The Olympics and Paralympics have now ended. In the midst of escalating coronavirus infections, Tokyo decided to carry on after the main Olympics and, by all accounts, the very important Paralympics were a big success. It’s been a controversial, emotional, confusing, fascinating, memorable and, I think, worthwhile experience. I’m glad to see that the infection rates are now dropping after reaching a peak recently.
Having lived more than half my life in Japan, I often feel like giving something back. So I undertook this much longer-than-expected journey to be a volunteer for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics back in early 2019. As we all know, much has transpired in the world since then; it feels like another era. Here is a short diary of my time with the Olympics.
In March of 2019, I attended “volunteer orientation day” at the Olympics headquarters. They were very organized and had everything scheduled so people got a chance to mingle and try some “team activities,” followed by interviews, ID checks, and a photoshoot op. It was then I learned that while we say “Tokyo Twenty-Twenty” in English, in Japanese everybody said, “Tokyo Ni-Zero Ni-Zero” (Ni=Two).
November 15, 2019 – Olympics Training
I attended what was to be the last in-person training session, at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center in the Sangubashi neighborhood, near Shinjuku.
I hadn’t been to that neighborhood before. It’s just two stops from Shinjuku (three minutes) but a world of difference. It’s much quieter, with some nice hills and interesting shops and restaurants.
The Olympics Center itself is huge, but aging. It was built after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
There was lots of talk about diversity and disabilities. People could take out their smartphones and tablets, and using a QR code connect to a real-time Q&A system. They would periodically ask us to guess answers to questions or ask our opinions about something, and the results would show up in histograms on the big front screen in real time. I wonder if there are systems like that in classrooms in the U.S. It’s certainly better than a show-of-hands count (there were 300 people in my session).
I was a member of what is called the “Field Cast”— people who go out in the field and help at events, help with athletes, and things like that. People who act as guides around the city and at stations were part of the “City Cast.”
2020 – Everything Happened
After that, so many things started happening, and it became unclear how the Olympics would proceed. During the initial outbreak, we quickly switched to completely online training sessions. And eventually, the Olympics were postponed a year and we went into a hiatus of sorts, with little information other than a request to confirm our desire to participate. It still was not clear whether waiting a year would return things to normal or, as it turned out, not.
The rest of 2020 is a blur, with lockdowns of nursing homes in Japan as well as the U.S., the passing of my mother at age 93 in Boston, and a dear friend here in Japan at age 100, shortages of supplies due to rumors, a boom in online education and work, closing of outdoor venues, strict anti-viral protocols, and the election going on in the U.S.
April 24, 2021 – Japan Declares Virus Emergency
On the same day I received my venue assignment and volunteer schedule, Japan declared a virus emergency as COVID-19 continued to spread rapidly, and almost nobody had been vaccinated yet. I was assigned to the Oi Hockey Stadium for seven days, as part of the Event Services Team. At the time I had no idea what hockey was, except for ice hockey.
May 17, 2021 – Credentials and Uniform
It was finally the scheduled time to pick up my Tokyo 2020 Olympics credentials, uniform, and other gear. The location was at the former south wing of the Hotel Okura in Kamayacho on the Hibiya Line.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but the extremely careful corona-prevention procedures were impressive. Not only temperature checking and disinfecting and social distancing, but lots of shielding and wearing gloves, plus everybody had reserved times to come so you weren’t close to anybody at any time. It was huge gigantic empty halls and roped passages.
July 4, 2021 – Venue Training
On July 4 I went to the Oi Hockey Stadium for venue training. The Olympics were right around the corner, and it was still not completely decided whether they were going to hold them or cancel. And the decision to cancel spectators had not yet been made. So much of what we learned that day got upended at the last minute.
We did take a tour and saw all the “pitches” (I was not the only volunteer to have never seen a hockey game before), and where all the restrooms, baby care stations, rest areas, the volunteer’s meal area (we get daily meal vouchers), and even the prayer tent were.
July 13, 2021 – Spectators Banned
Other volunteers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics I’ve spoken with had not yet heard what was to become of us since spectators in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures had just been banned. I already finished my venue training at the Oi Hockey Stadium and was scheduled to participate July 24-28 and August 3-4. But rumors were that we should expect some sort of cancelation notice, or suggestion of reassignment of some kind.
All overseas volunteers already had their assignments canceled, and thousands of domestic volunteers also got canceled after the spectator decision. My schedule was cut back to just four days.
July 27, 2021 – Some Scenes from Volunteer Days
Here are just a few scenes from volunteering at the Oi Hockey Stadium to give you an idea of what it was like. The empty stadiums lent an unreal feeling to the experience.
July 28, 2021 – United in Emotion, With My Volunteer Group
Even though there was almost nobody there to help, our volunteer group seemed to enjoy our work. We got along together very well. I helped a few people, members of the “Olympic Family” get around, and was asked to take a few pictures for some visitors.
Here is our group at the end of the day. While it wasn’t the exact same people every day, there was a large overlap, so a core of us got to know each other.
August 7, 2021 – Final Volunteer Days
My last volunteer day at the Oi Hockey Stadium came to an end. The whole volunteer team seemed to bond and we were feeling weepy when it was over. Because there were no spectators, there wasn’t a lot to do, but somehow we felt like we were busy all day rotating between shifts and visiting different locations at the site.
They even had us in spectator shifts to cheer on the women’s hockey teams. I got to actually sit and watch Great Britain versus the Netherlands for a while and saw two goals and got to meet IOC Vice President John Coates and some “team family” members.
I will forever be grateful for the experience, and to the other members of our volunteer team. The theme of the Olympics was “United in Emotion” and we all created special bonds and memories that will last through time.
In the footnotes are links to more blog posts with many more photos of the experience, including volunteer operations and Olympics swag.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics Training (November 15, 2019) – https://lerner.net/tokyo-2020-olympics-training/
Olympic Credentials and Uniform (May 18, 2021) – https://lerner.net/my-tokyo-2020-olympics-goodies/
Venue Training at the Oi Hockey Stadium (July 4, 2021) – https://lerner.net/olympic-venue-training-at-the-oki-hockey-stadium/
Some Scenes from Volunteer Days (July 27, 2021) – https://lerner.net/tokyo-2020-olympics-some-scenes-from-volunteer-days/
United in Emotion (July 28, 2021) – https://lerner.net/united-in-emotion-with-members-of-my-olympic-volunteer-group/
Final Volunteer Days (August 7, 2021) – https://lerner.net/final-volunteer-days-at-tokyo-2020-olympics/