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Stark silence on Tokyo’s dead streets mirror Olympics only just tolerated | Tokyo Olympic Games 2020

On arrival at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, passengers are greeted with a sign addressed to those “concerned with the Olympics”. It was a clumsy translation – “associated with” might have been more accurate – but it is all too apt. Those in Tokyo to compete in, report on or organise the 2020 Games are very much concerned. Concerned about what the next two weeks will bring, about the spread of Covid-19 in the athlete’s village and about the prospect that a ping on our phone could force us into 14 days’ isolation.

For Tokyo locals, concern has been replaced by indifference. A thriving city enthusiastically hosting a global sporting event is a sight to behold. Right now, Tokyo is not one. That is hardly the fault of the Japanese. With about 80% of the population opposed to the Olympics, fans banned from attending events and Covid numbers surging, it is little wonder the streets are not alive with joy. But the silence – and an absence of signage, flags and adornments – is stark.

It recalls the great philosophical question about trees in the woods; if the Olympics take place and no one around shows any interest, does it actually happen?

For those who have made it to Tokyo, the excitement is beginning to build. After a complex journey, there is relief in spades. Departing Sydney on Tuesday evening, I was joined by a motley collection of fellow journalists, Olympic officials, sporting staff and a handful of Olympians from Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. On a half-empty flight, we left Australian airspace with collective trepidation. Waking to the sight of Mount Fuji looming over Tokyo did little to calm the nerves.

Then came, as we had been forewarned by colleagues already on the ground, “a lot of walking”. Traversing around the airport, those “concerned with the Olympics” were required to pass through about a dozen checkpoints. At each one, paperwork was inspected, QR codes scanned and questions asked. At one point, a banner above us – noting the partnership between the airport and the Tokyo 2020 Games – proclaimed: “Flying into the future.” If this is the future, I’d rather stick with the past.

Eventually we reached the Covid testing stations. Having duly deposited some spittle into a test tube (a delightful pre-breakfast activity), I was herded into a waiting area. A large screen displayed the identification number of each completed test. “It’s like bingo,” someone quipped. Pity the person whose number comes up positive and, having only just landed, is sent off to quarantine. Thankfully no-one arriving from Australia on Wednesday morning suffered that fate. Four hours after landing, I finally made it to my hotel.

Here I will largely stay for the next 14 days. All visiting Olympic stakeholders were required to have an “activity plan” for the Games approved by the Japanese government; other than trips to Olympic venues and the main press centre, we can barely leave our hotel until day 15. A GPS-linked app on our phones tracks us 24/7; stray beyond the confines of an activity plan, or go offline with a dead battery, and risk deportation. At least we are allowed 15 minute visits to approved nearby mini-marts, under the watchful eye of security guards at the hotel entrance keeping a stern eye on the clock.

United States basketball team
The United States basketball team arrives at Narita airport in Tokyo. Photograph: Ramiro Agustin Vargas Tabares/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

None of that is intended to sound ungrateful; despite local hesitancy, the Japanese government has opened its doors to 11,000 Olympians and about 60,000 hangers-on. In these unprecedented pandemic times, the least we can do is abide by some rules. But even if the impending competition brings with it sporting joy, these Olympics are unlikely to shake the tag of most unusual Games yet.

The pandemic has brought much heartbreak, devastation and tragedy. In the wider context, an Olympics without fans, with visiting delegates cloistered in their hotel rooms, is no big deal. And yet when the Games officially begin with the opening ceremony on Friday, the Japanese public could be forgiven for feeling forlorn. This was supposed to be a sporting bonanza, a celebration of Japan after the trauma of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster. The pandemic, and the International Olympic Committee’s stubbornness, have transformed it into a made-for-TV spectacle with a stale aftertaste.

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I have covered a number of major international sporting events the men’s World Cup in Russia, the women’s World Cup in France, cycling world championships and Grand Tours. They have in common an intangible quality, something in the air, a host nation transfixed and opening itself to the world. It is a thrill to witness and indulge in. Some of my happiest memories from those tournaments came not from sporting action, but from the energy on the streets and in the public squares.

In Tokyo, that atmosphere is conspicuously absent. The Games will roll on, the Japanese people will tolerate them, or even begrudge them, and in a few weeks’ time they will hope to put this sorry saga behind them. In May, Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun asked: “If the highly divisive Tokyo Olympics are staged without the public’s blessing, what will have been gained and lost?” The Japanese public have lost the joy that is supposed to come with hosting the Olympics. That is a great shame.

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