Tokyo Olympics taking place largely out of view of those hosting it

The iconic Olympic rings are behind a wall. The Olympic venues are behind fences. And fans have been told to stay away. Organizers said Tokyo 2020 would be an Olympics like no other, and as CBC's Devin Heroux reports from Japan, so far, that's very true.

'Just get them over with,' says one Tokyo resident of the Games that kick off Friday

A view of the iconic Olympic rings in Tokyo is obscured by a wall erected as part of the extensive COVID-19 protocols put in place to protect athletes and the public at the Games, which kick off with the opening ceremony Friday. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports)

Along the Tokyo Bay seafront, there's a seemingly endless white wall blocking a view of the Olympic rings.

The government has put up such barricades and fences around venues related to Tokyo 2020 to keep the athletes isolated and to prevent the public from gathering at venues throughout the city. 

Tokyo is, after all, in a state of emergency.

For months, organizers, athletes, media and government officials have said these Olympics, which begin Friday, are going to be different, focused on the health and safety of those involved amid the coronavirus pandemic that pushed Tokyo 2020 into 2021. 

So, the iconic shot of the Olympic rings is behind a wall. The new venues are behind fences. Highway tolls in the Greater Tokyo Area have gone up by 1,000 yen (about $11 Cdn) between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. during the Games in an attempt to keep people off the roads.

'Just get them over with'

"Just get them over with," one Tokyo driver told CBC.

That sums up the mood in a country that eight years ago rejoiced at winning the 2020 Olympic bid. 

Poll after poll over the past year has shown that the overwhelming majority of people in Japan wish the Games were cancelled or postponed.

On Monday, one of the International Olympic Committee's top sponsors, Toyota, said it would not run Olympics-related TV commercials in Japan. And its top executives will not be attending the opening ceremony. 

Eight years ago, nobody could have predicted this unprecedented situation. There has been a Herculean effort by organizers to pull this off despite relentless warnings from health officials to think otherwise.

10 hours at the airport

When I arrived at the Tokyo airport this week with one of the CBC crews covering the Games, I watched for hours as staff and volunteers ran around exhaustedly trying to keep up with wave after wave of people showing up for the Olympics.

WATCH | COVID-19 fears rise as Tokyo Olympics nearing:

COVID-19 fears rise as Tokyo Olympics get closer

2 years ago
Duration 3:13
COVID-19 fears are rising as athletes and staff from around the world pour into Tokyo for the Olympic Games. Five days before the opening ceremony, cases are rising in Japan and protests are getting louder.

Upward of 80,000 athletes, officials, support staff, media and International Olympic Committee dignitaries are coming to Tokyo.

Some of the Chinese athletes arrived wearing full pandemic protective gear.

Olympics are restricted at the best of times. Movement is limited to hotels, venues and short in-person interviews with the athletes. Throw in a pandemic, and it's hit a completely different level.

Members of Tokyo 2020 cover a fence as anti-Olympics protesters demonstrate outside of the venue on Monday. As the Olympic torch relay makes its way around Tokyo, public relays have been cancelled in favour of daily ceremonies held behind closed doors, as authorities act to avoid large gatherings while the country endures a fourth wave of COVID-19. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Here's what I, as a member of the media, had to do just to get on the flight and so I could bypass the otherwise mandatory, more restrictive 14-day quarantine to which returning locals are subject:

Two negative PCR COVID-19 tests before departure. A detailed 14-day activity plan approved by the Tokyo organizing committee showing, in intricate detail, my daily movements for the first two weeks. I also had to download a COVID-19 tracking app and input my personal data and locations where I will be in Tokyo. 

It took nearly 10 hours to get through the various checks at the airport. At one point, officials would check our PCR tests. Then we'd move down the hallway to another checkpoint, where officials would look over the same paperwork. 

Then we reached a saliva test checkpoint, spat in a tube and waited for more than two hours to get the results. No one in our group was able to move until every person who was on the flight was cleared with a negative test — a wait compounded by the fact that arriving athletes and Japanese residents are prioritized over visiting media.

An anti-Olympics protester and a police officer glare at each other in Tokyo, Japan on Monday. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

Finally, a large, packed bus took us from the airport to a downtown taxi hub. We all then took individual taxis to the hotel. 

Twenty-nine hours of travel later it was time to sleep. 

For the next 14 days, I'll be restricted from walking the streets of Tokyo. I'll go from the hotel to the media shuttle to the Olympic venues. Rinse and repeat. My movements can be tracked through the COVID app.

The 7-Eleven store inside the hotel has great egg salad sandwiches and mayonnaise-flavoured potato chips. That might become my nightly dinner. 

There are no fans allowed at the events, no celebrations on the streets of Tokyo. 

Just 16 days of white-knuckling through events hoping the athletes, who have worked a lifetime for this moment, don't test positive.

Let the Games begin, as the saying goes. 

But this time, in this country, many can't wait for them to end.


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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