Tokyo 2020 Olympics – A Volunteer’s Diary

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.

Beginnings

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).

Doug at Tokyo Olympics

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.

Olympics Center

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.”

Olympics 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.

Olympics Volunteer Uniform
Olympics Volunteer Gear

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.

Olympics Volunteer Venue Training

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.

Doug at 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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.

Olympics Volunteer Group Photo

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.

Doug Volunteering at 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Olympics Volunteer Group Photo

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.

Footnotes:

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/

Final volunteer days at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

My last volunteer day at the Oi Hockey Stadium was on Wednesday. The whole volunteer team seem 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 Coates and some “team family” members.

Our early morning briefing. Notice on the whiteboard that I am the head of the C Group for the day.
On the veranda outside the VIP lounge overlooking the north pitch.
Here we are preparing to greet the Great Britain team when they arrive and enter the stadium.

And a video of us getting ready for the team to arrive.

Just before the game begins.
As you can see, the stands are almost completely empty.
The flags of the Netherlands and Great Britain, waiting for the team members, and then they do the national anthems.
Here I am out on parking lot duty. This involved waiting for cars to arrive, and then directing people to the check-in spot. No cars arrived this day. And the parking lot was largely empty.
On entrance duty. My job is to make sure that people entering this section have the correct credentials, click them with a counter, and I have a walkie-talkie to communicate with everybody else.
They did let volunteers into a section of the stands later in the day to cheer on the teams so they wouldn’t be completely alone.
Here I am in the stands watching the Great Britain versus Netherlands game. I actually got to see a goal from each team. The first time in my life I ever saw a hockey goal!
Meeting IOC Vice President Coates.
At the elevator entrance, greeting members of the “Olympic Family” who arrive.
A person connected with the Dutch team gave me this as a souvenir. It’s a pencil, and at the tip there are carnation seeds. She encouraged me to plant them even though I told her that plants commit suicide when they come to my house.
A fellow volunteer and I making the 2020 symbols with our hands.
Laura, who was in charge of our volunteer team for the last couple of days. I finally coaxed a smile from her on the second day.
My pins! on the left is a hockey stadium volunteer pin. Next is a Field Cast pin that I won in a drawing on my last day. Then you see my gold, bronze, and silver volunteer pins. Gold is after five days of volunteering. Below that is a general Olympic pin given to me by a member of the Indian team.
Everybody saying goodbye at the end of my last day. We were feeling pretty emotional by them. It was a great group of people. Even with everything going on I’m glad I was able to experience volunteering for the Olympics. It will be a lasting memory, and I made new friends.

Some other recent posts:

https://lerner.net/united-in-emotion-with-members-of-my-olympic-volunteer-group/

https://lerner.net/tokyo-2020-olympics-some-scenes-from-volunteer-days/

United in Emotion – with members of my Olympic volunteer group

Even though there was almost nobody there to help, our volunteer group seemed to enjoy today. We all get along together very well. I helped some people 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’s not the exact same people every day, there is a large overlap, so a core of us have gotten to know each other.

Here another volunteer and I are discussing what to do about some stadium seats that nobody is using.

This volunteer is really into collecting pins for her ribbon and bag.

Going for the gold!

So far I only have two badges, a bronze volunteer badge and a silver one. All the volunteers get a bronze one. People who are here for three days get a silver one. And people who are here for five days get a gold one.

Because they eliminated spectators, my volunteer schedule was radically cut down to just four days which would have made me ineligible for a gold badge, but they allowed us to add extra days if we wanted to today. So I added one more day and I will get a gold badge when it’s done!

Tokyo 2020 Olympics – some scenes from volunteer days

Just some scenes from volunteering at the Oi hockey Stadium for the Olympics.

Trying on my uniform.
One of the tables in the Olympic Family lounge.
Outside the Olympic Family lounge above the north pitch.
This volunteer was telling us how to say welcome in Chinese to potential visitors of the Olympic family
Here I am minding the entrance to the Olympic family lounge, main floor in front of the elevator.
Do your credentials have a code 6 on them?

Taking a spin on a Segway in front of the stadium. Nobody knew what the Segways were there for, so we volunteers were taking turns taking spins on them.

Some of us practiced driving the electric car between the north pitch and the south pitch. There wasn’t anybody really to take back-and-forth though. So we just took turns driving for the fun of it.
In the parking lot in front of the stadium entrance. My job was to tell people being dropped off where to go to check in. One car came while I was there.
Up in the hockey stadium stands, just in case somebody came by and needed to know where to sit.
Playing the national anthems before the Great Britain versus Canada match began.

There hasn’t been a lot to do so far, but occasionally we help somebody find their way. We rotate between different positions during the day. We also applaud the athletes after a match is over and they return to get checked at the doping station. Even though it has all been eerily quiet, it will make for an interesting memory.