When I first told my medical colleagues that I would be traveling 14 hours to Tokyo, they looked at me with a bit of surprise, then hesitantly told me simply to “be safe.” It is the same reaction I have often received when jetting off to cover a natural disaster, like the earthquake in Haiti, or a conflict, like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, however, the mission was to report on how people from all over the globe would converge for the Olympic Games in a city under a state of emergency due to the pandemic.
My flight to Japan was nearly empty, just as they often are with my trips into hot zones. Given there were few or no spectators allowed for these games, there were no fans on the plane wearing country colors, speaking excitedly in different languages or exchanging their picks on favored athletes. It was quiet, serene and lonely.
My days prior to departure were filled with detailed planning and lots of testing: a Covid test within 96 hours of departure, and again within 72 hours of departure. Another one immediately upon arrival, and again daily for the duration of my stay. Each time, the possibility of a breakthrough infection lurking in the back of my mind, forcing me into isolation and my team into quarantine for an extended and unplanned stay.
Even under the best of circumstances, planning to host the Olympic Games is one of the most challenging logistical events on the planet. In the middle of an unfolding pandemic, it seemed nearly impossible. On top of that, local support for the Games is anemic: Nearly 8 in 10 Japanese citizens said they preferred to cancel the Games altogether in their home country, according to a recent poll. Many here feel the decision to hold them is irresponsible, because of the health risks involved with having, in essence, tens of thousands of potentially infected out-of-towners arriving on your doorstep in the middle of a pandemic.
But after postponing the games for a year, the Japanese government and the International Olympics Committee decided the show — the Games — must go on.
And so they are — but they’re very different: strange and eerily quiet.