Strange Days: Usual Olympic hubbub and hoopla muted this time around in Tokyo

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TOKYO — The Olympic hoopla that normally accompanies the Summer Games is muted this time around in Tokyo.

Normally a time of celebration for the host city after years of planning and preparation, Japan's capital has been thrust into the unenviable position of trying to pull off the massive event during a pandemic.

Sporting competition aside, the host usually gets to enjoy being in the world's spotlight during the 17-day spectacle.

Rio's rollicking beach scene was a heartbeat for the 2016 host. London - with its pubs, energetic nightlife and long Olympic tradition - delivered four years prior to that.

Tokyo, meanwhile, is shaping up to be the Games that fun forgot. And for good reason.

COVID-19 cases have been steadily rising in the city over the last few weeks and a state of emergency remains in effect. Almost all Olympic venues will be spectator-free.

The hosts are trying their best to manage the July 23-Aug. 8 event despite myriad challenges. But the exultant buzz that normally grips a city with only a few days until the opening ceremony is missing.

It certainly felt like old times when dozens of Olympic athletes, media members and team delegations gathered at Toronto's Pearson International Airport before setting out on the long trip to Tokyo.

For many, the journey would be their first international flight since the pandemic's arrival.

Unlike the packed flights to previous Games, about every other seat on the aircraft was vacant. Face masks were only lowered at meal time. Carry-on baggage was loaded with paperwork, including documentation of negative COVID-19 test results and certificates.

A wall of heat greeted travellers upon arrival at Narita Airport. A temperature of 34 C - the humidity made it feel like 41 C - seemed like it might melt the ad posters featuring Japanese baseball great Ichiro Suzuki that were plastered inside the boarding bridge.

But concerns over the Tokyo summer heat - a major pre-Games storyline in early 2020 - were back-burnered long ago. Pandemic concerns still rule in 2021, even with the Games' one-year postponement to this summer.

A 'quarantine counter' was a required stop for incoming travellers, followed by more COVID-19 testing. Masks were mandatory but physical distancing was more like one metre - if that - instead of two as waves of Olympic arrivals continued late Monday and into Tuesday.

A seemingly never-ending series of checkpoints throughout the sprawling building were required stops. Printed QR codes, necessary smartphone apps and accreditation all had to be checked. A five-hour overall process was the norm.

The thrill of Olympic competition here will soon give the hiccups, hurdles and issues some company. Just don't expect a celebratory vibe in the streets.

People are going about their business in the city right now, trying to allay concerns about a slow vaccination rollout, variants of concern and a massive influx of visitors from every corner of the globe.

That's unlikely to change after the Olympic cauldron is lit.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press

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