Telegram from Tokyo 2020: Covid-19 spit tests, smiles, but no high fives

Athletes from China at the holding area of Narita International Airport in Tokyo waiting for the Covid-19 saliva test results. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
High-fives have been forbidden as part of the anti-virus measures at Tokyo 2020. ST PHOTO: DAVID LEE

TOKYO - You know this is a serious Olympics when they prohibit high-fiving. But this is Japan, so of course they tell us politely. With a bow, a smile and a soft voice.

Welcome to the Tokyo Games. One which, we've been told many times, will be an Olympics like no other. Because of the pandemic, it just has to be.

Even before landing at Narita International Airport, The Straits Times' team of four - assistant sports editor Rohit Brijnath, correspondents David Lee and myself, and executive photojournalist Kua Chee Siong - are aware this will be different from any major Games, World Cup or Grand Slam tournament we had covered previously.

This is Rohit's sixth Olympics but the first he has travelled to while wearing a face shield on the flight over. It is an added precaution all of us undertake even though the plane is less than half full.

We had plenty to do even before traipsing through a deserted Changi Airport on Wednesday morning.

Polymerase chain reaction tests, online questionnaires, written pledges and contact tracing apps had forced their way into group chats in the days leading up to our departure. They have also become a part of the glossary for these Olympics, which are being staged in defiance of the pandemic.

The Japanese are known to be an organised and methodical people and this is clear upon our arrival in Tokyo. Here, they check our identity, our fingerprints and our saliva.

We in Singapore are more accustomed by now to nose swabbing, but spit tests are the method of choice here. We are handed a tube with a funnel on top, ushered into individual booths, and asked - courteously, of course - to spit.

Then, we are whisked into a holding area (a converted airline lounge) while results are processed.

This is where the waiting begins.

It was also where it begins to sink in that we are at the Olympics.

While waiting our turn to do the test, we meet a coach from Namibia, and a broadcast journalist from Canada. At the lounge, we see Chinese athletes with giant headphones on and their eyes glued to screens.

And as night falls, Ivo Kassel, a badminton umpire from Zurich, offers us Swiss chocolates. How can we say no?

SPH Brightcove Video
The team covering the Tokyo Olympic games for The Straits Times documented their journey to Tokyo, including a five-hour wait just to clear immigration.
ST reporters Sazali Abdul Aziz and David Lee at Changi Airport Terminal 3, before their flight to Tokyo. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

This truly is the Olympics.

Amidst all this, we almost forget about the pandemic.

The laborious process prior to entering Japan and the folders of paperwork we cling on to, however, serve as a reminder. It has not been pain-free.

Like many other journalists and media organisations worldwide, we had run into numerous issues before we departed, such as delayed access to the online system meant for uploading key documents and daily health reports.

SPH Brightcove Video
Sports correspondent David Lee take you through a typical day for a journalist at the Tokyo Olympics.

Even with most of our items in order, we spend about five hours at Narita. We are lucky. Others have shared their seven-hour waits online.

Despite this, the sincerity and friendliness of the Japanese people ease many of these teething issues.

Behind the masks - whether it is the lady wearing a green medical gown who greets us upon disembarkation, or the 75-year-old gentleman who welcomes us once we exit customs - smiles are discernible.

After we have cleared one of the many checkpoints, one of these ushers waves us away enthusiastically and says: "Enjoy Japan!"

Even at this serious Olympics, we certainly hope we will.

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Follow Singapore's 23-man contingent and the world's best athletes through the lens of The Straits Times' team as they brave the heat, a virus and a packed schedule to bring you the action at the July 23-Aug 8 Olympics in Tokyo.

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