TOKYO 2020

Among Japan's Olympic volunteers, old is gold

Of the 71,000 volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics, nearly 15,000 are aged 60 or above, with 139 of them in their 80s and three in their 90s.
Of the 71,000 volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics, nearly 15,000 are aged 60 or above, with 139 of them in their 80s and three in their 90s.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • Japan has tapped its famously ageing population to help run the Tokyo Olympics, with pensioner volunteers - some into their 90s - shrugging off fears about the coronavirus to do their bit.

Takashi Kato's eyes fill with tears as he recalls how, when he was just a small boy, his mother cried when they watched the opening ceremony together the last time the Japanese capital staged the Summer Games in 1964.

His parents had lived through World War II and Japan hosting the Olympics two decades later signified something for his mother that went beyond sport.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I cannot help tearing up when I talk about this," he said, struggling to regain his composure.

"It was my first time seeing my mother cry."

That memory never left Kato and sowed the seed for him to become a volunteer at Tokyo 2020.

Now 62, the retired maths teacher is almost a spring chicken compared with some of the other volunteers.

Of the 71,000 volunteers at the Olympics and Paralympics, nearly 15,000 are aged 60 or over, according to organisers. There are 139 in their 80s and three in their 90s.

The presence of so many older volunteers is striking because the army of unpaid workers that is a feature of any Olympics usually has a younger age profile.

It is not just the volunteers. At the numerous venues dotting Tokyo and beyond, the paid workforce - including in areas such as security, catering and transport - also includes many senior citizens.

It is a reflection of Japan's demographics - the country has the world's oldest population, with around 28 per cent aged 65 or over, according to official figures.

Kato did at one point wonder if working at the Olympics would put him at risk of contracting Covid-19, "but I concluded that I should follow through with the desire that I initially had", he said.

"I was determined to work as a volunteer. If possible, I would love to be a volunteer for the next Paris Olympics.

"But I might just be a burden on others since I speak neither English nor French. I will just cheer from home."

Like Kato, Toshio Hongoh also works at the Olympic media centre, where thousands of members of the world's press have gathered.

He is a very sprightly 73-year-old - and proves it by doing abdominal exercises on a bench that many people 50 years younger would not be able to pull off.

It harks back to when Hongoh was a gymnast in his youth. He never made it as far as representing Japan, but he was in the same school gymnastics club as 1972 Munich Olympic gold medallist Teruichi Okamura.

Hongoh has kept fit ever since, including doing triathlons until he was 60 and he still does weight training every day.

Not one to sit at home and put his feet up in retirement from his days working in human resources and corporate communications, he sees volunteering at the Tokyo Olympics as "the last service activity in my life".

"I can feel that I am still a member of society and I can still contribute something to society," Hongoh said in English, describing his motivations.

"I have been receiving so much from others. I am trying to return what I received from others to these people, to the (Olympic) committee, to the country of Japan."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2021, with the headline 'Among Japan's Olympic volunteers, old is gold'. Subscribe