Olympics / Summer Olympics

Japanese fans shrug off crime and Zika in Rio, look forward to Tokyo's turn

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Japanese attending the Rio Olympics say they have found the host city safer than they were led to believe and are looking forward to welcoming the world at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Rio de Janeiro was hampered by a major image problem in the build-up to the 2016 Olympics, with media around the world reporting rising street crime, poor sanitation and an outbreak of Zika virus in Brazil’s second-biggest city.

A strike by police officers and firefighters on the eve of the games did not help matters — one group greeted new arrivals to the city’s international airport with a sign reading “Welcome to Hell” — but Japanese visitors to the Olympic venues told The Japan Times that the situation is better than they expected.

“People in Japan think Brazil is a dangerous country, and we’ve seen reports of police going on strike and so on,” said 40-year-old estate agent Kazunori Takeshima, dressed in full judo gear and carrying a Japanese flag after watching the women’s table tennis team win bronze at Riocentral Pavilion 3.

“But in reality it’s a beautiful country with great food and friendly people. I love this city and this country.”

Security has been tight around the various Olympic venues, with more than 85,000 personnel deployed to guard the games and armed soldiers a visible presence around the city.

Several incidents have occurred despite this, with American swimmer Ryan Lochte allegedly being robbed by gun-toting thieves pretending to be police officers, and a bus carrying journalists having its windows shattered by a possible stray bullet.

According to Kyodo News, there were nine cases of Japanese tourists being robbed during the first week of the Olympics from Aug. 5 to 11.

But Japanese visitors who spoke with The Japan Times reported no serious problems, with concerns over the mosquito-borne Zika virus also getting short shrift.

“I’m just relaxing at the competition venue,” said 48-year-old Takahito Kawai, whose daughter Risako was set to compete in the women’s 63-kg wrestling competition the following day.

“I get the impression that things aren’t as bad as they have been reported in Japan. When you go into the city there are soldiers and police officers. That’s different from being in Japan.

“I haven’t paid any mind to the Zika virus at all. I’ve brought some mosquito spray, but that’s about it.”

Japanese fans have had a small but vocal presence at Rio 2016, with friends, family and team members making up the majority of supporters. But some fans with no connections to competitors have travelled all the way from Japan just to watch, and diehards like Takeshima are determined to make the most of the experience.

“I’m here from the opening ceremony until the closing ceremony,” said the Tokyo native, who posed for photos with Brazilian fans before speaking to The Japan Times. “So far I’ve seen gymnastics, judo, volleyball, equestrian, rugby, swimming and water polo. Japan has won a lot of medals so I’m very proud.

“Japan’s economy is not good at the moment and there are lots of bad things happening, so to see Japanese athletes doing so well gives me strength and makes me happy.”

Japan also has a presence among the roughly 50,000 volunteers at Rio 2016, with some providing translation services so Japanese athletes can tell their stories to the world’s media.

“My professor at university was looking for students who wanted to go, so I applied for it,” said 20-year-old Sae Torii, who is studying African studies and English at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and is volunteering at the wrestling arena in Rio.

“I was told that there was stealing and other bad things about Rio and Brazil, but people are very kind and I think it’s a good place.

“It’s a great experience for me to be a volunteer here. If I can, I hope to do it again in 2020,” she said.

The eyes of the world will be on Japan when Tokyo hosts the Olympics in four years’ time, and Takeshima believes his home city can learn from Rio’s experience.

“It’s really easy to use the website to buy re-sale tickets that haven’t been sold,” said Takeshima, who also attended the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. “That has taken away a lot of the black market and I think that’s a great idea.

“The long queues at the security checkpoints are not so good, so I’d like to see improvements made to that. I’d like the organizers to learn from the good things from the Rio Olympics and improve on the bad things to make the Tokyo Olympics an even better event.”

Wrestling father Kawai, meanwhile, hopes Tokyo can deliver on its promise to provide omotenashi (the spirit of selfless hospitality) to the thousands of visiting athletes, team support members, journalists and fans in 2020.

“I can’t quite imagine it right now, but I hope that the volunteers at the various venues treat everyone well and make it a satisfying Olympics,” he said.

“It took a long time to fly here from Japan and it wasn’t much fun. I hope the athletes will be in their best condition when they arrive in Tokyo four years from now.”