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  • Writer's pictureHusky & Onigunsô

Tokyo 2020 Olympics AfterEffects

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Interview with a Volunteer Worker at Tokyo Olympic Games

Japanese mother of two checking her phone in front of the Tokyo Olympic Arena.
Contact Husky Loves Japan if you want to use our photos. We'll hook you up with hi-res images for free.

Things move quickly in Japan. Tokyo 2020 Olympics came and went without any noticeable impact on everyday lives in the metropolis, at least on the surface. But Tokyo suffered when the Olympic and Paralympic Games were over.

The number of Corona-infections were never higher than at the end of the Olympics. In a matter of weeks, hospitals were full, followed by an alarming increase in Corona deaths in the age groups below 60. On the news, things were looking grim, which made us wonder what the real after-effects of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be…

One issue that worried people beforehand, was the fact that Japan never forced the lockdown on its population. It was encouraged by the Tokyo metropolitan government, and people followed the advice. Many worried that foreign visitors would not be as obedient.

The manager at Fuglen – our favorite Norwegian café in Tokyo – told us that the lockdown hit small businesses hard. Yet, he kept his opening hours per advised, and was surprised to see so many foreign guests during the Olympics. He dared not speculate on the outcome of it all, but like many other business managers in Tokyo, he held his head high.

By chance, we encountered a volunteer worker at the Olympic Games. So, we sat down and had a chat with her about the long-term effects of the Olympics for Japan. We also asked her how it was like working with so many foreign visitors during a national lockdown. This is what came to light:

The Environmental Kickstart that Vanished at the Tokyo Games

Tokyo 2020 Olympics was meant to kickstart Japan’s revival as a sustainable green economy. The nickname «Revival Olympics» referred to the revival of local economies throughout Japan. At the top of the list were Fukushima, who suffered a nuclear disaster only a decade ago.

None of these revival undertakings materialized as planned. And it didn’t help much that the chief of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to visit Hiroshima in the middle of the quarantined Olympics. Many critical voices in Japan called his trip shameless self-promotion. They felt that a visit to Fukushima would have sent a much more compelling message.

On top of that, an infection surge hit Japan as soon as the Tokyo games started. Right after the opening ceremony, skepticism was growing by the minute. But most of us were looking in from the outside. So, we asked Sasaki-san if she, as one of the privileged insiders at the Olympics, felt the same way.

Volunteer worker at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Thank you Sasaki-san, for taking the time to talk with Husky Loves Japan.

What did you think about Japan hosting the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic?

Tokyo 2020 Olympics was meant to support the revival of local areas in Japan that suffered greatly from the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. This was the main objective when Japan decided to apply for the games in the first place.

The plan was of course hindered by the Corona outbreak, but I still think hosting the games was meaningful. It was an opportunity for Japan to show our capability of crisis management. In the process, we created the world’s first model for hosting the Olympic Games during a pandemic outbreak.

It is certainly a fresh perspective, which might become more meaningful over the years. An increasing number of voices predict that Corona has come to stay, and that similar outbreaks are likely to occur in the future. It might very well become a part of life, a part that will affect the way we do things from now on.

If that is the case, then the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games was a great first step towards establishing large arrangements under these new world conditions of ours. But it came at a prize and was not without considerable risk.

What do you think about letting so many foreigners into Japan in such times?

It was definitely a risk, but I think the increased vaccination numbers in many countries helped Japanese people accept the choice. I also think that our awareness of vaccination procedures and effects increased because of this choice.

How was your experience working side by side with guests from all over the world?

The banning of all spectators was of course a huge disappointment, but even so, it was like nothing I’ve experienced before. The arrangement itself brought a lot of attention from abroad.

Because of Corona, the team spirit seemed to transfer from the arena to everyone involved. I found it meaningful to see how sportsmanship spread courage, kindness, respect, and consideration beyond the confines of the competition.

A young girl on a tricycle, looking up at the Olympic Rings outside the Tokyo Olympic Arena.
Contact Husky Loves Japan if you want to use our photos. We'll hook you up with hi-res images for free.

The Cultural Bridges that Burnt at the Olympic and Paralympic Games

Another plan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was to establish and strengthen cultural exchange between Japan and the visiting nations. School children were given seats at the arrangement and were supposed to interact with athletes at training camps all over Japan.

As an expat blogger in Japan, the loss of this opportunity seems especially grave to me. Due to Japan’s geographical location, as well as a couple of political lockdowns throughout history, Japan have stayed somewhat isolated from the rest of the world.

