TOKYO — For Olympic host cities, one of the keys to a successful Games is the army of volunteers cheerfully performing a range of duties, like fetching water, driving Olympic vehicles, interpreting for athletes or carrying medals to ceremonies.
If the rescheduled Tokyo Games go ahead as planned this summer, roughly 78,000 volunteers will have another responsibility: preventing the spread of the coronavirus, both among participants and themselves.
For protection, the volunteers are being offered little more than a couple of cloth masks, a bottle of sanitizer and mantras about social distancing. Unless they qualify for vaccination through Japan’s slow age-based rollout, they will not be inoculated against the coronavirus.
“I don’t know how we’re going to be able to do this,” said Akiko Kariya, 40, a paralegal in Tokyo who signed up to volunteer as an interpreter. The Olympic committee “hasn’t told us exactly what they will do to keep us safe.”
As organizers have scrambled to assure the globe that Tokyo can pull off the Games in the midst of a pandemic, the volunteers have been left largely on their own to figure out how to avoid infection.
Much of the planning for the postponed Olympics has a seat-of-the-pants quality. With less than three months to go before the opening ceremony, the organizers have yet to decide whether domestic spectators will be admitted, or hammer out details about who, besides the athletes, will be tested regularly.
Tens of thousands of participants will descend on Tokyo from more than 200 countries after nearly a year in which Japan’s borders have been largely closed to outsiders. The volunteers’ assignments will bring them into contact with many of the Olympic visitors as they pass in and out of a “bubble” that will encompass the Olympic Village and other venues.
“There are a lot of people who have to go in and out of the bubble, and they are not protected at all and not even being tested,” said Barbara Holthus, a volunteer and deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo. “I do see the risk of a superspreader event.”
A leaflet distributed to volunteers advises them to ask visitors to stand at least 1 meter — a little more than 3 feet — apart. During shifts, they should disinfect their hands frequently. If offering assistance to someone, they should avoid directly facing the other person and never talk without a mask.
“Mask-wearing and hand-washing are very basic, but doing that to the max is the most important thing we can do,” said Natsuki Den, senior director of volunteer promotion for the Tokyo organizing committee.
“People often say, ‘That is so basic; is that all you can do?’” Den said. But if every volunteer implements these basic measures, she said, “it can really limit the risk. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any magic countermeasures because they don’t really exist.”
Even as a majority of the Japanese public has remained opposed to hosting the Olympics this year, many volunteers say they are committed, at least in principle, to fostering international fellowship after more than a year of isolation. (The ranks of volunteers did take a sizable hit when about 1,000 volunteers quit after the first president of the Tokyo organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, made sexist comments.)
But volunteers worry about their own health as well as the safety of the athletes and other Olympic participants, especially as Tokyo experiences new spikes in virus cases. The capital is currently under a state of emergency.
“I am scared that I would get the virus and show no symptoms, and accidentally give it to the athletes,” said Yuto Hirano, 30, who works at a technology company in Tokyo and is assigned to help athletes backstage at the Paralympics events for boccia, a ball sport. “I want to protect myself so that I can protect them.”
In addition to the Olympic volunteers, organizers need to secure medical workers to staff the Games. Typically, doctors and nurses also volunteer to work at the Olympics, but this year, with the medical system overstretched from a year of fighting the coronavirus, health care workers have begun to balk.
“We are surprised about the talk going around requesting the dispatch of 500 nurses to the Tokyo Olympics,” the Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions said in a statement posted on its website, adding that “now is not the time for the Olympics, it’s time for coronavirus countermeasures.”
As the pandemic rages on, some nonmedical volunteers are going to great lengths to keep safe. Yoko Aoshima, 49, who teaches English at a business college in Shizuoka, about 90 miles outside Tokyo, has booked a hotel for the days she is scheduled to work, at a cost of 110,000 yen, or about $1,000. That means she will not have to commute.
To avoid public transit in Tokyo, she plans to purchase a bicycle when she gets to Tokyo to commute to the field hockey stadium where she is assigned shifts.
But Aoshima, who decided to volunteer in part to honor the legacy of her father, a former physical education teacher, wonders how she will protect her family when she returns home after the Games.
“When I go back to Shizuoka, is it safe enough for my family to stay with me?” Aoshima asked. “Will I be able to go back to work?”
She said she had already purchased a few at-home coronavirus tests to use after the Olympics.
For volunteers who have spent the past year avoiding crowds, the concept of suddenly being thrust into contact with athletes, coaches, officials or members of the media from outside Japan is triggering a sense of cognitive dissonance.
“I only saw one friend last year, when she had a baby,” said Kariya, the paralegal in Tokyo. “I go to the supermarket or the bank, where I really need to go. The last time I rode the train was last March.”
In the absence of more safety measures, Kariya said she was considering quitting as a volunteer.
Many volunteers are disappointed that they will not be offered vaccines before the Games. So far, organizers have said they are not considering prioritizing Japan’s Olympic athletes for vaccination, much less volunteers.
“They can’t say they have priority because then the people would start shouting at them,” said Chiharu “Charles” Nishikawa, 61, who volunteered at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and London in 2012 and advises the Olympic committee about volunteering.
Some volunteers said they were worried that organizers did not have the resources to monitor everyone for adherence to the rules, which include wearing masks, avoiding dining in restaurants and staying off public transit.
Holthus said volunteers could be put in a sticky spot, given that their primary role is to project an image of harmonious hospitality.
A volunteer handbook issued before the Olympics was postponed last year encouraged them to “address people with a smile.” In online sessions and other messaging since, Holthus said, “they still keep saying, ‘Oh, and your smile is going to be so important.’”
“We’re supposed to be wearing masks,” she said. “So I find that very insensitive.”
Not every volunteer has serious concerns about safety. Some said that they expected widespread compliance with the rules, given what is on the line.
“I think athletes will do whatever it takes to participate in the Olympics,” said Philbert Ono, a travel writer, photographer and translator.
“If we tell them to wear a mask, they will wear a mask,” he said. “When they have meals, they will sit way far apart and separated and facing only one direction. So I think they are very disciplined, and they know what is at stake.”