WHEN I SAW THE E-MAIL I panicked, half-expecting Japan’s COVID police to pounce, drag me off to a dreaded quarantine facility and cause me to miss the rest of the Olympics.
My crime? I had stayed up late writing the night before, slept too late, woke up bleary-headed and took too long translating menus on UberEATS (the app doesn’t automatically translate Japanese) so that I could get some food in my belly before I raced off to the stadium for another morning session. In the mad rush I completely forgot to open up the OCHA (Online Check-in & Health Reporting App) app on my phone and report my health conditions to the Japanese health authorities.
I quickly opened up the app and reported my vitals, lying, as always, on question No. 5, where I was to report if I experienced “Fatigue, difficulty waking up.” That’s a constant state for every journalist at the Games.
At the stadium, I shared my fears of being quarantined or even deported with my neighbor in the press tribune, a Japanese journalist. She smirked and showed me her OCHA. She hadn’t filed her report in 5 days.
“So nothing will happen?” I asked.
“Nothing ever happens but e-mails. Endless e-mails.”
This was Olympics No. 8 for me — the only T&FN staffer in town — and while many of the challenges were similar to past Games, Tokyo and its response to the pandemic turned up the stress level to 11.
Figuring out the quickest (and cheapest) way to get to the stadium is the first task at any Olympics. Normally we have a full range of choices: taxi, bus, trains, etc. For the 10-mile-plus trip in Rio, we used them all.
In Tokyo, I had to stay in an official media hotel that would enforce COVID safeguards—understandably to reassure a leery Japanese public that Olympic visitors would not further spread the coronavirus. I chose the closest one to the track, less than 2M away.
The first day I took the special bus for the media, a 20-mile round trip with one transfer that could add up to an hour to the 60–90-minute journey. That first day I spent more than 6 hours commuting to the two sessions!
I researched the Tokyo Playbook — the rules all journalists had to follow there — and found buried in the FAQ a note about walking: a direct route to the stadium was allowed, but only if one didn’t stop and talk to anyone or go into businesses. I started doing that when I could—but soon found that the heat and humidity, as well as some nasty blisters, made that a grim task.
“Have you looked into the chartered taxis?” suggested a British friend on the Stadium Information Team. Indeed, several companies committed to providing COVID-safe rides and we could get coupons for 14 free ones. Advance booking required. That was a lifesaver.
The next big challenge was the schedule itself. For past Olympics, I sometimes skipped morning sessions, typically filled with first-round heats and some of the multis, after a late-night writing assignment. However, as in Rio some of the finals took place in the AM, and many, such as both 400H races, I deemed as can’t-miss events. A great development for fans in the U.S. to see them live during their evenings, but tougher on me.
Attending all the morning sessions put me into the red zone on lack of sleep, a worry because shuteye deficits beat up on my immune system. On my last big trip, Doha ’19, I caught a bug that took a month to shake. I flew home with a blanket over my head, trying not to bother fellow passengers so much with my hacking. Doing that again in the COVID age would be decidedly bad optics.
So in Tokyo, my goal became to grab all the sleep I could while enjoying one of the greatest — and strangest — track meets I’ve ever seen. I felt like I had won a lottery, seeing World Records in both 400Hs as well as the women’s triple jump. And non-Flojo WRs in the women’s 100 and 200, nearly as good as the real thing. And Ryan Crouser at his best, along with so many other highlights.
All to virtually no applause in a cavernous and largely deserted stadium… unless it was an Italian win. The small choir of Italian coaches and teammates on hand for those moments sang and cheered more loudly, per capita, than anyone else.
Of course, the unofficial and unavoidable theme of the Games was COVID — no getting around that. After having gotten this far in the pandemic without being tested for it once, I needed 2 tests to get to Japan, another to leave the airport, 4 more during the course of the Games, and another to be allowed back into the States.
Because of the restrictions, I missed some of the best things about going to a far-off nation to see a track meet: the sights (off-limits), the exotic restaurants (also off-limits, but most delivered quickly to my hotel), and having a refreshment with some friends after the meet (another no-go).
We were also expected to wear masks virtually every moment outside of our hotel rooms. Not a problem for me. Some of the European journalists in the press tribune had issues with the policy, despite pledging to follow the rules in advance and checking that box again every day in their OCHA app. Volunteers would regularly remind them to pull their masks back up, which they would do until the volunteer left, then down it went again.
One supervisor told me, “We’re playing Whack-A-Mole here.” He didn’t have the ability to throw anyone out for violations of the Playbook, since the budget for security personnel was drastically cut when organizers blocked spectators from attending.
The Playbook rules relaxed drastically once a journalist was in the country for 14 days, a promised Nirvana that would come 3 days too late for me. Tourism and restaurants would be allowed; the organizers would give me a train pass; my hotel would let me use the elevators and doorways labelled “free” rather than the ones marked in red as “less than 14 days”, and so on.
I still feel lucky I was able to make the trip. Would do it again under the same conditions? To be honest, I’d really have to think long and hard about it. One pandemic Olympics might be enough. ◻︎