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Spit Tests, 7-Eleven Dinners and Emptiness Everywhere: Welcome to the Tokyo Olympics

The circumstances in Japan are unusual, but a small sliver of the traditional Summer Games spirit still remains.

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TOKYO — After a year's delay, the Summer Olympics are here, but the circumstances are much different than many expected. Below, Sports Illustrated's team of writers on the ground in Tokyo share their experiences after a few days in the host city.


Look: There’s no delicate way to put this, but among the many, many, pandemic-tinged oddities of this particular Olympics, the most prominent one is … spit. Everybody’s expectorating, from the 11,000 or so athletes to coaches to officials for various countries to journalists, many of whom might look like spitters, but few of whom actually are. In public, anyway.

They’re not spitting on fields of play. Or maybe they are, but that doesn’t account for the prominence of saliva, forming a river of good, old-fashioned slobber. COVID-19 is why, of course. It’s why everyone is spitting into small test tubes at the airport; in a sectioned-off, football-field-sized room dedicated to spitting and only spitting at the Main Press Center; in hotel rooms they can’t leave; or on buses surrounded by friends who might normally expect more socially acceptable behavior.

This isn’t any more than a minor inconvenience, just one more in 15 months defined by them. Of course, the organizers should be testing everyone entering a country that recently reinstated a state of public emergency. But it’s one thing to know that you must spit—and another entirely to muster 1.5 millimeters on demand.

There are rules involved, of course, because the Olympics (as an entity) love rules. Each vial requires the participant to affix a barcode for testing purposes. They can’t eat, smoke or drink anything 30 minutes before the test. If they do, the consequences remain unclear. But everyone takes the spittle exercise seriously, because it beats the alternatives, like being sent back home.

Then, there are the spreadsheets, the apps, the daily check-ins, the pre-departure tests, form after form after form. My binder of paperwork is the size of an old phone book, when such a thing existed to make … phone calls. At hotels where journalists stay, they’re required to sign out to visit the only place they can go besides an Olympic venue, the local 7-Eleven. They’re permitted 15 minutes, and the volunteers who serve as guides at my hotel even have a stopwatch. They’re not measuring 100-meter times.

Finally, there are the suggestions that come wrapped around those vials of loogies being hawked. Refrain from personal conversations in lines … don’t let your phone battery die, or risk an investigation … don’t walk, use public transportation or bicycle for 14 days … Japanese citizens are “paying close attention to your every move … in the unlikely event that you are found to (in) infringement of the Playbook, such activity may be photographed and shared on social media by bystanders.”

They even ask journalists to “maintain good physical condition.” Meaning they haven’t met too many journalists.

I kid. It’s all good. Every Games has its oddities, and this might be odder than most, but it’s not like another universe, not any more than the rest of the pandemic was. Instead, I hoped to reach Gaylord Perry to write a column on the Art of Spitting, a public service announcement, more or less. “Lol. No Thanks,” he responded to a text message on what I believe to be his primary cellphone. So, alas, we’re on own out here. —Greg Bishop

When I came to Tokyo on vacation with my family in 2018, I kept noticing two things: how little litter there was, and how many people there were. We stood at the teeming Shibuya Crossing, caught subways so overrun that commuters’ faces squished against the windows and sat alongside a hundred other diners at the famous underground Robot Restaurant.

I assume most of those people are still here, but I haven’t seen them. In a (middlingly successful) attempt to combat COVID-19, Olympics officials have created what they call a soft quarantine for Games participants. We cannot go to Shibuya, or anywhere else that is not hosting an event. We cannot take public transportation. We cannot eat at restaurants. (Besides, in May, the Robot Restaurant became yet another casualty of the pandemic.)

