left, with blue outfit. Photo: Mika Tokairin

American Ann Gutierrez and her husband live in Okinawa. “We flew to Tokyo to watch this and tomorrow’s race, and have to fly back right after the women’s race to go back to work. We are very excited the Olympics happened and that we could at least see some of it and support the athletes.”

Photo: Mika Tokairin

Tokyo resident Moeko watched the race with co-workers. “I got up at 4:00 a.m. to come here because my boss wanted to,” she said. “It’s my first time watching a triathlon. It’s so cool!” Her boss, Hiro, said, “It’s my first time too. This is the only thing at the Olympics that I could see for real, so I wanted to come and cheer for them despite everything. It’s so powerful and dynamic, incredibly fast! I’m so glad we came.”

Photo: Mika Tokairin

Local resident Hiroyuki Nagata said, “I don’t do triathlons, but I’m a supporter of [Japanese Olympian] Niina Kishimoto and always go see her race. I got this flag for her race tomorrow and brought it today to cheer for the Japanese men.” Nagata got emotional as he added, “I wouldn’t say I’m not concerned at all about doing this during the pandemic, but when I see how much everyone here is enjoying it, I can’t even tell you how glad I am that the Games actually happened.”

Hiroyuki Nagata on right with red shirt and friends. Photo: Mika Tokairin

It’s safe to say that both sides got what they wanted. For the organizers, the appearance of due diligence in the face of the pandemic. For the people on the street, a share of the Olympic thrill—mutual cooperation and harmony, the Japanese way.

For some, the temptation to get a taste of that thrill proved too much. Here and there, blue-kitted Olympic volunteers blended into the roadside crowd to take pictures and cheer. One orange-vested worker wearing a “Please do not watch the race here” sign, clapped politely from the sidewalk late in the run. The fruit never tastes as sweet as when it’s strictly forbidden.