My experience at the covid era Olympics

My girlfriend had mentioned to me that there was no toilet paper in the entire city.

“Well, that’s odd,” I pondered to myself in the midst of a 5-day work event at home in San Diego. I hadn’t noticed anything too out of the ordinary … yet. At the same time, during my work events I am pretty ‘pedal to the metal’, working around the clock. If a meteor struck Earth, I might not notice that either. It’s not an environment that is conducive to being aware of my surroundings.

This was mid-March 2020, during the ‘first’ days of the pandemic hysteria. I had little idea what was transpiring around me as I commuted to the event each day.

Once the event ended and I got to lay eyes on the empty grocery shelves myself, I realized things were going to be quite different on many levels for, at least, the immediate future.

While everyone was affected differently by the pandemic, about a week later the pandemic threw quite the curveball into my life. It was announced that the Olympics would be postponed. Given how things were playing out on a global scale, it wasn’t that surprising, but still, the Olympics??? The only two other occasions that it had been cancelled were during each of the World Wars.

Ever since taking a job at the International Surfing Association back in 2015, the Olympics had always been on the horizon. My work, and in large part my life, revolved around preparing for surfing’s inclusion in the Games. To see that it would be postponed, and possibly canceled, threw quite the wrench into my life — both professionally and personally. The prospect of something that you dedicated so much time and energy towards getting canceled will certainly cause most to ponder the meaning of life.

Unsure if it would ever be rescheduled, I eventually came to peace with the possibility of not going to the Olympics. Then came the news that it would in fact take place during roughly the same window in 2021. The 2021 Tokyo 2020 Olympics. That has quite the ring to it, doesn’t it?

Even with the tentative dates confirmed, no one was really sure that the International Olympic Committee would actually go through with it. However, when the calendar flipped to 2021 and all systems were still go, I realized, “shit, this is really happening.”

~~~

Fast forward to several weeks ago and the Games were upon us.

I’m sitting on a virtually empty plane headed from Seattle to Tokyo, enjoying the leg space that the pandemic has granted all the passengers on the flight. Japan, still with borders closed to foreigners, was only letting in Olympics stakeholders on special visas, and capping the number of people that could arrive in the city on a plane.

The sparsely populated jumbo jet — one of the big ones with 8 seats in each row — was only carrying military, Japanese residents, or Olympic staff/athletes, as far as I could tell.

Self-centered perk #1 of the pandemic: I had never been allotted so much space on a flight. I took full advantage and treated it like I was moving into a new apartment. My book, snacks, water bottle, headphones (one for my phone and one for the TV), immigration papers, and chargers were all neatly organized in the surrounding empty seats and pockets. I crossed the aisle to stretch out across the four conjoined seats in the middle of the plane and rested. The relaxation was welcomed after my fiasco the previous day.

After reading through more novel-thick pdf documents related to the requirements to arrive in Japan than I could shake a stick at, I discovered minutes before boarding my (original) flight to Tokyo that I had made a minor, but grave mistake.

Having been required to take covid tests 96 and 72 hours before departure as an entry requirement, I pulled out my test results to board the plane, when I was politely informed by the airline attendant that my test was expired and I would not be boarding the flight.

“What??? How could that be?!”

My last test, which I discovered was all they really cared about, was taken within the 72-hour window before my first flight, San Diego to Seattle. However, the 72-hour countdown actually wasn’t supposed to start until the international flight takes off, thus my test had expired about an hour and a half prior to takeoff.

Priding myself on actually reading these documents, I figured there was no way I could miss such a crucial detail. I pulled out my phone and tried to plead my case, that is until I pulled up the same document, the one I had read multiple times, and there it said in parentheses the detail that was going to make me miss the flight.

“In parentheses!? That shit should be bold, italic, highlighted and printed in 42 languages. How could they hide that detail in parentheses?!”

Despite the subtle nature of the detail, I accepted the fact that I had no one here to blame but myself. There was the damn detail, stated in the bible of travel documents.

Still with about 45 minutes till takeoff, my brain started going into overdrive to figure out a solution. I headed towards the airport covid testing site thinking they could maybe rush me one if I asked nicely enough.

However, as I stood in the stagnant line for testing, surrounded by other people in similarly fraught situations, my hopes of boarding that flight fell flat. I sat with my ass glued to a shiny airport handrail as my plane took off overhead towards the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by flustered passengers also trying to rush through an understaffed covid clinic, as least I was not alone in my misery.

I stood in that line for two hours before it was my turn. I got my test and was told to return in an hour and a half for the results, so I thought in the meantime I would book a hotel and go to the Delta Airlines counter to change my flight. It seemed simple enough, maybe too simple… Little did I know my problems were far from over.

After booking the cheapest hotel close to the Seattle airport, I went and continued to stand in line for another hour at the Delta counter.

Then, when I finally arrived at the front, I presented the agents with my case. The perplexed look on the agents’ faces as they placed phone call after phone call did not bode well for me. Soon enough I was that guy slowing down the entire line for an hour.

They informed me that all flights to Tokyo, which were already super limited due to Japan’s closed borders, were full until four days from now. Geez, four days and I might as well go back home and throw in the towel. I started thinking that the universe was trying to keep me from going to the Olympics.

“Should I listen to the signs or resist?” I wondered.

I pleaded my case with the agents as they reluctantly went back to their managers to see what strings could be pulled.

An eavesdropping couple that was at the counter next to me was convinced that I was an olympic surfer. They asked me if I was competing, and I jokingly (and not-so-sarcastically) replied that if I were an Olympian I would’ve already dialed up Joey Biden to charter me a private plane.

Finally, the agents came back to me with good news. They were able to get me on a flight scheduled for tomorrow.

Traveling with 5 large bags, I elected to just leave my bags with the airline and head over to my musty hotel with only the clothes on my back and the items in my carry on. I jammed out some emails in the hotel room and figured I should make the most of my impromptu stay in Seattle with a jaunt around town. I found a nice park to do some reading and writing whilst admiring the snow-capped peaks that outline the city’s metropolitan sprawl.

When I headed to the airport in the morning, I was half-expecting some omen to keep me from boarding my plane again. Was I going to get kidnapped? Would an earthquake ground all flights? Nonetheless, things went impeccably smooth this time around and I was off to the Olympics.

Standing in hours-long lines in Seattle prepped me for my arrival to Tokyo, where they had converted the entire terminal into a long line where you pass through various check points to show your documents, get covid tested again, verify your accreditation, and find your hotel transportation.

Due to the travel restrictions, the airport was essentially only used for the purpose of receiving the Olympic delegations. Most Japanese citizens were still not allowed to leave the country without special permission.

The process was actually fairly efficient, but it still took nearly four hours to get through the lines and into a van headed to the surfing venue on the coast.

