Well, Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games hosted in 2021….
That name alone encompasses some of the continuous confusion around a Games that was meant to take place during a global pandemic, only to be delayed to a year later when the Delta variant was causing a 2nd or 3rd (or 4th?) wave worldwide. And yet, under this uncertainty, under this foggy haze, athletes performed,Tokyo delivered, and the world came together in some ways, united around sport.
I was there working on it in two different roles; an achievement in and of itself. I almost messed up in getting two accreditations – I didn’t know how serious an offence that would be (it’s like getting two Visas to enter Russia once, you just can’t do that without raising major alarms). And thus, major alarms were raised when my full-time role with Airbnb (which would have me operating onsite in Tokyo running our Olympian and Paralympian Experiences Program) applied for an accreditation for me, when I had already been accredited under my other role, commentating on the sailing racing for OBS – the Olympic Broadcast Service. Strike #1. (Resolved after much hassle!)
Strike #2 came when I went to take my first at-home Covid-19 test, before flying to Tokyo. Like all other staff, workers, athletes and anyone flying to Japan for the Games, I had to submit two negative tests within 48 hours of my flight over. I had read the small print that said do not move the tube once you’ve put it on the table until the lights blink, but the table is where I work, and 45 minutes is a long period of time when you’re preparing for two roles a month.
I’m pretty sure I moved it accidentally. It came up both positive and negative, which asks you to call a number that about a million or so (it seemed) other people were trying to call, as I never actually got through. Scrambled phone calls to get backup tests lined up at doctors nearby, and two more negative at-home tests later, and I was cleared to fly. Strike #2, averted.
Fly to Tokyo, test in airport, 3 days hotel quarantine, 14 days venues to hotel only, then one can technically be in public spaces as well, that was the Covid-required movement restrictions and operations plan. Luckily, there was no 3rd strike for me. The closest I came to that disaster, was being told the day after I was stood up for an in-person meeting (wow, those even happen these days?), that the person who had missed it came down with Covid 12 hours later. So lucky that I had not actually met with them, or I would have been put into quarantine myself for fear of infecting anyone further.
Our Airbnb team wasn’t so lucky. One colleague had two perfect negative tests and was cleared to fly, but found out from a friend he had seen the weekend before that he had tested positive that day. The colleague took it on himself to get tested again (for fear of spreading further), positive this time. No Tokyo for him then. Gutted after all the hard work he had put into it.
This is how I feel it felt for everyone. Complicated systems leading up to Tokyo, above and beyond a normal Games year, which is already complicated enough. Constant fear of catching Covid or messing up a test, all the while testing daily or almost daily. Concern of being near someone who was positive, which would then implicate you in the tracking systems, and minimise your movements until confirmed negative after the incubation period. Relegated mostly to your room for meals, or to the hotel restaurant only (which couldn’t serve alcohol because of the emergency order), not going out and about in Tokyo for fear of being seen and promoted by the media as rule-breaking, even if post the 14-day, now able to go out in public window.
Athletes were even more restricted, meant to arrive within 5 days of competition and having to leave within 48 hours of their final performance. Opening and closing ceremonies were a luxury only for those who competed in a time window allowing.
There was sport. Athletes had trained for years (usually many, many, many years, then added the extra one on top) for this moment. Many had made-up crazy at-home workouts during the pandemic to stay fit in the ensuing year (lifting things like water jugs on broomsticks), planning their peak for a second year in a row, in a limited capacity with Covid restrictions. Then they had traveled to Tokyo without the typical fanfare, without the hometown sendoffs. But they competed on the world stage, and in doing so, they moved the mind of the world (and the world’s media) onto sport, if only briefly.
Friends of mine from my Olympic sailing days defended their gold medals, one becoming the most successful female sailor of all time. Yet others, like the 99% of athletes competing at the Games, failed to realise their medal dreams. I cried, for the first time ever while on-air – just at the sheer glory of the race – a close race, the medal race, with amazing tactics performed by incredible athletes while competing at their physical best. An athlete made a stellar move, sealing her gold medal in a very tight scenario after being far behind, and I was (ever so briefly) overcome by the achievement.
After what had been such a trying year, it was uplifting and awe-inspiring to be able to concentrate on sport, to be amazed by the resilience of athletes to come through a year like we had all had, and still stun us on the world stage.
There were partnerships. I worked for the first time with two sailing commentators whose work I had previously only admired from afar. We worked in separated booths with windows between, unable to make the normal in-room cues. We were speaking to pictures delivered to us at the International Broadcast Center by a group of sailing broadcasters two hours away in Enoshima, most of whom we had all worked with for years, yet never got to see in person while in Japan.
One of my best friends told me of their upcoming first child over a phone call. He had saved it to tell me in person in Japan, then realised he flew out on day 14, so he could never leave his Covid bubble. With my Airbnb colleagues, I met people from the IOC (International Olympic Committee) with whom I had been on daily if not hourly calls and emails in the months leading up to the Games. Together we had organised 200 worldwide, and 10 in-Tokyo experiences: letting guests into the new sports of surfing and sport climbing, gymnastics with Nastia Liukin and basketball with Scottie Pippen, and into the mind of the Opening Ceremony exec producer with a behind-the-scenes how it all went down experience the day after.
Incredible what you can achieve on Zoom, through months of planning effort, to make things then run smoothly in person.
There was ‘omotenashi’. Technically meaning ‘public face’ (omote) and ‘of nothing’ (tenashi). No public face, or the art of hosting from the heart. Incredible Japanese hospitality, from everyone.
At the airport on arrival we were greeted by employees who had painstakingly made origami swans out of USA and Japanese flags that adorned our welcome cards. Almost every cab driver (in our special Covid bubble cabs) had some sort of gift for their riders: a Japanese candy, a handwritten note, or more beautiful origami. Our final (almost daily) in-Tokyo experiences were hosted by Jun Nakano, an ultra-runner and Airbnb Superhost, who modified his typical Tokyo tour guide experiences to host on the Olympic promenade, next to the Olympic cauldron, letting guests into the world of Tokyo, and this Olympic Games. He wanted to do it for those who weren’t able to come experience a piece of it all, dropping his normal price to just $1.
Now, settling back into daily news, much of it heart breaking in Haiti or Afghanistan or with Delta, I am warmed by memories of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and looking forward to the Tokyo Paralympics, because I really do think the Games help to unite us, worldwide, around sport, no matter how complicated or complex the scenario on the ground may actually be.
Seeing the front page of the newsletter change from Covid numbers to athlete faces, watching the TV channels switch from vaccine conversations to medalist interviews, knowing that friends and family at home were tuned in to sports they might never watch otherwise; I know I am privileged to be able to open windows to it all.
Cambridge MBA alumna Genny Tulloch is based in San Francisco, USA and is Sports and Olympian/Paralympian Experiences Lead at Airbnb.