We went to the Olympics! Observations from our rare opportunity.
When we first moved to Japan in the summer of 2018, we had the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on our mind as a nice perk of being here. We moved to Sendai, in Miyagi prefecture, a couple hours north of Tokyo, but we were committed to go down and take part.
When the lottery came around, we made an effort to get tickets to as many sports as possible: track, gymnastics, volleyball, judo...we swung for the fences. We also requested tickets to the women's soccer matches being held locally in Miyagi. Why not?
In the end we were awarded only two events: women's soccer group stage and women's soccer quarterfinals...both in Miyagi. We got none of the tickets to any of our top choices, and my wife was pretty disappointed.
Then covid hit and everything was thrown into flux. Word came out that no spectators would be able to attend any events at all. We assumed that applied to us as well. But the final decision was kept at the local level, and given the low spread of covid in our area our local governor decided anyone with tickets could attend, even if they wouldn't sell any more.
So, given I already had my tickets, my family was able to join about 3,000 other spectators for the first night of women's soccer matches. What seemed like a disappointment a year ago turned into a rare opportunity to be an Olympic spectator that few will have.
Here are a few thoughts and highlights.
Getting to the Olympic Venue: Miyagi Stadium
We live about 20 minutes from the stadium where the games were being held, but we received an alert a couple weeks ago that nobody would be allowed to drive to the stadium on their own. Everyone had to arrive via the shuttle services chartered for the event.
Now, in a time of covid, you may find yourself asking why it's better to pack people into buses than allow them to arrive separately. Well, I had that thought as well and as near as I can tell, we are the only ones.
We were given two options: park our car at the free park and ride and take a shuttle, or take a shuttle from a train station. The park and ride was twice as far away from us as the stadium, so we drove to the nearest train station and paid for parking.
Prior to getting on the shuttle we had our temperatures taken and we were asked to spray our hands with alcohol. At least twice. Maybe three times. The shuttle itself was nice and comfortable. It took us about 30 minutes to get there.
Entering the Venue: Security Checks
Each side of the stadium was cordoned off for shuttles arriving from different stations. We walked to the main entrance on the west side of the stadium and entered the security protocols.
It was obvious the setup was for 40,000 fans, not 3,000. They had so many stations available that there were no lines at all. I would say there were probably about 1,000 volunteers there. It sometimes felt like they outnumbered the spectators.
They did another temperature check and asked us to spray our hands. Then we went through a metal detector and they checked bags. Each person was allowed to bring two plastic water bottles or thermoses, but they required us to open all of them and take a drink from them to carry them in.
Once inside we headed to our seats. At every entrance to the seating area someone was there to check our tickets and they kindly requested (in the not-really-optional Japanese way) that we spray our hands before entering.
(Side note: I'm not against alcohol sprays in stores or venues. Do I think they prevent covid? No. Do I think they probably keep everything marginally more sanitary and therefore healthier? Probably. But it can get a little overwhelming when every 30 seconds you hit a new station and are requested to spray your hands again.)
The Venue: Miyagi Stadium
I like the stadium. It was my first time there and it has a distinct design and character on the outside, while being small and intimate on the inside. You can walk a ring around the entire stadium and they had various concession stands and shops set up every 50 meters or so.
One of our big worries was that they wouldn't have much food. We were planning to watch two soccer games and the last thing we wanted was to be starving at the end. The pre-match communications were vague about food. We weren't allowed to bring any in, but they didn't say if they would be selling any. Fortunately, they had some basic options.
I had a gyudon (beef bowl), my daughters ate karaage (fried chicken) and yakisoba (fried noodles) and my wife had an onigiri box set (rice balls). We also had some ice creams later in the evening. It was far from an elegant or diverse selection of foods, but it got the job done, and at a pretty fair price!
They had a few shops selling Olympic related tchotchkes and yes, we bought a couple. I debated getting a Tokyo Olympics mask because that seemed to symbolize the experience better than anything else. I didn't, but I think I'll get one when we go back.
The seats were plastic and not all that comfortable. They were also filled with air and my daughters enjoyed pushing on them and making them hiss. Not annoying at all.
There were tons of bathrooms and as you would expect, opportunities for spraying your hands at the entrances and exits.
The Soccer Matches
We saw two matches. Brazil beat China 5-0 in the first game, and Netherlands beat Zambia 10-3 (!!) in the second game. I hope my daughters don't take away that soccer matches are always exciting goal-filled experiences! (In the photo above, the Netherlands player is shooting and scoring, I think goal #9.)
Marta, Brazil's captain seems a step slower than she used to be but she still scored two goals. Vivianne Miedema of the Netherlands scored four goals in the first half and seemed almost blasé about it. Barbra Banda of Zambia was the most fun to watch. She scored three goals and every time she touched the ball it was dangerous for the Dutch.
The biggest benefit of having nobody in the stands was the ability to hear the players communicating on the pitch. Whether it was goalies shouting, "Out! Out!" or players calling for crosses, I enjoyed hearing how professional teams communicate.
Lastly, they played a pretty upbeat song whenever a goal was scored ("They gotta...go! go!") and it was annoying after the first couple goals. By the 18th I was just numb to it.
It turned out to be a lot of fun. It didn't really feel like "the Olympics" given the lack of fans but the games were fun, the food was good enough, the weather was cooler than we feared, and the girls gave it a thumbs up.
We'll be going back on the 30th to see the quarterfinals match and it looks like we'll see either Brazil or the Netherlands play one of the teams from Japan's group. Obviously, we're hoping it ends up being Japan!
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