Veneer of normal life belies anxiety of uncertainty as, for better or worse, Tokyo prepares to host world

With the exception of everybody wearing masks, life in Tokyo is about as normal as can be expected at the present time. Children are in school, restaurants and business are open. But beneath this veneer, uncertainty is the operating term as the situation caused by COVID-19 remains fluid.

Preparations ramp up despite increasing ambivalence, opposition to Games among population

Foreign spectators are not being permitted into Tokyo for this summer's Olympics. (Getty Images)

TOKYO — With the delayed Tokyo Olympics at the 100-day countdown to the opening ceremony, local organizers are preparing to take maximum precautions to ensure the safety of the general public who might come into contact with the foreign competitors and guests during the event in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.

With the exception of everybody wearing masks, life in Tokyo is about as normal as can be expected at the present time. Children are in school, restaurants and business are open.

But beneath this veneer, uncertainty is the operating term as the situation caused by COVID-19 remains fluid. Both Olympic and governmental officials are in an increasingly difficult position as the Games draw nearer and public opposition to them grows.

In principle, foreign visitors remain banned from entering Japan, which is making it impossible for athletes from overseas to get in the country and begin training. Swimming's world governing body, FINA, recently cancelled two upcoming test events (diving and water polo), in part because of the constraints presented by the current regulations.

With more than 10,000 athletes, coaches and officials expected to enter Japan in the run-up to the Olympics, quarantine restrictions will likely have to be reduced to a minimum.

Though the present rules are strict, the government does have the ability to grant admission to whoever it wants and adjust quarantine requirements. Such will be the case this week when figure skaters and coaches from Japan and five other countries (Canada, United States, Russia, France, Italy) take part in the World Team Trophy in Osaka, the first truly international sporting event held in Japan in 2021. It will be conducted in a bubble environment to protect the skaters. 

With two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu the headliner, the World Team Trophy quickly sold out. Spectators will be socially distanced, with open seats interspersed around the arena, as has been the case at domestic skating events this season.

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Osaka governor Hirofumi Yoshimura declared a state of emergency in the prefecture on April 7 due to rising virus numbers. This came a month to the day after he ended the previous emergency, saying business needed to return to normal. That is how it is here now. Everything is unpredictable.

In the wake of Yoshimura's latest declaration, officials moved up the starting times for the first two days of the World Team Trophy in an effort to get spectators home earlier. 

While skating fans are anxiously anticipating the competition, the same can't be said of the Olympics, now just over three months away. It appears that as the Tokyo Games draw nearer, opposition to them is increasing exponentially. 

A poll by the Mainichi Shimbun and the Social Survey Research Center last month reflected the reticence that people here have. The survey showed that only nine per cent of those polled thought the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should be held as scheduled, while 32 per cent said they should be cancelled.

Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee is one of the home athletes expected to attract local fans. (Getty Images)

'Negative' mood

Michael Plastow, a Tokyo-based translator and soccer writer who has lived in Japan for 40 years, described the current vibe in Tokyo toward the Games.

"It is very negative. I think most people, even among those who think the Games should go ahead, don't think this is the right moment to host the Olympic Games," Plastow stated. "I don't sense any excitement or anticipation around me, even now that the torch relay has begun. I think the backlash against (former Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro) Mori for his sexist remark was also in part a backlash against the Tokyo Games from people who were frustrated and felt powerless to stop them."

When asked what his friends and colleagues thought about the Olympics, Plastow said their perspectives were also negative.

"Most think they should be cancelled. The majority blame the Japanese government rather than the IOC for steamrollering the Games through regardless of public opinion," Plastow said. "The view that this is now only being done for the money seems prevalent. A minority does believe the games should go ahead, will be a success, and pose no major threat to Japan vis-à-vis the pandemic."

Tokyo resident Julia Morioka seconded Plastow's assessment.

"Most Japanese don't want the Olympics" Morioka said. "We were really looking forward to it. But not now. The world hasn't been restored yet."

We were really looking forward to it. But not now. The world hasn't been restored yet.- Julia Morioka, Tokyo resident

Specific questions to the organizing committee about precautions being undertaken for the games are answered with referrals to Playbooks, the resource guide for participants. Attendees are being asked to download an application on their smartphones that details their plans for the first 14 days in Japan, which will be shared with Japanese authorities. All participating countries have also been asked to appoint a COVID-19 liaison officer.