The view from my hotel room is of a concrete wall, and we are not allowed to go for walks, so the best part of my day has become the 20-minute shuttle ride to the media center every morning. (The ride back isn’t bad, either, but I prefer sunlight.) It’s the closest I get to feeling like I’m covering an Olympics in a foreign country; with no fans and no ability to venture into the city, this could otherwise be Tulsa 2020. I feast on the angular buildings and immaculate parks, the tiny alleys and the sweeping bridges. I have no idea what the areas we pass would look like under normal circumstances, but they are empty right now. Occasionally we chug past a man on a bicycle or a woman using an umbrella to shield herself from the sun. I have not yet seen a child. In so many ways, this bears no resemblance to the place I remember. But in one way, it is the same: This morning I thought I spotted a piece of trash on the street. Then we got closer. It turned out to be a leaf. —Stephanie Apstein

I will, as a matter of fact, thank heaven for 7-Eleven.

The convenience store is next to my hotel here, and it has provided what aid and succor—and dinner—there is to be found these first few days in locked-down Japan. The Tokyo version of a 7-Eleven is not the same as the American archetype; it has more food options, up to and including shark fin soup and salted squid guts. (I opted for the sliced ham and crackers.)

The fact that 7-Eleven is the best/easiest dinner option in one of the great food cities underscores the void in these Games. It is, thus far, an Olympics of what’s missing more than what’s found.

From the mostly empty plane here to the mostly empty streets to the mostly empty feeling of an Olympics without fanfare, this is not the Tokyo anyone dreamed of experiencing. One of the world’s most vibrant cities is hosting the world’s most vibrant sporting event, and it’s all unsettlingly still and unnaturally quiet.

I’ve been to Tokyo three previous times and been dazzled by the scope, the pace, the creativity and the ingenuity of the place. From the cuisine to the transportation to the history to the modernity, it is a marvel. This time around, life is a series of buttoned-down bus rides.

That’s not a complaint, just an acknowledgment of how different this is than the previous eight Olympics I’ve covered. I’m thrilled to be here, professionally and even more so paternally, but I feel bad for a lot of people. For the athletes, because I know what they’re missing. For their families, who cannot be here. For the citizens of Japan, who would be supporting these Games with a great fervor.

But these are, still, the Olympic Games. A dream destination for athletes and media, and one that comes with an even sharper sense of appreciation because of how close it came to not happening at all. As much as I wish my daughter could immerse in a full Olympic experience, I know how much more painful it would have been to be Lisa Buese, a family friend who made the 1980 U.S. swim team but missed the Games due to boycott. She would take every lockdown limitation in exchange for that chance to compete against the world.

It can be easy to lose perspective while eating that 7-Eleven dinner in a muted metropolis. But we are still incredibly fortunate to be here. —Pat Forde

The Olympics are a multibillion-dollar operation, polished for TV by networks that program every minute. Yet when you arrive in the host city, what you notice first, and most, is usually the volunteers.

In my experience, the 2008 Beijing Games set the record for volunteers; you could not walk 11 feet without running into three of them, though in China, the word “volunteer” might be a stretch. But there is a different vibe to the volunteer group in Tokyo, and maybe it’s in my head.

These are thankless jobs in normal times; they probably sound glamorous until you put on the same shirt they give thousands of other people and realize you are telling reporters how to find the buses. Now, though—in 2021, in a country that mostly doesn’t want the Olympics—choosing to help make them run anyway is an interesting and, from this corner, admirable choice.

They are nice, so nice—all of them, so far. Olympic volunteers tend to be so eager to please, so determined to make you like not just them or the Olympics, but the whole country, that they often volunteer help they don’t quite know how to give. (“Yes, I can tell you how to get there,” is often followed by a search to find another volunteer.) One senses that the Tokyo volunteers feel multiple pressures, to show that Japan can successfully stage a show it doesn’t really want. It must feel incredibly strange to them. To me, they are the most normal part of these Olympics.
Michael Rosenberg

More Olympics Coverage:

The Games Go On—With a New Purpose
Meet Team USA Athletes Competing in Tokyo
Previewing Every Sport in the Olympics