- Joseph Polack
OLYMPIC LOCAL VIEWS: VOLUNTEERS
Though many of our friends have died during the past six months, my Japanese neighbor, Atsuko, refused to give up her Olympic dream.
She knew that remaining an officially accredited but unvaccinated Japanese Olympic Volunteer could cost her life.
Seven weeks before the Olympics, Atsuko and 80.000 of her fellow volunteers, have not been informed whether they will be tested for the coronavirus, Iet alone vaccinated.
After 3 years of tough volunteer training, her sense of duty seems stronger than her survival instinct. Our attempts to persuade Atsuko that her sacrifice was too high a price, didn’t help. She claimed that being from a Hokkaido family she trained herself from childhood to endure cold winters and hot summers by just keeping quiet.
Since the State of Emergency was extended again, 10.000 of Atsuko’s fellow volunteers resigned en masse. Some were scared by increasing death numbers. The others, by a growing post-Olympic nightmare of mutating viruses.
Being an accredited Olympic Volunteer didn’t give Atsuko rights to be vaccinated ahead of others. She told me that her own elderly mother was lucky to get her vaccination date moved from October to July.
As only 5% of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated 6 weeks before Olympics, Atsuko kept patiently waiting for her turn. Between attending online funerals of our international friends, she continued her daily physical build up to keep her Olympic stamina intact.
Years before joining our multi-ethnic Henna Gaijin Swimming Club (HGSC) in Kamakura, Atsuko competed in track & field events, ran a Honolulu Marathon, served as skiing instructor in her native Hokkaido, and travelled the world.
She told me that becoming an Olympic Volunteer was her way to repay kindness of all these people she had encountered during her many decades of overseas journeys.
And on Atsuko’s long lists of Olympic visitors there are a dozen of small and big countries from Eurasia and both Americas. She hopes to serve the Olympic visitors this summer from the countries she had visited as a young student and a Japanese-English interpreter.
After our frequent rough water races in Kamakura and Fujisawa, Atsuko discloses many albums stored in her mobile phone.
Her Instagram memories of Canada, US, UK, Hong Kong, Italy, are followed by photos she took in Indonesia, Saipan, Estonia, Finland and other countries.
Then she shows me her photos from a 2019 Pre-Olympic Japanese-British Seminar that she co-chaired with Peter. Peter had attended London Olympics as a volunteer,
and was a model for her to follow. Then the Covid-pandemics struck and her life priorities became less certain.
One day, after completing our Kamakura rough water racing, Atsuko and I revisited the home of our Henna Gaijin Swimming Club’s (HGSC) Chair-for-Life, Phil. Regardless of his age at 77 years and two recent Covid vaccinations, Phil remains
in good shape to challenge much younger local swimmers.
Our conversation in Phil's seaside garden gradually switches to one of our newly elected overseas HGSC members, a 72 year old Briton, Alan Holmes. Alan and Atsuko, are both volunteers. But in contrast to Atsuko, Alan’s focus is on rough water swimming for money to collect funds for a brain tumor research charity.
And though Atsuko & Alan live over 10.000 km apart, Atsuko joined our HGSC local races to support Alan's brain research charity. When, I asked her why, she simply said “I lost my father to brain diseases. Though I am from a family of Hokkaido doctors and we owned several large hospitals for generations, he couldn’t be saved.”
Last week I met Atsuko’s daughter Miro in our beach-side animal shelter. We talked about her unvaccinated mother’s risky Olympic volunteering. Miro hoped that the vaccination speed may increase further in Japan. Recently her 90 year old grandmother’s vaccination date was changed from late-fall to a mid-summer.
49 days before the scheduled start of Olympics, Atsuko invited me to visit Fujisawa City Hall. As Fujisawa will be hosting the Olympic water sports races at our Enoshima
neighborhood, I thought it was an opportunity to interview city officials about the danger of hosting Olympics during the State of Emergency.
Though I talked to several junior and senior officials on separate occasions, they always shared my concerns about unvaccinated Olympic volunteers, but their opinions remained as always politely ambiguous. “Yes, the situation isn’t too good, but let’s hope for the best.”
