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A Lonely Olympics For Athletes Competing To Be Champions

Emiliano Bosso gets into the elevator of his Tokyo hotel with a Japanese newspaper tucked under his arm. He has a translation app on his phone and tonight the paper will be the field hockey player's companion.

It's the Argentine's first Olympic games and he's ecstatic. He's never been to Japan, never gotten the chance to represent his country like this on a global stage. But since arriving much of his time is spent in isolation, separated from his team in the Olympic village. He's the backup goalkeeper and he only plays if there's "bad news."

"I wake up in the morning and I have breakfast and eat inside the room. I get a taxi to go to the practice and back to the hotel," he said. "Dinner inside the room."

Then he does it again.

"It's difficult because I play field hockey. It's on a team, together with my friends and players and now I'm alone in the hotel," he said. "But it's okay. I don't have a problem with this. I am doing what's best for my team in my position."

That is a day in the life of an athlete at the Tokyo Olympic Games marred by a pandemic that has threatened to derail the global sports competition. It's cost Japan some $30 billion to put on, but taxpayers who bore the brunt of that cost can't attend the events in the capital and foreign spectators are barred from Japan. Tokyo is under a state of emergency and there are protests as the opening ceremony nears and competitions have already begun.

In Tokyo, restaurants shutter at 8 pm. The thousands of people who arrived for the games are being separated from residents of Japan as much as possible. Busses and designated taxis take the players to and from where they sleep and where they practice and compete.

It's a global sports competition meant for spectators to roar and cheer. But this year it's defined by isolation. And for the few spectators allowed — including journalists and team members — there are signs "Clap, do not sing or chant."

The Games and the thousands of people participating feel walled off from the city. The pristine new venues are empty of the tens of thousands of fans they were built for.

Outside of those venues Olympians don't roam the streets.

"We're not allowed to leave the taxi. We're Dutch. We like to ride a bike or walk outside," said Koen de Haan. He's a trainer for the Netherlands rowing team. He's staying at a Tokyo hotel, separate from the rowers in the Olympic Village.

"It's the venue, it's the hotel. And in between we're in a taxi or the rowers are on the bus," he said.

So he watches the city from the windows of the vehicles that take him to and from the rowing venue. He is struck by what he doesn't see.

"You don't see any Olympic rings in Tokyo. It's not like the city is celebrating the Olympics," he said. "I think that's the big difference. Like the other guys who did more Olympics, say normally the city's really proud of the Olympics and you see everywhere, the flags, you see the Olympic symbols. All the venues have really big screens outside. Inside the venues you see it, but from outside, it's not too big. Not shouting out loud."

The team is prepped though for these pandemic Olympics. No distractions, no fans, just the boat and the drive to go faster, he said.

"We say, 'maybe it's not the most fun games, but make it the best games,'" he said. "They focus on the process and what we do on the water. All other things besides that just let it slide and just go with the flow."

They're here to win. The loneliness of these games, that may hit them later.

"When you're thirty years older and you look back to the Tokyo Olympics, it's not the full experience," he said. "When you win a race and everybody goes nuts. Now it's only celebrating yourself in the boat and you have a crazy moment for yourself and with the crew."

It's a little less special.

"They're strange games and it's a strange experience," he said. "But if you win, you're still an Olympic champion."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.