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It’s been just over a week since the Tokyo Olympics began, in the midst of a state of emergency, with no fans there to cheer. Almost daily, the case count of new infections in Tokyo is hitting all-time high numbers, and with the vaccination rate still below 30% some experts in the media have started using phrases like “explosive growth.” Here in Japan, the public’s attention is split between news of their national team’s record-breaking count of gold medals and the record-breaking COVID-19 numbers.
A new Olympic Stadium, a new Olympic Village, new event venues. After years of preparation to host the event of the century, high walls surround them all to keep the public out. The people of Tokyo have been looking forward to hosting the Games for years, but now that it’s here in their midst, how does the average person on the street really feel about it?
Saturday marked the second weekend of the Olympics, halfway through the Games and the second day of track and field. Sendagaya Station, just west of the Olympic Stadium, was rebuilt and expanded to handle capacity crowds for the stadium and the Olympic table tennis venue next door. At the time that tens of thousands would have been pouring out of its gates to go see national record holder Ryota Yamagata and Japan’s other sprinters in the men’s 100m heats, the new plaza in front of the station is almost totally empty except for police and security.
Down around the stadium, Tokyo 2020 is written in letters 12 feet tall on the wall that surrounds the stadium neighborhood. You can barely see anything on the other side except at the heavily guarded entrances. Around the main entrance on the north side of the stadium mesh fencing offers a view inside, but all that the few people stopping to look in can see is the outside of the stadium and guards, police and Olympic staff.
The only glimpse you can get of the athletes is through one spot in the fencing far across a field from the temporary warm-up track east of the stadium. From that distance they’re just dots on the horizon as they prepare to compete.
Daijiro Tsumoto was one of the handful of people there straining to see the track world’s stars with their own eyes. “I came here today to feel the Olympics,” he says. “I wanted to get as close as I could to the stadium. I think that if they were going to hold this they should have included at least some fans in the stands. I love sports, and I wanted to see the Olympics for myself, especially since I live in the neighborhood. They won’t be held here again in my lifetime.”
“In and of itself, I think it’s a good thing that they held the Olympics,” says Ayano Onodera, a fan of track and field running with her clubmates on a hilly loop across a busy street from the track stadium’s warm-up area. “I want to see the athletes do their best. But a lot of human and medical resources have been diverted that way, and considering the rate at which infections are spreading I think it would have been better if they hadn’t done it. When I watch on TV I get into it and forget about Corona for a minute, but then when it’s over you have to watch the news talking about the pandemic situation. If you asked me if I’m really enjoying it, I’d have to say no.”
James Ellinger, an American who has lived in Tokyo for seven years, has similarly conflicted feelings. “I’m hesitantly enjoying this Olympics. The infection numbers are increasing, and that coincided almost exactly with the start of the Olympics. That said, so far there’s no crossover between the Olympic bubble and the general public, and I’m concerned more about the decisions being made hurting local Japanese businesses. I try to enjoy it for what it is and cling to just a little bit of this idea of hope. We haven’t beat the pandemic yet, but seeing people reaching their dreams should be a little bit of a positive spot.”
“This is a fake Olympics. We should get a do-over,” says Yusuke Inoue, a Japanese citizen. Inoue had tickets for track and field and table tennis finals. “This is not the Olympics I wanted to experience.” Even so, he ran 18k early in the morning to come see the Olympic flame and went to the stadium area on the day of the opening ceremony to take pictures to help remember the atmosphere. “I can’t bring myself to think that this is a real Olympics, but I want to try to at least enjoy what it is. I’m a long-distance runner, so I’ve been looking forward to the marathons and other distance races. This is the top level of the sport.”
Kenneth Pechter, a longtime Tokyo resident who experienced the Nagano Winter Olympics, is touring Olympic venue sites by bike with friends to experience the vibe. He is choosing to view things positively. “I don’t know if holding the Olympics was the right decision or not. No one will know until a few months from now. But it’s worth trying to do it. I’m choosing to appreciate the part of the cup that’s half full, because we already have to deal with the empty part either way. Without creating more risks, let’s celebrate this event.”
Over on the south side of the stadium is a small park in front of the Olympic Museum. Ordinary people are lined up to take photos in front of the five-ring monument with the stadium as a backdrop as international media and event officials busily pass by through a security entrance into the stadium. Yudai and Mikako Yamamoto are there with their daughter Tsubasa, almost two years old. “We came up from Kawasaki,” says Yudai. “We’ve been watching the Games on TV, but today we came thinking that we should take a picture of our daughter in front of the rings. It’ll be our memory of this Olympics.”
Around the park there are other families with young children, many like Tsubasa probably too young to have their own lasting memories of having been there. A home country Olympics is a lifetime milestone, and the memories of it are ones that people naturally want to preserve and cherish. When the children running and playing around the Olympic rings are older and look at the photos their parents took of them today, with everything that has made the Tokyo Olympics what it is, what kind of memories will those pictures evoke?
About the Author
Mika Tokairin is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and editor covering running, triathlons, fashion and lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Triathlete, Triathlon Lumina, Runners, An An and Yebisu Style magazines, and she is the co-author of a number of books.