No matter what anyone says the Olympics and the World Cup are the two biggest events on the global calendar. Nothing even comes close. They bring nations and the world together in a way that nothing else can. So in the lead up to these games, with Covid looming over everyone’s heads, it was extremely interesting to see the negativity around holding these games. I know that I am biased, but if it can be done safely (which it appears it has been very well managed, more on this shortly), then I cannot see anything more important than lifting and shifting the focus globally to a more positive space. Don’t get me wrong, Covid has been devastating, but it is clear that with careful planning and diligence, safety around this can be enhanced enormously. To give you insight, the Covid protocols have been significant and constantly maintained.
To start with all staff, athletes, and officials from the majority of nations were double vaccinated prior to arrival in Japan. Obviously there are people who do not have access, chose not to be vaccinated or simply cannot due to health conditions, but the estimate was that approximately 85-90% of all participants in the games (staff, athletes, volunteers etc) were vaccinated. Not only does this provide some level of protection it gives confidence that the participants are unlikely to pose a significant risk to the Japanese population, who currently are having their own surge of Covid cases.
Once vaccinated the process of entry was screened using a series of COVID tests spaced to give the Japanese officials confidence that those coming in were not jeopardising the games going ahead. These tests were conducted 14 days, 96 hours and 72 hours out from your departure flight into Japan. If you were in high risk countries such as the UK, you were asked to have further tests 48 and 24 hours out from your arrival into Japan. All of your results had to be logged and tracked into an application set up by the Olympic Organising committee and the Japanese government that maintained all of the health information (the app is called OCHA). Before arriving all of your COVID tests, medical information, travel information and accommodation had to be logged so that there was an understanding of your health and potential exposure to COVID. Once you passed this information and landed in Japan, the daily testing and health checks were put into full effect.
On landing in Japan we were subject to a test on arrival, a series (up to 5) different document, health and vaccination status checks, and then kept in the airport until all people on our flight were cleared of having COVID. Depending on how full your flight was this lasted anywhere between 2.5 to 6+ hours waiting in the airport. And in the event that someone on your flight tested positive all close contacts were then put into isolation for up to 14 days. They were allowed to train as long as they maintained a negative COVID test, but were not allowed to leave their accommodation or train with others.
One of my athletes and I were in Switzerland and flew from Zurich to Japan via a stopover in Helsinki. Our flight was relatively empty so that was helpful when we landed at Narita Airport about an hour out of Tokyo, to attend the Pre-Olympics holding camp set up by Athletics Australia. We were fortunate that our wait was only 2.5 hours in the airport. Due to being in Switzerland, considered a relatively low risk country, we were afforded some more latitude than the Aussies that had been in the UK prior to arriving in Japan. When I say latitude we were allowed out of our rooms to go to the dining room, apart from here we could only go to the track. That was it. The floor that we stayed on was booked entirely for the athletes, we could only use one lift that was restricted from other guests and we were not allowed to enter the lobby or outside the hotel other than to get on our private bus to the training venue.
In terms of testing it has been thorough and constant. Each day we have been asked to track symptoms in our OCHA apps (temperature, fever and other symptoms) and have had to complete daily COVID saliva tests. These tests and checks increased even further when the athletes arrived in the village and as a private coach our respective hotels. Each day we are subjected to multiple temperature checks, OCHA tracking, daily saliva COVID testing, bag and security checks and a multitude of movement restrictions (typically we can only attend the training/competition venue). As private coaches not staying in the village it has been very difficult to get around at times as we have been restricted to using a dedicated taxi service, none of which the drivers and operators speak strong English and their idea of organising a taxi rank after an evening competition is lack lustre at best. To put this into typical Olympics perspective, personal coaches would usually use public transport or walk to venues if they were close enough. But given the restrictions required it appears to have been a smart move to make these activities not possible.
I along with the other personal coaches we lucky enough to have our accreditation’s upgraded to allow us to travel into the Olympic Village. To say that this was an experience of a lifetime is to put it mildly. The village in itself is a bubble, but there are multiple levels of security both for COVID but also safety. The COVID protocols continue in the village, there are hand sanitizers everywhere, masks are required in at all times, except for the athletes in their rooms. This includes outdoors in the searing 35 degree (80% humidity) Japan sun. In the popular areas such as the dining hall there are perspex shields at every dining station with cleaning products used to wipe down the station prior to eating. You must use plastic gloves when handling your meal trays or picking up your food from the stations. You are restricted to a 15 min sitting time and told not to spend time with athletes from other countries. This extends to the accommodation buildings with restrictions on athletes from other countries being allowed in other nations buildings.
To date these protocols have limited the number of infections within the village. The team doctor informed us that there are currently approximately 40 cases per day in the village, so vigilance is always required. And now upon our preparations for departure we must declare our travel arrangements to the Australian government in order to undergo our hotel quarantine upon arrival in Australia. The Australian team has been spread across the quarantine sites throughout Australia, our flight lands in Brisbane for our 14 day hotel quarantine.
The part that maybe hasn’t been shown or discussed at length given the fear and negativity around holding a games during a pandemic, is the genuine and overwhelming hospitality of the Japanese staff and volunteers. They have worked tirelessly and with a smile on their faces at all times. It cannot be overstated how helpful they have been and my hope is that their efforts are rewarded with a safe Paralympics and consequent coming months.
The COVID journey is not over yet, but from the experience that we have had in one of the most controlled environments that you could imagine, it has been very possible and more than worth it.