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TOKYO — With angry red eyes that never blink and teeth made for snarling, Godzilla stands sentry outside the window of my hotel room, where I’m held under house arrest by Olympic bureaucrats who decided it was a swell idea to invite sprinters, swimmers and skateboarders from around the world to Japan in the middle of a COVD-19 pandemic that has killed more than four million people worldwide.
If they awarded medals for avarice, arrogance and absurdity, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach would sweep gold, silver and bronze. Despite the emerging threat of the Delta variant and overwhelming opposition to this event from the good people here in Japan, Bach insisted “cancellation was never an option” for the Games of the XXXIInd Olympiad.
We all can ponder if these Games should’ve gone on after a year-long delay in a hot minute. But first, would it be OK if I made a personal confession? After three days and three nights sequestered under COVID quarantine imposed by Olympic officials far more concerned about securing money from broadcasting rights than the health risks to any competitor, I’m starting to harbor tender feelings for the giant lizard watching over me 24/7.
I’d call it the Stockholm syndrome, except Godzilla and me are stuck together in Tokyo, where bed frames in the athletes village have been constructed of cardboard to discourage hanky-panky, but Bach and the IOC brass have stuck local organizers with a bill in excess of $20 billion to stage events in 42 nearly empty venues where no spectators will be allowed.
This is absurdity too strange to make up.
But the COVID fears in Japan are every bit as real and over-sized as the 40-foot tall sculpture of Godzilla’s head I’ve peered at every morning, noon and night since checking into a room on the 13th floor at the Shinjuku Prince Hotel at 4:03 a.m. Monday, after being detained for more than 12 hours at the Narita Airport alongside a group of goofballs who would’ve fit right in with Obi-Wan Kenobi at the Mos Eisley cantina.
This is the 12th trip I’ve made to the Olympics. I admit to being a sucker for the whole crazy spectacle. But never have I experienced anything quite like the circus upon my arrival at the Tokyo airport. Nobody in charge cared, or even checked to find out, if I had the Johnson & Johnson vaccination topped off by a Pfizer booster. It didn’t matter I had tested clean for COVID twice in the previous four days.
The entanglement for me and two Canadian journalists told to sit in the corner on folding chairs from the time our flight landed at 2:30 p.m. until well past midnight was made of red tape. We lacked the official, rubber-stamp approval of a solemn oath required by the Japanese government that ink-stained wretches like me would refuse the temptation to stray from the natatorium and skateboard park to sing karaoke with the locals. Far be it from me to burst the Olympic bubble of Tokyo officials, but they’d have an easier time putting genies back in bottles than stopping sports journalists from draining a few bottles of beer after work.
As the clock flipped from Sunday night to Monday morning and I inquired if there was some place we could sleep or at least get a drink of water, a bureaucrat working for the Summer Games instead offered a deal that could’ve made the late, great Monty Hall blush. Option A: Sign a document that could coerce us to quarantine in our hotel rooms for up to 14 days. Option B: Hand over $800 (Canadian) dollars and slump in our chairs until they could find us a flight back to North America.
Yes it felt like a cheap hustle. But I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. My choice in this matter proved to be easy, especially after another representative of the Tokyo organizing committee approached and offered a suggestion: “If I were you, I’d sign the papers and then ignore the quarantine order.”
Those kind words of advice resonated, because if bending the rules doesn’t define the Olympic spirit, what does?
The abundance of caution regarding COVID-19 in Tokyo, where a state of medical emergency has been declared until after the Games are over, is understandable, even if it seems a little strange to a visitor from Colorado that arrived in Japan straight from watching Shohei Ohtani pitch and hit at the All-Star Game with nearly 49,000 of his new best friends packed in the stands at Coors Field.
In the United States, which has a population of 328 million. there have been approximately 625,000 COVID-related deaths, more than 40 times the loss of life to the pandemic than has been suffered in Japan, which has a population of 126 million. On any given day this summer, it has not been unusual for Colorado, with a population of just under 6 million, to see more people die from COVID than the entire country of Japan.
In America, maybe there’s a foolish belief we have the pandemic beat. But is that any worse than the COVID paranoia in Japan, where there’s a hint of panic in the street?
So here we are, me and Godzilla, at a sporting event Japan doesn’t really want, but must go on.
Nobody said the Games have to be fun. But with all the money at stake, the monster must be fed.