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The Olympic Omni-Bus

Somewhere in between long bus trips ferrying Mihir Vasavda from one venue to another in Tokyo, plenty of sporting history happened as India tallied 7 medals including a gold. Express' eyes and ears at the Olympic Games, recalls all about Tokyo's magnificent architecture, their mobile workstations that doubled as doze-downs on the run, and the indescribable Japanese hospitality that make these difficult-to-pull-off pandemic Games possible

Tokyo 2020: Volunteers with mascots (Mihir Vasavda)

There’s a Godzilla outside my window.

Eyes glowing, teeth terrifying and razor-sharp, set to breathe fire. It’s only my second morning in Tokyo, and I can’t be hallucinating already – that’s the state of being usually by the end of the first week of the Olympics.

But it’s actually there, bang in the city centre. A couple of blocks ahead, a gorilla in a star-spangled boxer hangs on a pole outside a restaurant. In a lane next to it, there’s a giant crab on the façade of what appears to be an office complex and not very far from there, a tortoise is crawling on the wall of another building.

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Godzilla on a building roof top in Tokyo’s city centre (Mihir Vasavda)

It’s Day 2 inside the world’s biggest bio-bubble and from the confines of a bus, Tokyo’s wild, wacky and wonderful architecture appeals instantly. Even the usually boring government buildings are incredibly creative. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, for instance, is designed to resemble a semiconductor circuit from the above. The curvy, 200m tall Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower in Shinjuku dominates the skyline, which transitions seamlessly when driving through the older parts of the city, which have more ancient and traditional designs.

But the city centre, where a majority of the world’s media has been housed, is a mad area, which comes to life in the night even in a state of so-called emergency. There are pachinko and slots parlours, gaming arcades, karaoke bars, night clubs and 24-hour eateries. All very inviting. Is it some kind of practical joke, you wonder? We’ve been ordered not to step out of our hotels unless visiting a venue. And then, we are put up in the most happening part of the city?

It’s clear: these Olympics won’t just be a test of endurance, but also a solid exercise in self-restraint.

———–

The buses became our bedrooms. And bus stops, office.

During our soft quarantine period, the first 14 days in Tokyo, public transport was out of bounds for us. We were given two options to travel: buses, which were free of cost; and taxis, which had to be pre-booked and would cost up to 4,500 yen (roughly Rs 3,000) for a 3km ride.

The bus pick up zone, which became unofficial workspaces (Mihir Vasavda)

On most days, the kanko (Japanese for sightseeing) buses became a go-to option and not just because they were free. They were convenient and reliable, a shining example of Japanese punctuality, but most importantly, for a sleep-deprived bunch, the bus journeys were the best time to rest. They also served sushi on wheels… just that it was the name of the WiFi.

It was also comfortable: the buses were actually bigger than our hotel rooms, which would put Mumbai’s matchbox-sized houses to shame. But then, we also spent not more than five hours in the night at the hotel.

The rest of the time was spent either walking, either to or from a bus, waiting for it or travelling. The distance between venues meant that on a good day, we’d travel around 125km to cover two sports (and on days like Saturday, August 7, when Aditi Ashok played the best round of her career and Neeraj Chopra won the gold, we clocked our personal best of 230km roughly).

Spotting buses, in fact, became an Olympic sport. People with DSLRs would wait at street corners and take pictures of these buses, which would ferry almost everyone who had anything to do with the Olympics. Perhaps, the rare occasion where locals were taking pictures of the tourists rather than the other way round.

So, the Wi-Fi-equipped buses became our bedrooms, dining halls and even makeshift studios for those who had to do their PTCs. And bus stops became workspaces: journalists – on caffeine and sugar high thanks to the endless cups of coffee and Meiji candies – sitting on the roads and typing frenetically to meet deadlines.

Backbreaking and brutal. But also the source of some lifelong memories.

On July 31, on the way back from archery, I forgot my water bottle on the bus. The driver noticed, ran a hundred metres, stopped the other bus I had taken, handed over the bottle, said sorry to me a couple of times (!), thanked me (!!), bowed and left.

Talk about Japanese hospitality.

———–

It’s funny actually, how walking, waiting and bus-ing is true for the athletes as well, something that we don’t immediately think about that much.