When, I asked if there is any worse-case scenario, including cancelling the Olympics as almost 80% of Japan’s residents demand, I was given a familiar answer: “We understand your worries, but unfortunately, we could do nothing. Everything is up to the International Olympic Committee.”
Meanwhile, more of Atsuko's fellow volunteers are quitting, and less of our Enoshima
neighbours are willing to support the arrival of Olympic visitors to the same Enoshima yacht harbour that had successfully hosted the 1964 Olympics.
Between 1964 and 2021 the number of unpaid Olympic volunteers has increased as rapidly as Japanese civil society has steadily matured. But whether worries of the over 90% of unvaccinated Japanese residents will be heard before the IOC decision is finalized, remain as uncertain as ever.
Meanwhile Atsuko instead of worrying about cancellation of the Olympics, keeps competing in our local rough water races to contribute money for the brain cancer research charity that Henna Gaijin Swimming Club has been supporting.
When we parted at Enoshima last Sunday, I asked Atsuko again, why becoming an Olympic Volunteer remains so important for her. "It was my childhood dream. I was only a small kid in Hokkaido when I watched the 1964 Olympic broadcast from Enoshima’s sailing competition on our family TV. Then when my yachtsman dad passed away, I wanted to keep his memory alive."
The following day Atsuko mailed me a few black and white photos featuring places she used to visit with her late father and a dramatic Enoshima sunset shot by her Fujisawa-born daughter Miro.
The ocean around Enoshima Olympic sight seemed bleeding even more than a week earlier. Or it might have been another optical illusion caused by the increasingly unpredictable climate surrounding the delayed 2020 Olympics.
While Atsuko and her unvaccinated fellow volunteers have become token in an ongoing human drama, the Olympic Minister assured the quitting volunteers that Japanese Government is “pursuing idea of vaccinating the official volunteers”.
At the same time, Dr Shigeru Omi (Chairman of the Coronavirus Countermeasures Subcommittee) keeps warning that in a country where over 90% of population still isn’t fully vaccinated, hosting the Olympics Games is like playing with human life on a global scale: “It is only natural to expect that the risk of infection will rise if the games takes place now.”
Atsuko reaction to the conflicting opinions was striking: “We need less words and more speedy action. The only person I trust to take us out of this Olympic mess is my fellow Hokkaido native, Seiko.”
“Who is Seiko?” I asked confused.
“A mother of six kids who competed in seven Olympics before being cornered a few months ago to take a job she didn’t seek.”
“What are you talking about?”
“About Seiko Hashimoto, who in the middle of the pandemics was asked by the government to head the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Organization Committee in February 2021. She has more guts than all these executives running International Olympic Committee. And even Seiko is five years younger than I, she still is as tough as she was in her Olympic years. No man could challenge her if she makes her mind...”
Though I said nothing, Atsuko’s anger against male bureaucrats kept growing.
“To compete for 28 years in 3 Summer Olympics as a cyclist, and 4 Winter Olympics as a speed skater, while still delivering babies in between, you need to be tough! Tougher then these Olympic bureaucrats endlessly talking about more sacrifices! Let’s run...”
She shouted something to the group of surfers training nearby and ran away.
Next day when I met Atsuko for our usual seaside training, she was overjoyed by Seiko’s latest decision that “Japan’s 70.000 Olympics-related staff could be expected to start getting vaccinated by mid-June.”
After we finished our daily rough water competition with a bicycling tour along the Olympic and Paralympic venues, Atsuko surprised me with a picnic chat again: “As much as I would love Japan to host the games, we shouldn’t be afraid to cancel them, if lives of our Olympic Family would be put at risk. And I am sure Seiko wouldn’t be afraid to suggest the cancellation if the pandemics get worse...”
“How could you be so sure, when IOC wants to run the games at any price?” I doubted.
“Didn’t I tell you that if a working woman, like Seiko, had guts to divorce,” Atsuko grinned, “and she still could take good care of her own three kids, and her three stepchildren from the second marriage, she could do anything to keep them and us safe...”
If Atsuko’s fellow Hokkaido native, Seiko Hashimoto, will keep her promises and prioritize our safety over a $17.5 billion Olympic extravaganza remain to be seen. The first step to start vaccinating all Olympic volunteers next week was taken. The time is running short...