A Lonely Olympics For Athletes Competing To Be Champions

Jul 22, 2021
Originally published on July 22, 2021 7:14 am

Emiliano Bosso gets into the elevator of his Tokyo hotel with a Japanese newspaper tucked under his arm. He has a translation app on his phone and tonight the paper will be the field hockey player's companion.

It's the Argentine's first Olympic games and he's ecstatic. He's never been to Japan, never gotten the chance to represent his country like this on a global stage. But since arriving much of his time is spent in isolation, separated from his team in the Olympic village. He's the backup goalkeeper and he only plays if there's "bad news."

"I wake up in the morning and I have breakfast and eat inside the room. I get a taxi to go to the practice and back to the hotel," he said. "Dinner inside the room."

Then he does it again.

"It's difficult because I play field hockey. It's on a team, together with my friends and players and now I'm alone in the hotel," he said. "But it's okay. I don't have a problem with this. I am doing what's best for my team in my position."

That is a day in the life of an athlete at the Tokyo Olympic Games marred by a pandemic that has threatened to derail the global sports competition. It's cost Japan some $30 billion to put on, but taxpayers who bore the brunt of that cost can't attend the events in the capital and foreign spectators are barred from Japan. Tokyo is under a state of emergency and there are protests as the opening ceremony nears and competitions have already begun.

In Tokyo, restaurants shutter at 8 pm. The thousands of people who arrived for the games are being separated from residents of Japan as much as possible. Busses and designated taxis take the players to and from where they sleep and where they practice and compete.

It's a global sports competition meant for spectators to roar and cheer. But this year it's defined by isolation. And for the few spectators allowed — including journalists and team members — there are signs "Clap, do not sing or chant."

The Games and the thousands of people participating feel walled off from the city. The pristine new venues are empty of the tens of thousands of fans they were built for.

Outside of those venues Olympians don't roam the streets.

"We're not allowed to leave the taxi. We're Dutch. We like to ride a bike or walk outside," said Koen de Haan. He's a trainer for the Netherlands rowing team. He's staying at a Tokyo hotel, separate from the rowers in the Olympic Village.

"It's the venue, it's the hotel. And in between we're in a taxi or the rowers are on the bus," he said.

So he watches the city from the windows of the vehicles that take him to and from the rowing venue. He is struck by what he doesn't see.

"You don't see any Olympic rings in Tokyo. It's not like the city is celebrating the Olympics," he said. "I think that's the big difference. Like the other guys who did more Olympics, say normally the city's really proud of the Olympics and you see everywhere, the flags, you see the Olympic symbols. All the venues have really big screens outside. Inside the venues you see it, but from outside, it's not too big. Not shouting out loud."

The team is prepped though for these pandemic Olympics. No distractions, no fans, just the boat and the drive to go faster, he said.

"We say, 'maybe it's not the most fun games, but make it the best games,'" he said. "They focus on the process and what we do on the water. All other things besides that just let it slide and just go with the flow."

They're here to win. The loneliness of these games, that may hit them later.

"When you're thirty years older and you look back to the Tokyo Olympics, it's not the full experience," he said. "When you win a race and everybody goes nuts. Now it's only celebrating yourself in the boat and you have a crazy moment for yourself and with the crew."

It's a little less special.

"They're strange games and it's a strange experience," he said. "But if you win, you're still an Olympic champion."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Tokyo, the excitement is not palpable. Residents are worried the Olympics are going to turn into a COVID superspreader event. The city is under a state of emergency, and athletes say it all feels a little lonely. Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Emiliano Bosso is a reserve field hockey goalkeeper from Argentina. He's in the hallway of his Tokyo hotel. This is where he's staying, separated from his team in the Olympic Village. It's just him, the reserve goalkeeper for the women's team and a couple Argentinian handball players.

EMILIANO BOSSO: With the COVID, we don't have more interactions between us.

FADEL: They're confined to their rooms when they aren't at practice to limit possible infections. So this is his day.

BOSSO: Wake up in the morning and I have breakfast and eat inside the room. And I get a taxi to go to the practice and back to the hotel, get taxi, go to the practice and back to the hotel and then the same all the days.

FADEL: Where do you eat dinner?

BOSSO: I have dinner inside the room.

FADEL: So everything by yourself?

BOSSO: Yes.

FADEL: Despite the difficulties, the separation from his team, the 25-year-old is ecstatic.

BOSSO: It's the first Olympics. It's fantastic.

FADEL: Are you excited?

BOSSO: Yes. Yes, I'm really happy.

FADEL: When we finished chatting, he walks to his room with a Japanese newspaper and a translation app to keep him company for the night. Being an Olympic athlete this summer means little fanfare and lots of isolation. Foreign spectators are banned, and Japanese fans, whose tax dollars largely paid for these Games, can't go to events either, save a few venues outside Tokyo, so athletes will see selfie videos of fans at their competitions and hear recorded sounds of cheers like this.

(CHEERING)

FADEL: From the first U.S. women's soccer match with Sweden this week, it echoed in a cavernous, empty stadium meant for tens of thousands of cheering supporters. But when the Swedes walked off the field winners, there was silence except for the applause of three team officials holding a Swedish flag. Back at the hotel, in the lobby is a mix of athletes, journalists and team members from different countries passing each other to get to their rooms. Koen de Haan returns from rowing practice on a recent evening. He's a trainer for the men's team from the Netherlands.

KOEN DE HAAN: Really, it's the venue. It's the hotel. And in between, we're in a taxi or the rowers are in the bus. And...

FADEL: That's it.

DE HAAN: That's it.

FADEL: So no Tokyo.

DE HAAN: No Tokyo.

FADEL: They're not allowed to walk around, so de Haan observes the city from the window of his taxi. On the daily drive, he's struck by what he doesn't see.

DE HAAN: You don't see any Olympic rings in Tokyo. It's not that the city is, like, celebrating the Olympics. That's a big difference. Like, the guys - the other guys who did more Olympics are saying normally the city's really proud of the Olympics. You see everywhere. You see the flags. You see the Olympic symbol. Like, all the venues have outside really big screens.

FADEL: Polls show the majority of Japanese don't want the Games in the midst of a pandemic. Already, there have been protests, and without spectators...

DE HAAN: It's less special.

FADEL: Right now, though, the team is focused on the sport.

DE HAAN: We say maybe it's not the most fun Games, but make it the best Games.

FADEL: He says, strange Games, strange times, but if they win, they're still Olympic champions. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASO, AVIINO, MIDDLE SCHOOL'S "FIREFLY FIELD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.