I moved to Japan less than two years ago, thinking that cultural barriers would soon be a thing of the past. The longer I stay, however, the more I realize that Japan’s isolation thorough the ages still resonates to some degree in its population. But I digress. Check out my first year cultural shocks in Japan if you want to know more about my journey.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics was a golden opportunity to build cultural bridges. The planed interaction between school children and athletes was a wonderful idea, and an even greater loss to Japanese school children.

In Fukuoka, for instance, athletes in the Norwegian training camp had scheduled meet and greet-sessions with local schools. The idea was to inspire Japanese school children to take an interest in both sports and Scandinavian/Nordic culture.

These incentives also got amputated by the quarantine measures. However, according to our volunteer worker, Scandinavian skateboarders still managed to promote cultural bridge-building during the Olympics.

I was part of the skateboarders’ service team. At my position, the Nordic participants got a lot of attention. One of them was the 46-year-old Rune Glifberg from Denmark. Despite his old age (especially among the skateboarding contestants), Glifberg decided to join the Olympics, but his aim was not for gold.

The Skateboard Arena at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Skateboard Arena at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

His ambition was to make skateboard competitions more widespread around the world. Glifberg hoped that his participation in the Tokyo Olympics would spread the word about skateboarding to a wider audience. I’d like to think that he achieved his goal.

Another Nordic skateboarder who got a lot of attention was the 28-year-old Lizzie Armanto. Her bright blue hair and fashion sense clearly made waves in Japan, and I think the rest of the world noticed too.

Her uniform, which she designed herself, even got featured in Vogue, which made her noticed outside skateboard circles. Suddenly she caught the attention of those interested in design and fashion. She definitely gained some avid Japanese followers because of her appearance at the Olympics.

What was the most memorable moment of yours when volunteering at the Olympics?

My biggest impressions came from the athletes’ performances, their smiles, and every «thank you» that was sent my way. Another amusing memory was the Canadian athlete whose t-shirt had the words «Matsusaka beef» on the back.

The Olympics undoubtedly brought many memorable and uplifting moments to the people of the world, but was it worth risking the safety of Japanese citizens for? The prize Japan had to pay for the Olympics have yet to be realized.

A policeman patrolling outside the Tokyo Olympic Arena.
Contact Husky Loves Japan if you want to use our photos. We'll hook you up with hi-res images for free.

The Economic Impact of Quarantined Olympic Games

Even though Japan managed to implement some sustainable measures - such as utilizing already existing venues, as opposed to building everything new - the price tag on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was astronomical.

Considering the added $2,8 billion cost of postponing the arrangement, Tokyo 2020 Olympics had the steepest price tag in history. In addition, there’s the loss of closed borders and a non-existing tourist flow, which adds up to sums we can only imagine.

The question is if the end justified the means? In many ways, the Tokyo Summer Games was one of the most important cultural events of 2021. It inspired people all over the world. It proved that Japan was a force to be reckoned with, both in the arena and on the «pandemic battlefield». But was it worth risking the safety of an entire population for?

The loss of canceling the games entirely would probably have crippled the Japanese economy for many years to come, but the stakes were certainly big. The Japanese government adapted the olympic agenda to the situation, and the Tokyo organising committee did their best with the hand they were dealt. What is done is done, as they say. Perhaps the best thing to do right now, is to focus on the positive, like Sasaki-san after the Olympics was over.

Do you think the Tokyo Olympics united the world? Or did it make people more anxious and afraid?

I think the Olympics made a bond between the athletes and people all around the world. We could all see the effort and feel the gratitude of the participants. We all got impressed and respected the hard work that was put in. In this sense, I think the Olympics brought the world closer together.

What will be the long-term effects of the Olympic Games for Japan?

Under normal circumstances, global events like the Olympic Games would be a great opportunity to showcase our nation’s culture to people from all corners of the earth. Taking the massive economic loss into account, however, it is uncertain whether the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was a success or not.

Considering how the Olympic and Paralympic Games turned out, it was a step back for the organizing committee, but I still think it was a large leap towards the goal of increased diversity. No one could have predicted the turn of events, and at this point, no one knows the results of it all. Therefore, I think it makes more sense to focus on future endeavors.

Some voices ask, where do you want to go after Corona? Japan is still at the top of many travelers’ wish-lists. I don’t think the Olympics had any negative impact on Japan as a travel destination. I think we should keep this in mind and strive to make Japan more attractive than ever before, to make it a place we can be proud of.

Yuko Sasaki, 50s


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