It’s 9:15 a.m. on Sunday, July 26, and excitement is building at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre as the first swimming medals go up for grabs. Nearby at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre, U.S. superstar Simone Biles is warming up for her first appearance of the 2020 Olympics.
Without warning, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake rips through Tokyo Bay, shaking the ground violently and causing widespread damage, panic and multiple casualties throughout the city.
Fortunately, this was just the hypothetical scenario behind a disaster drill held just before Christmas to help the Tokyo 2020 organizers prepare for the worst while hoping they will never have to respond for real.
At the gymnastics venue in Tokyo Bay, the public address system springs into action in Japanese and English.
“There has been an earthquake. Please stay calm and protect yourself. This venue is safe,” the advice crackles.
“Taking action in a panic may lead to danger. Please stay calm and follow the staff’s instructions. The elevators may not be used.”
Within minutes, officers from Tokyo’s fire department in blue uniforms and white helmets stream into the stadium.
“Are you OK?” first responders shout as they tend to bodies littering the stands. Officials urge calm via loudspeakers and console elderly spectators.
Fifteen minutes later, troops from the Self-Defense Forces burst into the venue and are briefed on the situation as the evacuation gathers pace.
Troops bring in white stretchers and carry the injured to a triage area hastily set up adjacent to the gymnastics mats.
Medics perform first aid on people laid out on red blankets as commanders bark out orders in a fevered but efficient atmosphere, sending less urgent cases to another venue.
Dozens of spectators, including those in wheelchairs, are evacuated through the wide boulevards of the Tokyo Bay area, but efforts are hampered by a 6.0-magnitude aftershock at 10:30 a.m.
Across town, at the imposing Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, Gov. Yuriko Koike convenes an emergency gathering with 40 of her top managers and officials from the fire department, Japan Coast Guard and SDF.
She receives a briefing on the evolving situation with a dozen monitors showing images of the damage at the gymnastics venue and fires burning around Tokyo.
Koike orders that all resources be diverted to saving lives, but also insists that infrastructure such as port and river facilities be inspected and repaired, if necessary.
“We have many guests domestically and from abroad for the Tokyo 2020 Games,” she says, wrapping up the meeting.
“Please exert your utmost effort to ensure the safety of spectators and workers for the Olympic Games as much as you would for Tokyo residents,” she orders.
The drill, covering two locations and involving over 500 volunteers, was part of Tokyo’s contingency planning as one of the world’s most seismically active countries gears up to host the Summer Games.
Sports fans already got a taste of Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters when a typhoon struck during the Rugby World Cup, forcing the unprecedented cancellation of three matches. The Olympics and Paralympics will be held from July to September, smack in the middle of the typhoon season.
Tokyo firefighters included a counterterrorism drill alongside the emergency preparations in their traditional New Year’s show.
While visitors from around the world may be unnerved by earthquakes, officials stress there is no country better prepared or equipped than Japan.
Japan experiences thousands of tremors per year of varying sizes, and the vast majority cause little or no damage, with emergency responders well-trained.
Paralympic Games boss Andrew Parsons recalled in a recent interview of being in a Tokyo hotel when a moderate earthquake shook his room and he rushed into the reception area in a mild panic.
“I was the only one who seemed to notice,” he laughed, amused by the blase response he received.