By Gary Schaefer and Paul Bergen
When the world gathers in Tokyo for the next Summer Olympics, baseball will be part of the action for the first time in more than a decade, much to the delight of fans of America’s national pastime. Mission Japan had to contend with an extreme curve ball of its own when the global coronavirus pandemic forced an unprecedented one-year postponement of the 2020 Games until July 2021. Led by Embassy Tokyo’s Olympic and Paralympic Coordination Office, the entire Mission has stepped up to support the elite athletes of Team USA and the American citizens eager to cheer them on at the games next year. The Mission is taking advantage of the extra 12 months to cultivate more grassroots relations between the United States and Japan.
“The world is facing an unprecedented challenge with the novel coronavirus pandemic,” said Dan Cintron, a Foreign Service officer who co-leads the temporary nine-person office set up in the embassy’s Management Section. “Hopefully, the Olympics a year from now will be a time when we can come together to enjoy the prowess of amazing athletes from around the world.”
The world’s biggest sporting event will bring together teams from more than 200 countries and territories that will compete in 40 plus venues around Tokyo and eight other Japanese prefectures. Cintron and Jim Eisenhut, a Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) special agent who leads Olympics security planning for the U.S. government, set up the coordination office in September 2018. Their lengthy to-do list included collaborating with Olympic organizers, sports bodies, broadcasters, sponsors, and government officials to support the U.S. athletes and the thousands of Americans expected to descend on Tokyo for the quadrennial celebration of sports. Additionally, their tasks include coordination for U.S. government VIPs who plan to attend the opening and closing ceremonies. As part of that effort, many DSS agents and other U.S. personnel are set to travel to Japan during the games under the aegis of the International Security Event Group, a U.S. multi-agency task force, led by the Department of State. This task force is built to support U.S. participation in major events around the world. Eisenhut emphasized that the resources his team are mobilizing and the bridges they are building with Japanese law enforcement agencies will boost cooperation with Japan during the games.
While the embassy’s Olympic and Paralympic Coordination Office and its Washington counterparts looked at contingency planning in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, they are now confronting the reality of a completely new timetable. Procurement contracts will need to be amended, as will credentials and hotel accommodations for a reshuffled cohort of personnel who will support the U.S. participation in the games in 2021. If any of the event venues are changed, new site visits will be necessary, prompting careful negotiations that make such behind-the-scenes access possible. While this unprecedented development adds additional tasks for the team, they must continue to maintain relationships with their key Japanese contacts at a time that coronavirus has precluded face-to-face meetings.
Embassy Tokyo’s locally employed (LE) staff are key players in the Olympic and Paralympic Coordination Office, helping to coordinate logistics and create relationships with Japanese contacts in preparation for the games. Hiroaki Shino, one of four LE staff on the team, escorted a delegation of senior officials from Japan’s National Police Agency to New York City to observe U.S. security preparations for the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019. This visit laid the groundwork for a very beneficial collaboration with Japanese counterparts.
According to Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Karin Lang, the Consular Section has been preparing for the expected uptick in work for almost a year, given the record-breaking ticket sales for the games. The Consular Section will handle situations such as lost passports and credit cards, or in assisting American citizens if they are hospitalized or imprisoned. The section is coordinating with local authorities on contingency planning for natural disasters and collaborating with Washington colleagues on “know-before-you-go” messaging for American travelers on issues such as avoiding scams and knowing what common prescription medications are restricted by Japan’s tough drug laws.
“While Japan is an incredibly safe destination, people can find themselves in trouble here,” said Lang. “The coronavirus has given us a lot of real-world crisis management experience we can draw on next year.”
The Public Affairs Section, on the other hand, is getting ready to assist the hundreds of American journalists who will tell great Olympic stories to audiences back home. They are already using the games as a springboard for a nationwide program to promote study in the United States—a top mission priority—called “Go for Gold.” Since its June 2018 kickoff, the Go for Gold program has put a spotlight on the golden achievements of many U.S. Olympic and Paralympic heroes including swimmers Katie Ledecky and Anthony Ervin, skater Evan Lysacek, and wheelchair rugby champion Chuck Aoki, who have held skills clinics and motivational talks in schools around Japan. Piggybacking on that effort, Mission personnel and their family members have introduced themselves, their work, and their culture in Olympic-themed presentations that have reached more than 22,000 students.
“Go for Gold is such a success because it gives Japanese [citizens], of all ages, but particularly young people, a chance to get to know our athletes and hear their stories and be inspired,” said Public Affairs Officer Carolyn Glassman.
When it comes to Tokyo 2020, which will remain the games’ moniker even in 2021, Mission Japan agrees that the journey is as important as the destination. Olympic-related engagements by the embassy and all five consulates have strengthened people-to-people and commercial ties, highlighting the robustness of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, and bringing the nations closer together through a shared love of sports.
“Regardless of the delay, there’s nothing that will detract from the nature of our relationship,” said Glassman. “It’s only going to continue to get stronger in the year ahead.”
Gary Schaefer is principal officer at ConGen Nagoya. Paul Bergen is special projects coordinator in the Public Affairs Section at Embassy Tokyo.