The Olympics come to Japan — but not for most Japanese

A spike in coronavirus cases in Tokyo has prompted a tightening of restrictions as athletes and members of the media descend on a city filled with unease ahead of the Olympics, the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault writes from the Japanese capital.

Restrictions tighten as athletes and members of media arrive in Tokyo

Police walk through the main press centre in Tokyo Thursday, as restrictions tighten in the city and coronavirus cases rise ahead of the opening of the Olympic Games next week. (Mandi Wright/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

The CBC has arrived in Tokyo this week for the Olympics. A week out from the opening ceremony, Adrienne Arsenault takes a look at how officials are trying to keep athletes and members of the media contained in an effort to limit any risk of COVID-19 spreading.

Keeping an eye on it all must feel like herding cats. The opening ceremony for the Olympics in Tokyo is a week away and athletes, officials and members of the world's media are starting to pour through the airports in a city really uneasy about opening the doors.

Right on cue, the concerns from Tokyo are getting louder. Restrictions for all are getting tighter.

Spectators, domestic and international, already know they cannot attend the events. Thousands of volunteers are being told they are no longer needed.

And now the Tokyo 2020 organizers say they will be restricting access around the cauldron, the fan zones and fan activity centres. There is not much left for the Japanese to possibly get out of the experience except for watching it all unfold on television.

  • Follow CBC's Tokyo 2020 coverage here.

The last-minute, although arguably inevitable, restrictions are because of the last-minute, although arguably inevitable, spike in coronavirus cases. 

Officials have blocked off the area around the Olympic cauldron in Tokyo and asked that members of the public not visit the area. (Makiko Segawa/CBC)

Tokyo on Thursday reported its highest COVID-19 numbers in six months, with officials confirming 1,308 new cases. The city is in its fourth state of emergency but the subway is still busy, restaurants are still open, people are still going to work. And the vaccine rollout is still a struggle. 

Roughly 30 per cent of people in the country have had just a single shot. So there is anxiety and fatigue. And certainly there is frustration about all the arrivals.

A bold promise

IOC president Thomas Bach said Thursday there is "zero risk" that Olympic visitors will infect anyone in this city because positive cases would be isolated immediately.

That is a bold promise. And people are not seemingly calmed by it, with protests expected on Friday.

There is, instead, a motivated push to ensure rules are respected and deviators, unwitting or otherwise, are sanctioned.

A call for stricter punishments was even raised in parliament Thursday.

WATCH | Restrictions tighten as athletes arrive in Tokyo for Olympics:

COVID-19 restrictions tighten ahead of Tokyo Olympics

1 year ago
Duration 3:43
A spike in COVID-19 cases has further limited the excitement in Tokyo around the Olympics and led to even more restrictions around the Games.

Athletes who are already coming without most of their support networks are now staying in bubbles for the least amount of time necessary. They are not allowed to go to restaurants, tourist sites, stores or ride on public transportation. And they've just been told no one will be hanging medals around their necks on the podiums. Instead, the medals will be put on a tray.  They will have to put them on themselves.

That is a restriction many likely didn't see coming. 

Restrictions for members of the media work like this:

There is no decree that those showing up be vaccinated, but reportedly about 80 per cent of those attending are anyway. At least two PCR COVID tests have to be performed within 96 and 72 hours before departing for Japan. Before arriving, a series of contact tracing and overt surveillance apps have to be uploaded to the phone.

Before getting to Tokyo for the Games, contact tracing and surveillance apps must be uploaded to phones used by members of the media. (Adrienne Arsenault/CBC)

People have to accept that they must fill out health forms and take temperatures daily and in some cases, as with CBC's news team, there will be daily COVID tests. There must be a commitment to keep the GPS on phones turned on at all times. Upon arrival at the airport, a rapid test is performed.

Once cleared, accredited people are transported to their various accommodations.

No walking around outside

For the first 14 days, there is a type of "soft quarantine." That means going only between the hotel and a pre-approved location and there's no getting out of the car en route. 

No public transportation, no walking around outside either. No meeting with residents in public. No leaving the hotel except for an allowed 15-minute window to go to and return from a convenience store.

Other rules are evolving and confusion is setting in. There are no media villages as in past Games, so crews are housed in various hotels. 

But here's where it gets complicated. There are, at times, members of the general public in those hotels, too. So, hallways and breakfast rooms are places where mixing can happen. 

Officials prepare to administer COVID-19 tests to members of the U.S. gymnastics team and other people at Narita International Airport on Thursday. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

Something certainly seems to have happened at a hotel where Brazilian athletes are staying. Seven staff members tested positive. The athletes are reportedly all negative but everyone is on edge. Chinese officials are upset about members of the Japanese public still staying in and visiting the hotel where Chinese athletes are staying.

Put this all together and you end up, one week out, with an Olympics happening in Japan yet severed from Japan. 

It will take work to inject joy into the experience for all, especially for a host city that has already given so much and is now being asked for more.


Adrienne Arsenault

Senior Correspondent

Emmy Award-winning journalist Adrienne Arsenault co-hosts The National. Her investigative work on security has seen her cross Canada and pursue stories across the globe. Since joining CBC in 1991, her postings have included Vancouver, Washington, Jerusalem and London.