Canadian athletes say Tokyo Olympic Village different than any other, yet familiar in age of COVID

The Tokyo Games may simply be an extension of the wretched COVID world all of us, including athletes, have been living in for more than a year. The Olympic Village, which will house more than 10,000 athletes from every corner of the world, is proof.

Traditional social atmosphere cut off by dividers in dining room, daily testing, time limits

A banner hangs from Canada team apartments in the Tokyo Olympic Village, where Canadian athletes and officials say COVID-19 protocols have already tamped down the typically social atmosphere. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

By now you have undoubtedly heard these Olympic Games in Tokyo are different. And they are. But in another sense they are simply an extension of the wretched pandemic world all of us, including athletes, have been living in for more than a year.

The Olympic Village, which will house more than 10,000 athletes from every corner of the world, is no different. 

As Canadian athletes begin to trickle into Tokyo, they will navigate a dragnet of layered COVID-19 protocols and testing designed to make these pandemic Games as safe as possible.

The socializing and global camaraderie that is usually the most memorable part of the athlete experience will be largely absent. Athletes are only allowed to arrive five days before their event and must leave the village 24-48 hours after they have finished competing . Even the traditional distribution of Olympic condoms has been delayed until athletes are on their way home.

"There won't be that type of hang-out socializing,'' said Marnie McBean, Canada's chef de mission, who as an Olympian has been in numerous Olympic villages.

While most Canadian athletes will call the village home, others like cyclist Mike Woods will stay in tightly controlled bubbles located close to their competition sites.

"It doesn't even feel like I'm in Japan. It's quite bizarre," Woods said from his hotel in Gotemba, site of the Olympic road race. 

"I've gone from the Tour de France, which was the cycling bubble, to the exact same people in the hotel that I saw in France," Woods said Tuesday. "We're not allowed to leave the hotel except for on training rides. We're not allowed to stop while training. So aside from the fact that you see Mount Fuji and the street signs are in Japanese, you really don't feel like you are in Japan."

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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.

All of these rules are of course in place to keep athletes safe, but already there's been a number of positive tests among athletes and officials arriving in Tokyo. And the running tally of positive tests will be an inescapable part of this Olympic narrative.

On Tuesday, organizers said 71 people within the Olympic bubble had tested positive for COVID-19 this month.

"What we're seeing is what we expected to see, essentially. If I thought all the tests that we did were going to be negative then I wouldn't bother doing the tests in the first place," said Brian McCloskey, chair of the independent expert panel on COVID-19 countermeasures at these Olympics.

McCloskey acknowledged that there will be more cases.

"We don't put a figure on it, it is impossible to predict. What we do is first of all make sure that the number is as low as possible, but more importantly that all the cases that arise are properly managed."

Rigorous testing new normal in life of athletes

Canadian officials said athletes have become accustomed to rigorous testing that will be part of this Olympic experience.

"As Canadian athletes, I think we just trust the protocols set in place. I think for most of the teams heading to Tokyo, these protocols probably aren't something that's new to them," said rugby sevens co-captain Nathan Hirayama, who will be one of Canada's flag-bearers at Friday's opening ceremony. "I know with our team, we are always doing complete health check-ins and protocols,"

"It's a system that athletes coming into the village have been working in for about a year and they're familiar with it," McBean said. "It's pretty common to see people spitting into a little test tube and just everyone's got a mask on."

WATCH | Bach adamant virus won't spread to Japanese citizens:

IOC's Bach says 'zero' risk of COVID spreading from participants

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IOC president Thomas Bach speaks about the Olympic's COVID-19 protocols, saying the Japanese public is at no risk from Olympic participants.

McBean said the pandemic has created a unique village experience. Athletes are usually allowed to go out and explore the host city, soaking in all it has to offer — but not this time.

"The really interesting thing that we're seeing in this village so far is that people are really exploring the little corners."

Exploring is one thing. Actually interacting with other athletes is another.

"In the cafeteria, not only is there a divider but there's also one on each side of the cubicle," she said. "So you kind of feel like you're sitting in a glass box eating your meal, but it's the one time you get to take your mask off.

"So everyone's really happy to be there because you can see faces, but then you kind of feel like you need to make your call to the person on the other side." 

To Woods that's unfortunate. He has fond memories of his time in the village at the Rio Olympics.

"I think 100 per cent it's the best part about going to the Olympics. In Rio when you were in the Olympic Village, you felt like you were at the Olympics," Woods said. "You saw every type of athlete in the cafeteria. You could walk around and check out all the other cool things and it was really nice, really special. This literally feels like I've just arrived at another bike race."

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