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What Olympic 'bubble'? Entry loopholes result in contact between athletes, fans

A regular citizen, left, is seen photographing the Dutch delegation upon their arrival at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on July 18, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

NARITA, Chiba -- As foreign Olympic delegations arrive in Japan one after another ahead of the games' opening on July 23, a "bubble system" to separate them from outside parties to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is showing its own limits, with some athletes coming close to general travelers at an airport and fans asking for autographs from delegates.

    According to related parties, the number of athletes and other individuals connected to the games slated to arrive at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture peaked on July 18, at a total of some 2,500.

    The arrival of foreign delegations got into full swing on July 1, and the afternoon of July 17 saw the airport in the most disarray this reporter has witnessed.

    When the national soccer squads from Argentina, France and South Korea came out at the arrival lobby one after the other, several fans forced their way past staff from the organizing committee to barge into the exclusive paths created for athletes, hopping over keep-out chains.

    The Dutch delegation is seen upon their arrival at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture, on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    "Please stay away," one staffer yelled, while another shouted, "The police will come." Nevertheless, the fans dashed to the athletes heading to the bus depot. Some fans even asked for autographs, while others had themselves photographed with the athletes, with their masks off.

    "As fellow Japanese, I think they're crazy," a staff member lamented after repeatedly issuing warnings to the fans.

    A man who sought an autograph from a foreign athlete commented, "I know it's not permitted, but the problem is that we're not allowed to watch the games at the venues."

    At the airport east of Tokyo, staff from the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Cabinet Secretariat have been struggling to separate the traffic lines for arriving delegates and general passengers, in a bid to make sure the bubble system is observed.

    "Olympics?" staffers from the organizing committee asked members of the Kenyan delegation when they disembarked from an airplane on the evening of July 9, to confirm they were games-connected individuals.

    The Kenyan female volleyball players were assembled against a wall and waited until other passengers moved away before starting to walk guided by staff. Using a moving walkway and other means, they arrived at a special quarantine site about 1 kilometer away.

    In quarantine, the athletes stood inside booths with pictures of lemons and pickled plums displayed on the walls inside to induce their saliva production. After submitting their saliva for antigen tests, they walked some 400 meters to undergo immigration checks and other procedures. Because special COVID-19 testing sites have been set up to separate the traffic lines between foreign delegates and general passengers, the athletes have to walk over twice the usual distance.

    A Kenyan volleyball player, right, receives an explanation about a coronavirus antigen test in a special room at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on July 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    At the arrival lobby of the airport's Terminal 1, where those who have passed the immigration checks come out, staff from the Cabinet Secretariat spread their arms to cordon off fans when they tried to approach the nine-strong Nigerian delegation led by the staff on the evening of July 7. "Stand back, please," the workers called out to fans.

    There were specially designated exits and bathrooms for the athletes, and keep-out chains were set up at some points along a corridor leading to the bus depot, where the delegations take courtesy bus services to their hotels.

    Upon arrival at the airport on July 12, an Uzbek athlete heading to a bathroom for use by general travelers was stopped, with a worker saying, "No." Another foreign athlete was also kept from entering a convenience store just in front of them.

    When foreign athletes move within the airport, they are escorted by staff at the front and back and on both sides, but they sometimes pass by general travelers in close proximity. A 45-year-old self-employed man, who was rushing to catch a connecting domestic flight, told the Mainichi Shimbun with surprise, "I was close enough to hear their voices but didn't know they were Olympians."

    On July 16, the Cuban delegation was kept waiting inside a room in the airport's office building before they got their coronavirus testing results. The athletes used the same bathrooms as the airport staff did, and passed so close to them that their bodies came into contact with each other in the corridor and on stairways.

    Upon arrival on July 18, the Polish delegation walked through the shopping and restaurant areas, coming very close to general passengers. Several athletes were not even wearing masks as they walked in the first-floor lobby. These incidents were proof of the many loopholes in the bubble system.

    "There are cases where delegations that we don't know about arrive in Japan," an individual knowledgeable about the situation revealed to the Mainichi. As the structure of buildings at the airport is complex, staff serving as guides sometimes led foreign delegates to the wrong place by mistake.

    The Cuban delegation is seen upon arrival at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture on July 16, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    Meanwhile, officials from local governments that are hosting pre-game Olympic camps were seen waiting for foreign delegations at the arrival lobby. As it sometimes takes about seven hours for athletes to receive COVID-19 test results and move out of the airport, local officials were all relieved when the tests came back negative for their guests.

    Hiroyuki Kitami, 33, an official from the Kisarazu Municipal Government in Chiba Prefecture, was waiting at the airport to welcome the Nigerian delegation. "I want them to take thorough infection prevention measures and get themselves ready for a safe and secure camp," he said.

    Christian Stofer, director of the Swiss Rowing Federation, said it could not be helped that the delegates have to wait at the airport. He said there were no problems with the Swiss team as they had heard about the long wait and prepared meals and other necessities prior to their arrival at Narita on July 6. The team's training camp is in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture, ahead of the games.

    Some athletes have tested positive for the coronavirus at Narita Airport's quarantine. On June 19, an Ugandan athlete in his 50s who arrived as a member of his country's delegation was found infected with the virus, followed by another athlete in their 20s whose test results came back positive. On July 3, a Serbian athlete in their 30s was also confirmed to be positive for the coronavirus upon arrival at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

    (Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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