From the phantom flight to the armored city, the dystopian road to Tokyo 2020

In “Tokyo Chronicles,” the behind the scenes of arriving at a Games where almost nothing is normal.

An empty KLM flight last Sunday from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam
An empty KLM flight last Sunday from Buenos Aires to Amsterdam

TOKYO - A Boeing 787-9 can carry up to 246 people, but on the KLM plane that left Buenos Aires for Amsterdam on Sunday there were only 14. The first leg of the journey to Tokyo 2020, a great expression of the dystopian world in which the pandemic of covid-19 has installed us: a ghost flight to the armored city for an unparalleled Olympic Games.

“I’ve never seen a plane so empty,” one of the Dutch airline’s stewardesses confesses to Around the Rings in a sad voice on that sort of 13-hour private flight. “It’s really sad.”

That the transatlantic flight was empty has to do with the Argentine government’s decision to virtually shut down the country to delay the entry of the Delta variant. Thus, less than 1,000 people are allowed daily to enter what is the eighth largest country in the world. So, flying to Tokyo for the Games was not easy for anyone in the land of Lionel Messi.

Buenos Aires' main airport, practically empty
Buenos Aires' main airport, practically empty

Having a Boeing 787-9 almost at one’s disposal has its privileges, however. Personalized treatment from the flight attendants, as many seats as you want to sleep stretched out while crossing the Atlantic, and why not allow everyone to move to the business cabin? There are just 14 of us, reasoned more than one at 10,000 meters above sea level.

“We discussed it with the crew, but it was unfair in the face of the one passenger who paid for his business class ticket.”

The absolute logic of the answer did not prevent the 13 economy passengers from envying the person seated a few meters ahead, who had business class to herself.

The flight was, in any case, anything but profitable. The cargo in the hold is what justifies it, explains another flight attendant.

Amsterdam, a stopover on the way to Tokyo, is a very different world from the emptiness of Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires. Schiphol shows the normal face of an airport, lots of people moving from one side to the other. It is not as busy as in pre-pandemic times, but the flight to Japan is, predictably, full. A large majority of Dutch athletes of enormous height and who literally do not fit in their seats, but also others from Italy, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

The ten hours between Amsterdam and Tokyo seem few compared to the 13 hours between Buenos Aires and the Dutch city. But it is a long time, and just a foretaste of what will happen in Japan, a country that is fighting two simultaneous battles: to organize a successful Olympic Games and to prevent the pandemic from spreading among its 116 million inhabitants. Only 15 percent of the Japanese are fully vaccinated.

Incompatible challenges? The next few days will tell, but already in Narita it is clear that Japan’s government is making a huge effort within a context that is obvious: not enough were vaccinated. If they had vaccinated more and better, the Games would not suffer some of the restrictions they are suffering.

Anyone linked to the Games who had to fly to Tokyo had to, for weeks, decipher and familiarize themselves with multiple forms, mails, applications, codes and passwords. A real bureaucratic swarm dotted with strange names that began to sound familiar after reading them so much: ICON, OCHA, COCOA...

One of the immigration forms handed out on the plane shows that Japan considers 75 percent of the world’s countries to be a danger to its control of the pandemic. That this should happen in the run-up to the Olympic Games, the most universal event in existence, is quite a paradox.

One of the envoys of the German magazine “Der Spiegel” writes that the multi-layered system of control designed by Japan will not work once 100,000 people linked to the Games move through the city. Again, the next few days will tell whether this is the case or not.

At Narita, passengers on a KLM flight must wait more than half an hour on the plane after landing. Passengers from an Air France flight are disembarking, and government protocols state that passengers from two different flights cannot mix.

The wait is then in the sleeve, the very hot sleeve, until you reach an aisle with numbered chairs where the exhaustive screening begins: two PCR tests, passports, QR codes, translations, passports, boarding passes and, above all, OCHA are asked for.

OCHA, OCHA, OCHA, the name of the application sounds like a litany. It stands for “Online Check- in and Health report App”, and works in tandem with the “Contact Confirming Application” (COCOA). OCHA is not reached unless ICON (Infection Control Support System) is enabled first, which in turn depends on an “Activity Plan” that must be approved by the government of Japan and co-managed by the CLO (Covid Liaison Officer).

All this, in an environment of forms and sites with a look and feel closer to the ’80s than to 2021. The big advantage? The infinite and enduring friendliness of the Japanese.

Japanese volunteers taking care of the passengers and asking for health related information
Japanese volunteers taking care of the passengers and asking for health related information

A volunteer laughs when Around the Rings asks her how many times a day she says OCHA. “Seems like a lot to me!”. If you close your eyes in that long wait in Narita, the sound will always be the same: OCHA, OCHA, OCHA....

Sometimes there is no OCHA, because the Japanese government took a long time to approve the “Activity Plan”. Then the “written pledge” comes into action, a letter from Tokyo 2020 that allows entry.

“No OCHA?” they ask in astonishment at the airport. No, there is no OCHA. And it goes through without a hitch, which until a few days ago was not the case. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) took it upon itself to make the Japanese government see that an alternative to OCHA was necessary, because otherwise revenues would collapse, even without the volume that the public in the stadiums would bring.

You have to spit into a plastic funnel for the antigen test, and with a parched mouth after a long flight and a ban on drinking so as not to falsify the test, the matter is not easy. A small sign helps the visitor. “Imagine,” it proposes next to two photos of a cut orange and a stewed fruit. Seeing those photos and imagining those fruits triggers the secretion of saliva? It would seem so.

Think about these fruits anda saliva will show up - At least that is what Tokyo 2020 thinks.
Think about these fruits anda saliva will show up - At least that is what Tokyo 2020 thinks.
No high-fives in Tokyo, please.
No high-fives in Tokyo, please.

Another sign warns that this is the last chance to enter a restroom and yet another prohibits greetings in “high five” mode. And so the time goes by until you go through immigration, look for your suitcase, get on a bus and take a cab to the accommodation that the Tokyo organizing committee has decided.

In this case, seven hours between landing in Tokyo and arriving at the hotel. Some people took even longer. Small consolation on the first night in the host city of the Games after a journey of 43 hours, a journey to the city armored against the virus.