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Japanese Volunteers at Tokyo 2020 Praised by the World! Becoming a Team with International Athletes

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games were a success thanks to the efforts of many people. In particular, volunteers from the public played an especially crucial role, since without any spectators, they were the only ones representing the Japanese public who could support the athletes up close. What motivated each of them to participate and what was the experience like? We talked to Eiko Todo and Tomoko Yuasa, two such volunteers who saw Tokyo 2020 from the perspective of its unsung heroes.

*This article is a collaborative project with The Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center.

Moved by feelings of respect for the athletes

Eiko Todo

Tokyo 2020 was held under unprecedented and tough circumstances in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Japan, opinions were split on whether the Games should even be held, and many people decided not to participate as volunteers.

Eiko Todo said, “I heard a lot of different opinions, but none of them mattered to me. I was more focused on the athletes. After four years of working hard, the Games were postponed a year, and during that year, the lives of many athletes had changed dramatically. Some were no longer able to participate. Others had even passed away. But there were also those athletes who were now able to participate after overcoming illnesses, like swimmer Rikako Ikee. Although some people opposed holding the Games, I never had a second thought about participating as a volunteer because I respected the effort that the athletes had gone through.”

Todo worked as a liaison (someone who accompanies teams as a translator and supports their daily necessities) for the women’s handball teams from Angola, Spain, Russia and France. Todo is the Chairperson of NPO EDGE. The organization aims to provide support to people with dyslexia and disseminate correct understanding of the disorder, which causes reading and writing difficulties. This year, EDGE was finally able to hold an event it had postponed last year due to COVID-19. People who attended the event expressed their gratitude, and Todo felt how important it is to provide opportunities. That was one of the reasons that prompted her to participate in Tokyo 2020 as a volunteer.

Tomoko Yuasa, on the other hand, came to see the brilliance of sports and how amazing athletes are when she stayed with the family of a Universiade coach when she studied abroad in Canada (Universiade is a multi-sport event organized by the International University Sports Federation). She later went on to volunteer at many sports events, including the Nagano 1998 Paralympic Winter Games. Since she had a connection with Canadian sports teams, Yuasa was initially recruited as a volunteer by the Canadian Olympic Committee when Tokyo was selected to host the Games.

Tomoko Yuasa

“I was born and still live in Miyazaki Prefecture, which has hosted many international sports competitions. From back when I was a child, there were many opportunities to participate as a volunteer, and it was during one of those times that I grew close to a Canadian team. That led me to study abroad in Canada. Everyone there was really kind to me, so I always wanted to give back to Canada.” (Yuasa)

However, due to the circumstances surrounding the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian Olympic Committee decided not to send its delegation to Japan in March 2020. Yuasa was left feeling dazed.

“Since then, the committee kept in touch, urging us to stay safe until next year and to be proud of being selected as a volunteer by Canada. They told us the athletes were training hard too. But in the end, the volunteer team was disbanded right before the Games. I was disappointed, but I knew it must have been a hard decision for the committee as well, so there was nothing I could do.” (Yuasa)

Later, the Canadian Olympic Committee sent Yuasa a certificate recognizing her as a member of Team Canada. Although she didn’t get to participate in Tokyo 2020 as part of the Canadian team, the heartwarming message and the strong bond that formed between the volunteers who all faced the difficult times together only strengthened Yuasa’s passion for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

An athlete forgot her uniform?! How an accident turned Todo into a good luck charm

Todo cherishes the commemorative photo she took with Team France after they won the gold medal (masks were taken off only while taking the photo)

During the Tokyo 1964 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Todo was living in Italy due to her father’s work as a foreign diplomat. She recalled feeling frustrated because she couldn’t see how the Japanese athletes were doing. Then in 2012, she happened to be in London during the time between the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games.

“I saw volunteers warmly welcoming international visitors, and when I asked for directions, they were so kind and helpful. This experience in London and the frustration of not being able to see Tokyo 1964 up close when I was a child led me to sign up as a volunteer at Tokyo 2020.” (Todo)

Since the Games would be held during the sweltering summer heat of Tokyo, Todo initially requested indoor work. She was assigned the role of preparing towels and drinks for athletes in the handball venue since she had experience playing the sport. However, the person in charge of the venue was, by coincidence, an old friend from university, who told the volunteer work assigner that it would be a waste not to put Todo’s foreign language skills to use. As a result, Todo was hastily reassigned as the liaison of the women’s handball teams just a week before the Games began.

“We ran into some issues early on. For example, as the media reported, the buses that were used to transport athletes were delayed, so some of the teams didn’t make it to their practice times, which were fixed and limited, such as to an hour. When issues like that came up, liaisons were sometimes the ones who had to fix the situation, and I wondered if that burden was really ours to bear. But the athletes competing outside of their home grounds had so few people they could rely on, and I began to realize the importance of reassuring them that they can count on us as allies.” (Todo)

Then one day, an athlete on the Angolan team came out of the changing room right before the game and tugged on her T-shirt. She said, “What do I do? I forgot my uniform.” She had left it behind in the Olympic and Paralympic Village. And she wasn’t the only one. Another athlete had also forgotten her uniform.

“I was stunned. But since I’m also a pretty forgetful person, I knew how to handle the situation. I reassured the athletes and said, ‘You’re lucky I’m your liaison’ (laughs). First, I made sure the game could start even if all the players didn’t have their uniforms. It would have been easier to have someone in the Village bring the uniforms, but they were in the athletes’ rooms, which were locked. So the team’s manager and I borrowed the athletes’ keys, ran out to grab a taxi and rushed to pick up the uniforms.”

Pouring sweat, Todo made it back in time for the second half of the game, and the two athletes were able to compete in their uniforms thanks to her quick thinking. Despite the incident, they won that game.