~~~

You may be thinking: “Wait, surfing is in the Olympics?” Yes, it is indeed. Tokyo 2020 was the Olympic debut for the sport — another reason these Games were going to be ‘different’, regardless of the pandemic.

The surfing took place in the cozy seaside village of Ichinomiya, located in the prefecture of Chiba just due east of Tokyo.

As part of the covid protocols, we submitted a list beforehand of all the places that we would be visiting in Japan called an ‘activity plan’, and we were to strictly adhere to said list. Thus, the next week of my life was spent shuttling back and forth between the hotel and the venue, which was only about a five-minute drive. Midway through the event they pulled some strings to allow us the luxury of adding one specific convenience store to the ‘list’, but I had stocked up on protein bars in the USA and never had to take them up on that offer.

Despite my repeated explanations of the limitations that I would be under in Japan, many of my family and friends were under the illusion that I was going to Japan to experience all the historic sites, walk the bustling streets, and drop into the best sushi restaurants. While Japan is an incredible country to experience (I’ve been lucky enough to have visited three times), I had long accepted the fact that this trip would include none of those cultural affairs. And there would be no trips to other sporting venues, squashing my goal to see Team USA play in basketball.

That said, all of us going to Japan knew what we were in for, and it didn’t bother me.

Meals were eaten most at empty tables, buffet food was collected with plastic gloves, masks were worn both in the air-conditioned offices and outside in the suffocating heat, and we got in the routine of getting tested for covid every morning.

Luckily there were no positive tests among our athletes and staff.

The experience at the venue clearly was vastly different than what the organizers had been planning for. Just weeks before the event the Japanese government announced that they would extend the ‘state of emergency’ and there would be no fans allowed at venues.

Thus, the mega screens stationed on each jetty towered over an empty beach. The on-site announcers introduced the heat draws over booming speakers with an animated energy that fell mostly on non-existent ears. The adjacent festival space that was supposed to house live music, food, and cultural activities for 6,000 people, was a ghost town.

Still, for those watching at home, they probably didn’t notice the difference. We forged ahead and were graced with a passing typhoon that sent some large, albeit rowdy, waves to the Chiba coast, along with some wind and rain.

The conditions were challenging, such that if you put an average surfer like myself in the water, I would have been paddling in circles and taking off on close outs. But there were diamonds in the rough and the chunky swells provided a canvas for the world’s best to show what surfing is. If you’ve seen the highlights, you’d know that the competition was certainly not lacking drama.

On the second morning of competition I came up with the sly idea of getting on the 4:45am transport to the venue to sneak in a few waves for myself. The conditions weren’t great, but I couldn’t come all the way to the Olympics and say I didn’t catch at least one wave.

I entered the designated training zone just south of the contest site, and before I could catch my second wave I was approached by speeding water patrol jetskis manned by lifeguards. The men had a sense of purpose in their expressions that can only be matched when trying to save a life. They had sped over to me just to kick me out of the water… Apparently no one was allowed to surf until 5:30am. Did I miss that memo too?

I cooperated and trudged out of the water to my office, getting an unintentionally very early start to work that day. (Luckily, I got some nice surf sessions in the days after the event.)

On the third day of competition after the first-ever surfers took to the podiums to accept their medals, it felt crazy how fast it had all unfolded. A major goal that I had been helping the organization — and really surfing as a whole — work towards for the last 6+ years was over in a three-day blur. And it unfolded in a manner that we could not have even started to comprehend in the cushy world we knew pre-pandemic.

The thousands of hours that my colleagues and I had spent working towards this goal had all finally been paid off. It was a weird feeling to reach the finish line, yet satisfying, nonetheless.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate it in the moment, but I’m sure having participated in the covid era Olympics is something that will gain more significant of a meaning as the years pass, the pandemic ends, and more Olympic Games roll on.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics presented a whole new set of challenges — ranging from physically getting there, to re-thinking how sporting events can run with the restrictions of virus protocols. But the show went on, and I was just glad to be a tiny cog in the machine.

Top featured image: Sean Evans

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Evan. Good to read all the details of what must have been both an exhausting and a fleetingly rewarding trip.

    See you soon.

    Love,

    Jeanie

    Like

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