Johnny Watterson: Empty streets, antigen tests and Asahi runs - welcome to Tokyo

The first taste of an Olympics like no other is a gruelling one - but we’ll keep on swinging

A plane lands into Haneda Airport above the Tokyo 2020 field hockey complex. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

A plane lands into Haneda Airport above the Tokyo 2020 field hockey complex. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

 

Shanghaied in Tokyo. It’s the mugged feeling you experience when a day and a half goes Awol crossing frontiers. Drugged up by the prospect of an Olympic Games, this time it is a wretched waif compared to the traditional IOC beast messaging loudly, celebrating its own relevance.

This year the IOC’s caring gift is the Olympic Games in a pandemic. Humanity is on hold until we get drunk on Paris in three years time. But for now the Tokyo Games are being challenged by belts and braces sobriety.

Still we arrive in the thousands, tongues lolling and obediently covered and for that, they get us back, almost straight away. Here it’s worth noting there is widespread concern among the public over the safety of holding the global spectacle with many Japanese fearing the Olympics could turn into a super-spreader event.

The empty streets on the drive from the airport is testament to a bustling city dramatically adjusting, hushed and cautious going about its daily business. In the living areas people operate more normally than they would in Ireland with shops and restaurants open although restricted to certain hours.

But in Haneda they owned us for over four hours as we passed through the great legislative machine called Tokyo2020, OCHA, Antigen Testing and Government Immigration, great big herds of media and officials with their apps that didn’t function and Hi-tech systems backed up by a Fuji paper mountain.

Crufts for the unruly

We fell into that wide-eyed march the minute we stepped off the flight into 32 degrees of sunshine and began to unzip our transparent, liquefying plastic envelopes containing all the bureaucratic powder and ammunition. A pile on for one of the sporting Majors is always like a Crufts for the unruly, dumb and faithful.

As we trailed lugubriously in the wrong clothes in long lines as 747s disgorged thousands, many asking themselves what have I done, how did I get here. Japan being beautiful and eagerly helpful, 20 people came fussing to give us 20 different answers.

So, we threw some spectacular pity parties of moaning and wailing until even the painful was drained away along those lost kilometers of airport carpet. Like Peter O’Mahony or Josh van der Flier patrolling the Irish rucks and mauls, we hit each available queue. Luckily there was one at every corner. In that our stats were up.

Damian Lillard and the US men’s basketball Olympic team wait in Narita international airport in Narita, Chiba prefecture. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty/AFP
Damian Lillard and the US men’s basketball Olympic team wait in Narita international airport in Narita, Chiba prefecture. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/Getty/AFP

Can’t say it enough how splendidly polite they were, even the girl with the mournful look on her face when she surprised those ordered onto the naughty off ramp with a mandatory stay in their hotel rooms for 14 days quarantine.

The bereft reply that two weeks in a hotel room would mean missing the Olympic Games, the only reason to be in Tokyo in a pandemic, was met with a delightful wince and smile.

For now food can be ordered in from online Tokyo delivery services and individuals can come down to reception to pick it up and eat alone in their rooms. Eating with colleagues is not encouraged. Using public transport is not permitted. Walking around the city for more than the prescribed 15 minutes is not permitted.

There is an official who sits at a desk beside the elevator and whose sole function is to signs guests in and out of the hotel for their brief allotted Asahi beer run. They too are disarmingly courteous.

Restrictive, these are also reasonable measures although the two-week bedroom lockdown has been challenged. It’s the price Tokyo’s guests are paying to report on a highly unusual Olympics that are far from risk averse. It is also a sharp illustration of the real fear the government feel in accepting 10s of thousands of visitors into their country.

Life-changing ambitions

So here we are in an airport understandably taking revenge and a city holding its breath before Irish boxers Kellie Harrington and Brendan Irvine march out in the opening ceremony bearing the national flag and holding dearly to their personal hopes and life-changing ambitions.

For them no mass event with Holywood production values, no dancers actors and glitz. Tonight there will be no IOC grandiosity. Instead it’s beautiful Japanese aesthetics ‘in synch with the sentiment of the day,’ which is currently a back drop of 67 cases of Covid among those accredited for the Games since July 1st, when athletes and officials started arriving.

Instead of the 12,600 athletes that took part in the Rio Opening Ceremony in front of a capacity-crowd, the team parade in Tokyo will be a whittled down version in a largely empty vessel, bar several hundred officials.

Because of that everything has gone ‘Pandemic Lite’ in the dream factory except for the certain heartbreak and joy felt across the 116 Irish athletes in 19 sports.

A traveler at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg
A traveller at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg

If there is any mood to be taken from the city it is that it is okay to be happy but without the popping of champagne corks. It is okay to be effervescent but in a Presbyterian kind of way. It is okay for athletes to be joyful but with consideration of a mournfully important event also taking place. It is not okay to allow these Olympics become the full blown cavalry charge.

If there is any mood, it is that everybody needs to crush it in the basic requirements and regulations and even then the experiment might not work. These are to be a Games of measure, a games of due respect for the Covid policeman around the corner.

Thank you Tokyo. Respect Haneda. That was quite a spectacular choke hold. But we haven’t tapped out just yet.

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