Tokyo’s heart missing from Olympics

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It was a rough landing at Haneda airport, but the view from the plane was an antidote: the early rays of the sun advancing over the unmistakable silhouette of Mt Fuji and bouncing off the clear blue waters of Tokyo Bay.

The Air Nippon flight from Delhi barely carried 30 passengers, and almost all of them had something to do with the Olympics. The flight was full of talk of how long the grind will be at the airport, with all the Covid-19 protocols, testing and clearances.

Volunteers check to see if we have the Japanese government’s health report app, called OCHA, on our phones, followed by an antigen test, a check to see if you’ve done the mandatory two RT-PCR tests before departure, an accreditation check, immigration, customs.

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Yet, all of it is done in two and a half hours in a smooth and efficient way, with helpful volunteers at hand the entire time.

It was also the most visible proof that Japan’s capital city was hosting the biggest multi-disciplinary sporting event in the world, about to kick off in just two days after a year’s delay because of the pandemic.

The airport itself wore a weary and deserted look–rows of empty seats, no big banners.

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To be sure, one reason behind the well-organized process in place was to ensure the airport did not get crowded.

Still, it seemed eerily discomforting for one of the busiest airports in the world to be so quiet.

Scratch the surface and you can almost feel an underlying sense of fear and nervousness in Tokyo. The Olympics opens on July 23 will be held behind closed doors at almost all venues.

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“The situation is not so good in the city,” said a volunteer. “But we hope the Games pass off peacefully.”

Like most of Tokyo, he has reasons to be worried. There has been a rise in Covid-19 cases since the day international contingents began arriving. The sporting world’s biggest bio-bubble, that is supposed to provide cover to more than 11,000 athletes, is feared to have been breached already. Two South African footballers and a video analyst tested positive in the Games Village on Sunday and a Czech beach volleyball player tested positive on Monday. Earlier, a US gymnast had tested positive in a training camp outside of Tokyo.

According to the Tokyo Organising Committee, the number of Covid-19 cases linked to the Games in Japan has risen to 67.

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“But it’s important to look inside the numbers: among the total, 33 are positive cases from residents of Japan, 28 are from the Olympic Committees arriving from overseas,” the spokesperson of Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Masa Takaya said Monday.

In Tokyo, from a peak of 2,447 cases on January 7, the count significantly dropped to 116 on March 8, raising hopes that the Games could be held in a safer environment. But the curve started to show an upward trend again reaching another peak of 1,429 daily cases on April 14. By June 14 it came down to 209 but has only climbed since then. Closer to the Games, it has picked up sharply and the last seven-day average stands at 1,100. Tokyo is now battling its fifth wave, attributed to the Delta strain. The city is under a state of emergency, which will last the entirety of the Games.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government, facing criticism on the domestic front for going ahead with the Games and a slow vaccination drive, announced curbs on movement of people ahead of the Japan’s Bon holiday summer vacation in mid-August.

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“The buzz is missing in Tokyo,” said Martha Cordova, a journalist from Ecuador, who landed in Tokyo on Tuesday to cover her fifth Olympics since Athens. “I have never been to an Olympics like this before. These are unprecedented times and considering the situation you know what to expect. But going by what we are seeing first-hand, it’s very low key at the moment.”

With the spectre of Covid-19 hanging over their heads and spectators not allowed, Tokyo is not in celebration mode. Not yet.

The Olympics are almost here, but it is beating without Tokyo’s heart.

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