Tokyo Olympics: 'There are two sides to this event - inside the bubble and outside'

9:33 am on 30 July 2021

First Person - The Olympic Games have been running for 125 years.

Covid-19 countermeasures sign at Olympics

Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

Athletes arrive, fans flock, competition takes place and the best leave with shiny medals around their necks.

But not since the Modern Games were founded in 1896 has there been an Olympics like the one going on in Tokyo right now.

For the sportspeople, coaches, officials, and media involved, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant these Games have been different in a whole new way.

We got our reporters in Tokyo for the Olympics, Maja Burry and Clay Wilson, to give us their impressions of the first week of working at the so-called "Covid Games".

The bubble

While competition is well and truly underway, it's hard to pick up any sense of an Olympic atmosphere in the streets of the Japanese capital.

The Games are completely closed to fans, there's no overseas tourists and many locals are opposed to Tokyo 2020 even going ahead.

That means there are two sides to this event - inside the bubble, and outside.

Inside are athletes, coaches, officials, volunteers and media. Outside the rest of the population in what is a city of 14 million.

Inside, the rules are clear and constantly spelled out.

The checkpoint into the Olympic venue.

The checkpoint into the Olympic venue. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

Hand sanitiser

In any one day, you could spray or lather your hand with sanitiser 20 times. Maybe more. That is an awful lot of hand sanitiser.

Heading down to breakfast in the media hotel. There's a spray in the lift, there's a spray before you enter the buffet and there's a spray before you put on your latex gloves to collect food.

Hand sanitiser is 'the cologne smell of these Olympics'.

Hand sanitiser is 'the cologne smell of these Olympics'. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

There's a spray heading back into the elevator, a spray getting onto the bus to the media transit centre and then a spray again on the bus to the venue.

At the venue, it continues. There is a spray heading in (before the extensive security check), then sprays in the cafeteria and any time you shift to new areas. Once you have done all that you repeat it.

The sanitiser is the cologne smell of these Olympics. It may live with participants forever.

Health checks

It started even before departing for Japan.

We'll save you the drooling detail, but saliva testing is and has been a key component to safeguarding the Games as best as possible against the pandemic.

Two negative tests 72 hours before departure. A test immediately on arrival at Tokyo's Narita airport. And tests for three consecutive days after that. All packaged up and sent off to confirm your place inside the bubble can be retained.

For us, and most members of the media, those tests have continued every four days. For athletes and those more close to them, it's daily testing from arrival to departure.

Covid-19 temperature screening during the security check at the Olympic venue.

Covid-19 temperature screening during the security check at the Olympic venue. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

It's not the only test. It is hot in Tokyo, very hot and humid. At the same time, officials are on the lookout for a tell-tale sign of Covid-19 - a raised temperature.

You approach a temperature check point with some trepidation. A gun-like thermometer is held to your head by one of the many friendly officials. Or in some cases, a nifty heat sensing camera assesses if you warrant further scrutiny.

You do hope that the ambient temperature - in the 30s here in Tokyo - will not push you over the 37.5 degree temperature limit to get into a venue. Failure means time-out to cool off. Fail too many times and you can add another Covid test to the list.


Just like the athletes assembled from more than 200 countries around the world, there is endless variety in this part of the Olympic Covid protocol.

Blue, white, black and even pink. Surgical, N95, strap around the head, strap around the ear. Double up on the masks, why don't you.

Ever take your watch off your sweaty wrist at the end of a long day and feel like your timepiece is still there? Welcome to the end of a long day of mask-wearing at the Tokyo Olympics.

By all means, take it off to eat, sleep and shower. Otherwise, we want to see that thing safely secured over your mouth and nose.

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Social distancing at the Olympics press centre. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

Social distancing

The stickers on the ground, and "you can't sit here" signs, are everywhere you go. It's not easy keeping this many people two metres apart at all times, and it's not always the reality, but they're trying.

Never has so much clear perspex been seen in one room. Places at all media workroom, press conference and dining hall tables separated by thousands upon thousands of pieces of transparent material.

A socially distanced line for the smoking area.

A socially distanced line for the smoking area. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

The most quirky example of social distancing so far was at the Main Press Centre, where smokers are required to queue to use the outdoor smoking area, which is limited to six people. During lunchtime the line gets particularly lengthy, journalists and officials enduring the muggy 33C heat with grit and determination reminiscent of the Games spirit.

But it would be wrong to say the systems here are perfect. Like anywhere in the world they rely on the good will of the people. Early on in the event, emails from Tokyo 2020 officials appeared with a stern tut-tut. Some people are not following the rules.

All dining hall tables are separated by clear perspex.

All dining hall tables are separated by clear perspex. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry


Covid or no Covid - people have got to eat. And when dining out is prohibited, and time is tight, the dish of this Olympics becomes the instant ramen.

Instant ramen has become 'the dish of this Olympics'.

Instant ramen has become 'the dish of this Olympics'. Photo: RNZ / Maja Burry

Much like in New Zealand, these sodium packed pottles of noodles deliver little nutrients. But they're a better option than the iceblocks available at the Olympic venues which melt in Tokyo' 30+ degree heat faster than Usain Bolt can run 100 metres.

Good coffees are few and far between, you'd be dreaming trying to source a flat white. But one particular café in the Tokyo 2020 press centre seems to have a particularly well-tuned automated coffee machine which is definitely earning its keep. Then all that's left to do is navigate Uber Eats. While the help of google translate is a must, in a Covid Olympics it's the closest you might get to a true taste of Japan.