Olympics: Valley athletes unsure of COVID restrictions as they arrive in Japan

  • A man rides his bike near the athlete's village for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics earlier this month in Tokyo. AP

  • National banners hang from balconies at an athlete's village as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday. The pandemic-delayed games open on July 23 without spectators at most venues. AP

  • National banners hang from balconies at an athlete's village as Tokyo prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday. The pandemic-delayed games open on July 23 without spectators at most venues. AP

  • Michael Hixon USA DIVING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2021 4:23:05 PM

Amherst’s Michael Hixon didn’t know what to expect before he arrived in Japan on Sunday for his second Olympic Games. The country declared a new state of emergency July 8 due to a spike in COVID-19 cases over the past month and barred all fans from attending Olympic events.

“I feel like you know as much as we do,” he said. “It seems to change every day.”

The conditions are even different from the last time Hixon competed in Japan. That was in May, when he and synchronized diving partner Andrew Capobianco finished fifth at the FINA World Cup to earn the USA’s slot in the event at the Olympics. They stayed in a hotel then and were largely confined to their rooms.

He’s in the Olympic Village this trip, which will vary wildly from his first trip to the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in 2016. For those Games, he arrived nearly a month beforehand and was able to move freely between venues watching other sports, the Olympic Village and Ipanema Beach. This year, athletes must arrive 10 days before they’re scheduled to compete and leave withing 48 hours after their events conclude.

“I’m thinking there will be a little more freedom in the village, but I’m not sure, to be honest,” Hixon said. “I think the restrictions are a lot more substantial than they are in the United States. It’ll actually be kind of weird for us to go there and see more strict protocols than we’ve been dealing with.”

Hixon is fully vaccinated and said that he and Capobianco are “masks off” when they’re at the pool warming up, but in Tokyo he figures they’ll have masks on unless they’re competing.

“That’ll be interesting. With that being said, I think we’ll all be comfortable with the stricter protocols. We’ll all feel like we’re pretty safe from COVID. That hopefully won’t be something we have to worry about in terms of us competing,” Hixon said.

“The biggest disappointment for me is no fans. The fact that my parents can’t come see me dive, my mom specifically, in my last meet (likely before retirement) that’s pretty tough for me. At the same time I’m pretty grateful to be having this meet after the last 16 to 18 months everyone’s had with COVID.”

Those stricter protocols and staggered arrival times will likely dampen the spectacle of Friday’s opening ceremonies. There will only be about 10,000 fans in attendance, according to Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun, and many of them will be members of the International Olympic Committee, foreign dignitaries or sponsors. Details remain unclear how many — or if any — athletes will parade through the New National Stadium in Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward.

UMass graduate Sarah Hawkshaw, who will play field hockey for Ireland, wasn’t bothered by the potentially neutered opening ceremony because it was always unclear whether her team would walk anyway, given that they play their first game the following day.

“From what we’ve heard, you’d be standing around maybe eight hours or so, which we probably wouldn’t be doing,” Hawkshaw said. “We haven’t come to a conclusion, but we haven’t heard anything COVID-wise whether it’s going ahead or not. It was always in question for us because of (the game the next day).”

Hawkshaw and the rest of Ireland’s team arrived in Japan last week, flying into Tokyo in the dead of night and immediately driving seven hours north to Iwate for their training camp.

“Things are strange obviously — it’s a bit weird. We’re used to spending a lot of time together as a team, we’re used to seeing each other and no one else,” she said. “There’s nothing here. They’re big cabbage farmers here. I think there’s been seven cases of COVID in this town, so they’re more scared of us than we are of them. We’re sticking to our training and sticking to ourselves.”

The town of Iwate embraced the Irish team, sending them off to Tokyo with a large banner as their mascot, the cabbage man, ran by the Irish bus while they departed. 

“We’re getting probably as little information as anyone. Our ‘team Ireland’ staff are in the know and they’re feeding us out stuff as we get it,” Hawkshaw said. “People don’t know too much of what to expect.”

She and other team members are being tested every day, and those tests were sent to Tokyo while they were in Iwate. That testing will continue now that they’re in Tokyo ahead of their opener Saturday against South Africa.

“They have quite strict, regular testing, and if there’s anything, you have to be removed and sent to isolation straight away. Thank god we’ve been all clear so far,” Hawkshaw said. “It’s definitely going to be different. But we’re the first Irish (women’s field hockey) team to go to the Olympics. We’re thrilled to be here and we want to compete.”

Hawkshaw’s fellow UMass athlete Heather MacLean, who will be running the 1,500 meters next week, has been monitoring Japan’s COVID-19 situation but similarly hasn’t received much information about how her day-to-day activities will look once she arrives. One of her teammates is leaving earlier, so she hopes to get updates from them.

“I’ve definitely been concerned about it. It’s worrisome. They’re still holding it, so I’m obligated to go and obviously I want to go,” MacLean said. “I hope the Olympic committee is doing everything in their power to make sure the Japanese citizens are as safe as possible while we’re out there. I’m sure there are a ton of regulations.”

MacLean said she will be tested 96 hours, 72 hours and 24 hours before she gets on the plane, then she’ll be tested once she arrives and will quarantine.

While the protocols are there for safety, MacLean said they might dampen some aspects of the experience she was excited about.

“The one thing I was looking forward to was meeting athletes from other sports and the camaraderie around that,” she said. “That is kind of a bummer because I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that. I have no clue what the circumstances will be.”

The lack of fans won’t bother her since that has become the norm of athletic competition since it restarted during the pandemic.

“At this point it’s been a year where we’ve been competing with little to no spectators at most of our competitions. It’s almost the new normal at this point,” MacLean said. “None of my family was going to go regardless, because I have a huge family and it would have been hard for them to get out there. I know they’ll be cheering just as hard at home.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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