Kindness and control freakery: life inside the Tokyo Olympic experience

Crouched behind a bush in the shadow of the vast Tokyo Big Sight building, the bearded American man from the small Ukrainian magazine said: “I’m writing an article about smoking at the Olympics.”

A little ragged, a little wired and jazzed-up, the man from the Ukrainian magazine had something about him in that moment of the crazed photographer at General Kurtz’s lair in Apocalypse Now, the person you meet at the end of a long, wild road who leans in and whispers some frazzled truth in your ear. What are you going to say about him, man? That he’s a great man, a kind man? And by the way, I’m writing an article about smoking at the Olympics.

At the time it sounded like the worst idea ever conceived. An article about what at the Olympics? An article about smoking where? How about, say, an article about the 400m hurdles at the Olympics? Or beautiful people expressing themselves at the Olympics? Or just, you know, go with smoking, whatever.

And yet by the end of two weeks of IOC Covid life, shuttled from sealed room to stewarded walkway, filmed, tracked and menaced by apps, cowering in the all-seeing Big Sight of Tokyo 2020, it sounded like a brilliant idea.

What has it been like at these Olympic Games? Towards the end of any major global sports event it is tradition for newspaper reporters to file a grand deconstruction of the country they’ve spent three weeks studying via the ancient medium of hotel lobbies and taxi driver chat. So here’s the thing, right, about Russia/China/the tribes of the Bedouin.

Readers have been spared these insights by the quarantine period that has meant complete immersion within the approved boundaries of the Olympic-industrial complex. The only place any member of the Guardian’s Tokyo staff went in the opening 14 days, other than an Olympic venue, was a convenience store at the foot of the hotel, the contents of which have already been broodingly overanalysed, and at one point pitched as content for a searing feature article. So here’s the thing right, about vacuum-packed pork cutlet and cabbage sandwiches.

That period of restriction is over. Tentative steps have been taken into the wider world, albeit with a sense of needing to tread as lightly as possible. Because the first thing to say about being at Tokyo 2020 is that the everyday people of this city have been extraordinarily generous and patient with this swarm of nonessential visitors.

Asked to bear the cost of an unloved Olympics, the locals might have been hostile or cold. Imagine for a moment staging an Olympic Games in London and telling the Wembley-jib lads they can’t come to watch. Storm the gates. Besiege the buses. Prepare the arse-cleft rocket barrage.

Instead the people of Tokyo have been warm and patient. Families have queued for a picture of the Olympic rings through the massive fence keeping them out of the stadium. The people whose job it is to make this work have been unreservedly tolerant in the face of the basic messiness of English press packs, Liberian broadcast units, Belgian TV squadrons.

And yes, Japanese people are courteous out of custom, not because they have a secret love of gobby foreign journalists. There are plenty of people in Tokyo who feel justifiably alarmed at this intrusion. Probably these Games should not have gone ahead. This is, in the end, all about cash and contracts, in a city where the health system is under strain and Covid cases escalating. Vaccination rates are low. That fine balance of care and confinement is stretched thin. Outside the bubble there is anger, which may well be expressed at the ballot box.

Hence the extraordinary degree of control. Tokyo 2020 is crammed with people whose job it is to manage the physical space. There are pathways and zones. There are lanes of permitted queueing and stand space, with a hierarchy of enforcers from the charming armed forces, down through police with large sticks (So, so many tooled-up police. What were they expecting at the dressage? Firms and faces? Pre-arranged dressage “meets”?) to the glowstick boys with their lighted red poles and endless “security” people, so many they really should make Star Wars-style figurines and sell them as collectibles for the Olympic obsessive.

And yet it is a mark of Tokyo’s grace as a host that the experience for its guests has been marked by gentleness. Whatever the ultimate point of this thing, whatever we come to remember about it, that care and kindness will remain, a lesson in how to exist in such close proximity in these gruelling times.

That is one part of being here: the human part, the extraordinary act of shared will in managing this experience. The other part, and the opposite pole, is the tech element of being inside that IOC bubble, which feels at times like a slightly alarming experiment in digital monitoring.

These Big Sport events are always marked by a minor suspension of liberties, a deal willingly entered into for a badge and a seat. In Japan, this has been supercharged by the rare intersection of Covid protocol, IOC control freakery, and for the first time the full weaponising of digital technology to enforce all this.

There is an app to track you. There is an app that demands a daily health check. There are cameras at every entrance and gathering spot. This culture is in part already there. Tokyo has cabs that will scan your face and summon targeted ads to the back of the seat in front of you. But the feeling of being watched here, of having no space in which to hide or exist in private feels like something beyond, a vision of what is possible now.

This was the point the man from the small Ukrainian magazine was getting at. Forget the actual smoking. Smoking is corporations trying to kill you for money. The people of Japan have quite rightly taken steps to kill it first. But such is the weirdness of this part of the experience that in the middle of all that controlled space smokers have become a kind of ragtag rebel force, with their own outlaw charisma, seekers after eddies in the current, holes in the machine, small notes of privacy.

It is a kind of liberation to spot them behind their ornamental bushes, to hear stories about secret nooks at the athletics stadium, about soldiers at the shooting who might let you smoke behind them, about the empty line of sight behind the sumo arena where the guards and the screens can’t see you.

This has been the opposed dual experience of being a guest in Tokyo. At the edges an exercise in extreme everyday surveillance that has felt like a cautionary tale, a glimpse of the near future. And beyond that the grace of locals, their stoicism, and the lesson the Olympic Games are supposed to offer us, that humans are still the best part of all this.

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