But when they aren’t under the spotlight of the 1,600 lux lights inside the stadium, the Olympics can be a series of big, long, boring waits for the athletes.

Randolph Ross can sprint 400m in 45.67 seconds but the 15-minute walk from his apartment block inside the Olympic Village to the shuttle pick-up zone gets his goat. “It’s a lot more walk than you can imagine for an Olympic runner,” he says. “A little different from school.”

From the ‘load’ zones, the athletes are herded in a bus, what else, to be taken for a competition. These can be awkward journeys, sometimes, with athletes who are scheduled to compete against each other sitting next to one another on the journey to the same venue. “It’s a massive privilege and honour to sit next to them,” says South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk. “But (during the journey) majority of us are quite focussed and try not to talk to each other much.”

The first call room in the stadium complex (Mihir Vasavda)

Once at the stadium, they are taken first to a ‘call room’. It’s basically a tent with nine chairs and one cooler to assuage the humidity – ironically, the pre-competition competition was to avoid the chair closest to the cooler to make sure the muscles didn’t stiffen up. The athletes report here a couple of hours before their race, wait for their turn before being taken to a second waiting room, which is in the basement of the stadium.

And after their events, some of them are randomly whisked away for dope tests where they have to submit their urine samples, a process that can take a long time immediately after the competition. In Tokyo, the dope test regime seemed rigorous after an entire year of a lull in testing due to the pandemic, that even those who finished last weren’t exempted at times.

Like Joseph Schooling, the Singaporean wunderkind who beat his idol Michael Phelps in Rio. After he finished last in his 100m butterfly heat he was taken for a test to check if he had consumed performance-enhancing drugs. “Like, come on, man,” the Straits Times quoted him. “Are you serious?”

———–

Hopping across the stadiums, one thing became clear: Indian athletes were among the least supported ones at the venues.

Technically, the Tokyo Olympics were to take place in front of empty stands. Still, at any given point there were a few thousand people at the venues in the form of an athlete’s entourage, technical officials, journalists, broadcasters, volunteers and fellow competitors, who waited for their turns.

Men’s hockey players at women’s bronze medal match (Mihir Vasavda)

Curiously, whenever an Indian athlete competed it always seemed their opponent had louder, passionate support. Be it at boxing, where the Turkish contingent of a dozen or so vociferously backed Busenaz Surmeneli against Lovlina Borgohain; at archery where Korean team members loudly cheered for Oh Jin-hyek in the knockout match against Atanu Das, who just had Deepika Kumari in his corner; at hockey, where the Germans and Brits out-shouted and out-numbered Indians in the stands during the bronze medal matches of the men and women’s teams respectively; or even at weightlifting, where China’s Hou Zhihui had more support than Mirabai Chanu.

These were mostly fellow delegation members or other teammates cheering for their athletes. The only time we saw some support for an Indian team was when the men’s hockey players turned up for the women’s team bronze medal playoff. We don’t know where other Indians were. But this much we know: when Neeraj Chopra won the gold medal, many from India’s delegation were at an official dinner, roughly 6km away from the stadium.

———–

Support came from unexpected quarters though. They had people like Yoshiya Kanno, a volunteer, in their corner. Kanno, a man in his mid-60s, was always there to welcome the Indian hockey teams at the Oi Stadium, clapping and cheering. He was there to console them when they lost to Australia 7-1. And he was there when they won the bronze. He’d developed such a bond with some of the players that defender Varun Kumar went straight up to him after exiting the pitch and gave a high-five.

Seventy-one thousand volunteers like Kanno, unpaid and overworked, were the silent heroes of these Games. Senior citizens, some even in their 90s, shrugged virus concerns to make these Games possible and a memorable experience with their overwhelming hospitality, kindness and politeness.

There were times, especially when the ambulance sirens blared, when you felt like these Games were being imposed on the people of Tokyo; that the locals could have done without a hundred thousand foreigners virtually taking over their city at a time when Covid cases spiralled in the city.

But the army of volunteers ensured that these Olympics, which earned several monikers, remained exactly what they were set out to be: Omotenashi Games. (Japanese for Hospitality).

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