The queue to board our connecting flight from Helsinki to Tokyo was like its own mini Olympic Village. A group of Swedish volleyball players stood near the front. A lone British judoka waited behind them. A few Spanish tennis players – no, their bags are too small, make that badminton – belatedly joined the back of the line having been engrossed in an animated game of Uno. This was Noah’s Ark if God was a fan of niche sports.
The TV screens above our heads showed news from Tokyo 2020 where organisers were trying determinedly to contain coronavirus. The athletes on our flight would have spent months carefully trying to avoid it, but there were no special privileges. Team GB stars had been bought regular economy seats by the British Olympic Association and any upgrade would have to be funded from their own pocket. Most of those on the plane took the opportunity to move to empty rows at the back after takeoff.
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We were mentally prepared for a delay at Tokyo Harita airport, given the volume of bureaucracy involved just to get approved for the Games and on to the flight, enough to help understand why Japan’s vaccine programme took so long to be signed off. What followed was like gradually progressing through levels of an extremely unsatisfying computer game, moving from one administrative desk to the next in 20-minute stints until finally reaching the big boss at the end: a Covid-19 spit test.
This would be a personal humiliation as my dry, gasping mouth could not summon the requisite volume of fluid and an unimpressed clinician took me into a side room to be violently nose swabbed instead. An hour or so later, after a long wait before another couple of queues for desks checking various paperwork, there was a nervy delay as two officials discussed my test result in hushed tones, jabbing fingers at screens in front of them until finally handing over a slip of paper reading “negative”. As the airport’s automatic doors slid open, a blast of Tokyo’s warm, sticky air hit me with relief.
More than 24 hours after leaving home, we finally arrived at our hotel near the centre of Tokyo for three days’ quarantine. Whether a fully-fledged Olympic Games awaits on the other side is still in the balance. Cases continue to emerge among officials, athletes and the media, causing tension and plenty of anger. One journalist has been forced into isolation for 14 days – almost the entirety of the Games – after he was identified to have been sitting near someone on his flight who later tested positive.
What comes next is uncertain but the situation should be kept in some perspective. The several athlete cases are not cause for alarm just yet when you consider there are 11,000 of them competing at these Games. The picture could change of course, and even if Covid is kept in the background by the city’s lockdown measures and strict athlete and media bubbles, there will still be significant challenges to overcome for organisers, from the searing heat to the questionable condition of Tokyo Bay. The Olympics will also miss a crucial ingredient, spectators, depriving the Games of the atmosphere it deserves. There will be no refrains of Sweet Caroline or Don’t Take Me Home in the Tokyo air this summer.
It has certainly not felt like arriving at a party in full swing, but nor is this a city recoiling from foreign visitors. Friendly faces greet you everywhere and even the most officious of border control staff are somehow still welcoming, managing to be kind and fussy at the same time like your favourite grandparent. Whether by accident or design, they emit a cautious hope about the fortnight ahead, even if the reality is that most of the local population wanted the Games to be cancelled.
Now the Games are here – it has already started with football and softball getting underway before Friday’s opening ceremony – and a vague and perhaps foolish thought comes to mind: that sport might eventually steal the show. Even in these sterile times without crowds to witness the action, there will always be something exciting about the prospect of watching the world’s very best do battle in the flesh. We look forward to tentatively emerging from our hotel rooms to see it.
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