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What it takes to get to Tokyo to cover the Olympics: NPR

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A flight attendant walks past a large exhibition of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Narita International Airport on Thursday in Narita, east of Tokyo.

Kiichiro Sato / AP


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Kiichiro Sato / AP

A flight attendant walks past a large exhibition of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Narita International Airport on Thursday in Narita, east of Tokyo.

Kiichiro Sato / AP

TOKYO – When someone traveling to Japan for the Olympics lands in Tokyo, they are immediately separated from everyone else on their plane and taken to complete hours of COVID-19 testing and other entry procedures.

Then, at least for journalists, they begin three days of strict quarantine. The hotel where the NPR journalists are staying has barely enough room to open a suitcase.

These are just some of the security measures that journalists arriving at the games must go through to maintain separation from the Japanese population, as coronavirus cases increase and Tokyo is in a state of emergency.

The strict protocols, detailed in a playbook that 68 pages long, are understandable at a time when Japan has only been able to vaccinate a small fraction of its citizens. About 20 percent are fully vaccinated.

Safety protocols start before takeoff

Entering Japan involves a wide range of strict security requirements that begin days before take-off. The journalists were supposed to be checking their own temperatures and uploading them to a special app, which didn’t work at all for some of our group of five, and only worked the day we left for others.

We had to obtain two negative COVID-19 tests in the four days before leaving, and each needed to find clinics in our respective cities that would do the required type of test and sign the Japanese government form.

A nearly empty plane flies from Atlanta to Tokyo on Friday.

Merrit Kennedy / NPR


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Merrit Kennedy / NPR

During the first 14 days in Japan, journalists cannot get out of the Olympic “bubble” and must present an “activity plan” to local organizers detailing all the places we plan to go.

Some of the many forms that people traveling to Japan should be prepared to show upon arrival.

Merrit Kennedy / NPR


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Some of the many forms that people traveling to Japan should be prepared to show upon arrival.

Merrit Kennedy / NPR

We can log out of the hotel for a maximum of 15 minutes, but longer could mean we are kicked out of the country, and an app on our phones tracks our every move to make sure we don’t break the quarantine. The app is also used for coronavirus contact tracking.

The flight from Atlanta to Tokyo was eerily empty, occupying only a few dozen seats on a large plane.

Olympic athletes go through strict controls at the airport.

After landing, everyone who arrived for the Olympics went through at least nine checkpoints at the airport, where cheerful staff members ask for a different combination of the many forms we have printed.

Long lines of people arriving for the Olympics wait to go through a series of security protocols at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

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Long lines of people arriving for the Olympics wait to go through a series of security protocols at Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

Merrit Kennedy / NPR

The long lines are packed with other journalists, officials and athletes; we see members of the Italian, German, Armenian and Namibian teams, to name just a few. This may be the only time we can get this close to any of the athletes as there are so many restrictions.

We each spit into a plastic vial for a final COVID-19 test before entering Japan. We all test negative again, although on this day, Saturday, at least seven others in Japan for the Olympics tested positive and were taken into isolation.

It takes more than three hours to complete all the protocols from the moment our flight lands until the departure of the airport. That’s a lot less time than many others we’ve talked to.

We board a bus that takes us through this great city full of skyscrapers, to a terminal where we are individually driven in special taxis to our hotel. My taxi driver kindly asks me to respect the three-day quarantine, and I assure him that I will.

The small room feels like a sleeper on a train. On Wednesday, we will finally be allowed to take Olympic shuttles to the venues.

Breakfast in quarantine at our hotel in Tokyo.

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The hotel serves breakfast and otherwise we eat whatever they can bring us or find in the convenience store attached to the building.

We are not complaining. It is an honor to be here, despite all the challenges. Our experience only illustrates what it takes to run the biggest sporting event in the midst of a global pandemic.

NPR’s Mandalit del Barco contributed to this report.

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