With the Japanese government and IOC recently deciding to limit the number of guests coming from participating countries and regional Olympic committees, it is clear that they want to reduce attendance by any people who don't truly have a role that is required for the Games to function. Plans for the housing of foreign guests that will attend remain unclear.

The Olympic Village on the Harumi waterfront in Tokyo. (Getty Images)
A interior view of the Athletes' Village Plaza. Keeping athletes safe is paramount. (Getty Images)

Japanese expected to buy up available tickets

In terms of spectators, the IOC and the organizing committee have previously announced that foreign fans from outside the country will be prohibited from attending. On the surface this would appear to deal a significant financial blow to tickets sales, however, this could be made up by allowing more Japanese fans and foreigners living in Japan, who did not get tickets to the Olympics in the lotteries, the chance to attend.

It remains to be seen to what per cent of capacity the organizers will be allowing for spectators at venues. With the prospect of a home Olympics considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it is not out of the question that many Japanese would take advantage of any tickets that become available.

The Japanese baseball and soccer seasons as well as Grand Sumo tournaments are underway now with fans in attendance, but limitations on their numbers and distancing measures in effect. Baseball, soccer and sumo enthusiasts are turning out to support the athletes, just as they did last year when they were allowed to.

On the second weekend of the NPB season in early April, fans milled around the park surrounding Yokohama Stadium, the main venue for the Olympic baseball tournament, prior to seeing the BayStars take on the Hiroshima Carp.

Plans for the opening ceremony have not been revealed, but it is expected that they will be understated compared to past Olympics. It remains unclear if countries will only be allowed to have a restricted number of athletes and officials march in the opening ceremony, but that seems likely.

Fans at the Grand Sumo tournament in Tokyo in January. (JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)

No mass vaccinations yet

Japan has not yet begun mass vaccinations for COVID-19 that other countries have, so at this point it is relying on residents to observe strict counter-measures to prevent infections. Though the impact of the pandemic in Japan (fewer than 10,000 deaths) has been far less than it has in many other countries, the power of television appears to be continuing to significantly influence the populace, with story after story every day focusing on the pandemic and unsettling viewers.

"I think the concerns are valid but exaggerated," Plastow said. "The broad safety of admitting smaller crowds and viability for most people of watching sports on air and online have been sufficiently demonstrated.

"The fact that athletes and staff will arrive from nearly every country in the world does, however, present special difficulties, as does the sheer number of events, venues, and people involved. The risks will be unprecedented."

Organizers have made it clear that being vaccinated is not a requirement for attending the Olympics. Attendees will be restricted to official venues for the Games, their accommodation and limited additional locations. This will be one of the toughest rules to enforce. Athletes like to blow off steam and enjoy the local scene after competing. Gathering places like the Roppongi entertainment district are generally magnets for visitors to Tokyo at night.

An elderly woman receives her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a special nursing home in Japan. The country hasn't started mass vaccination programs yet. (Associated Press)

Educating athletes about risks

Locking down athletes in the Olympic Village would appear to be impossible, so organizers are going to have to hope that educating participants about the risks of mass gatherings in close quarters will be enough to help reduce potential infections.

Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures are currently asking restaurants to voluntarily close at 9:00 p.m. for those dining inside the establishments. With many Olympic events set to end late at night, it will be difficult to ask these places, already devastated by the pandemic, to continue closing early.

Those affiliated with the Olympics are being requested not to use public transport. Again, this will be reliant on attendees self-enforcing this request.

At this point there is no restriction on athletes going to events they are not participating in, though like everything else, that could change. This will be a tough call, as athletes like to enjoy the spirit of the Games by going to events where compatriots and friends are competing to help support them.

One request that is being made of all spectators is not to partake in any singing or chanting, but to restrict their encouragement to clapping.

Though no firm policy has been established, it is expected the countries will be asked to have their athletes return home shortly after they have finished competing. Once again it comes down to numbers. Fewer people remaining in the Olympic Village and around the venues unnecessarily will reduce the risk of virus infections.


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