No further issues arose during the preliminaries, but a certain pattern began to emerge: when Todo was with the French team, they kept winning. Before she knew it, she had become a good luck charm to them, ensuring victory whenever she was their liaison. Although she hadn’t originally planned to accompany the team to the semifinals and finals, she did, and the team successfully won the gold medal.

“Each time the team won, the athletes came to me and said, ‘It’s all thanks to you!’ and that made me so happy. As a volunteer, there’s nothing better than knowing that I was able to help. It wasn’t just the French team either. Teams from many different countries thought highly of the Japanese volunteers. I think a large part of that came from all the volunteers sharing the same awareness that we were the face of Japan at Tokyo 2020 because of COVID-19. If the stands had been filled with spectators, we may not have formed such close bonds with the athletes.” (Todo)

“You’re a part of the team”: creating bonds that greatly moved the hearts of volunteers

Photo taken at Narita Airport where Yuasa saw the Swiss team off after the Games

Todo said she decided to participate as a volunteer out of respect for the athletes. Meanwhile, Yuasa said she heard the word “respect” spoken many times among the athletes and teams.

“I was assigned as an assistant to the Swiss team. I stayed in the Village and took care of tasks like decorating the rooms to create an uplifting mood for the athletes, making beds, and arranging taxis for the team’s staff and athletes. A woman named Melanie on the Swiss team’s staff was in charge of organizing the volunteers, and she gave me a list of what to do every day. I was kept very busy.” (Yuasa)

Melanie wasn’t just in charge of taking care of the volunteers. She also handled and made split-second decisions about various matters concerning the athletes. Yuasa, who works in management at an English language school, said she learned a lot watching Melanie support the athletes and volunteers. Yuasa recalls one moment in particular. As readers likely remember, foreign athletes were not allowed to go into town on their own, so Japanese volunteers went to buy what they needed. When Melanie first asked Yuasa to go shopping, she gave her a certain item.

The Swiss team backpack came in very handy during the Games and was a sign of being a part of the team

“She gave me a backpack bearing the Swiss team’s logo. I already had a bag that was given to all the volunteers of Tokyo 2020, but Melanie said, ‘Please use this one. You’re a member of the Swiss team after all.’ That made me really happy. It also made me all the more aware of the weight of our responsibility as volunteers. I became more motivated than ever to complete the tasks that were given to me quickly and efficiently, all the while being careful to avoid close contact with others as much as possible.” (Yuasa)

During those busy days, Yuasa often heard the members of the team talk about “respect” and it left an impression on her.

“Time and again, I heard them say things like, ‘Respect other athletes,’ ‘Respect people of different nationalities,’ ‘Respect people with disabilities’ and ‘Respect the volunteers.’ It made me want to work even harder and I was reminded once again of how important it is to have respect for others.” (Yuasa)

What volunteers learned through their work

The experiences gained through volunteering undoubtedly left huge positive impacts on each person
Photo by The Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center

Working as a volunteer in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic must have been harder than any of us can imagine. No doubt the volunteers felt an incredible amount of pressure not to catch the virus and spread it to the athletes, while also making sure not to cause any holdups. What did Todo and Yuasa take away and learn from this experience?

“Since the Games were held despite COVID-19, many volunteers decided not to participate. The situation also kept changing rapidly, which caused our work to change at every turn, so it was difficult. But I think all the volunteers, wherever they were posted, felt the importance of their presence, found enjoyment in their work and gave it their all. The ages of the volunteers ranged widely too, from young people to those slightly older than me, and some had very interesting past experiences. Working alongside these people, and knowing they represented Japan, made me feel good about our country, which made me happy.” (Todo)

Todo believes there’s nothing more foolish than regretting something you didn’t do. Doing nothing is a plain 0, so she considers it a +1 to have just applied to become a volunteer. Having watched the athletes up close must have no doubt multiplied that +1 manifold. Yuasa, who took care of the athletes’ day-to-day necessities in the Village, also had much to gain, and it helped her grow personally.

“Having volunteered at many sports competitions, what always strikes me is the extraordinary effort made by the athletes. Particularly in terms of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, they train and work hard for four long years (or five this time). When I see the manifestation of that effort up close, I feel like there’s a lot more I can do. Since the Games were held in the middle of the pandemic, everyone—not just the athletes but also the volunteers—showed great unity, and I got a lot tougher too. If something’s bothering me, I can now shrug it off as a tiny concern in the grand scheme of things.” (Yuasa)

Yuasa says she now has a new goal: to improve her German. The languages commonly spoken in Switzerland are English, French and German. Melanie used English to communicate with the volunteers, but she sometimes spoke in German when talking to the athletes. So Yuasa said she wants to surprise Melanie when they next meet by speaking to her in German!

There is no doubt that Todo and Yuasa’s experiences will each play a big role going forward in their respective works: in the activities of the NPO that Todo chairs, and in the management of the English language school where Yuasa works. We spoke to the two right after Tokyo 2020 ended, and although they were both tired, they appeared to glow with a great sense of fulfillment.

Even though we didn’t ask them directly, both Todo and Yuasa mentioned that they feel good about Japan. They said the sentiment was born not only through their work as volunteers but also during the time they spent traveling between event venues. Since they were wearing uniforms, the people in town and taxi drivers recognized them as volunteers and often thanked them for their hard work and for representing Japan. Todo and Yuasa were not exaggerating when they said those words made them so happy, they were moved to tears. Under all the incredible pressure, it must have meant so much to them. Going forward, we hope to share their experiences and draw on the legacies of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games as we look to the future.

Interview cooperation: The Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center
Related article:

text by Reiko Sadaie(Parasapo Lab)
key visual by Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Center

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