Opening Photo: Consular Officer Jason Dyer (front, center) works in the Joint Operations Center, a 24-hour center at Embassy Tokyo, monitoring all things related to the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Photo courtesy of Mission Japan
By Thanh C. Kim
The postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games (Games) were unprecedented in many ways. It was the first Games to ever be postponed for a year and the first to be held amid a global pandemic. The Games opened with Tokyo under a state of emergency as Japan entered its fifth wave. The additional year of training, canceled qualifiers, and positive coronavirus test results meant some athletes missed out on their dreams to compete. For others who made it to Tokyo, it was a unique experience with no spectators in the stands and strict COVID-19 prevention measures, severely limiting their movement and interaction with others. Finding a silver lining in all this was a challenge, but the Games represented hope, friendship, and peace.
The Olympic and Paralympic Coordination Office (OCO)—which is set up and funded by the executive office of the regional bureau where the Games takes place—led Embassy Tokyo’s coordination in planning for the Games. The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games meant OCO stayed in operation for an additional year under unique COVID-19 restrictions with a skeleton crew as staff moved on to other assignments. Doing more with less, Michelle “Missy” Paulin went from serving as deputy to OCO’s lead coordinator in August 2020. Paulin spearheaded embassy efforts to support Team USA and three back-to-back official delegations to the Olympic opening ceremony, closing ceremony, and the Paralympic Games opening ceremony. She coordinated closely with the government of Japan, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other foreign mission counterparts to overcome numerous obstacles as they all worked together to successfully host a historic and unprecedented Games.
One of Paulin’s proudest accomplishments was helping female athletes with infant children find a special solution to the policy blocking athletes from bringing their families to Tokyo due to the ban on spectators and COVID-19 restrictions.
“Female athletes who are nursing mothers or who just adopted infants face significant challenges that affect the parity and field of competition,” explained Paulin. “This is the first Olympics in history to have equal numbers of male and female competitors, so it was important for me to resolve this issue to prevent a reduction in the number of female Olympians.”
Paulin successfully negotiated access for female athletes with young children. The specific policy exceptions were to allow athlete’s children who were still nursing, regardless of age, to be accredited using an accreditation category the IOC normally grants to underage athletes and to allow a guardian accreditation to be used for the caregivers of the children of athletes. By helping American athletes, she also paved the way to find a solution for female athletes from other countries facing the same dilemma. Although she wanted all athletes to be able to bring their family members, Paulin is proud of the difference she made for the mothers with infant children.
The Games are known for the unity and relationships forged by those involved. Behind the scenes in Embassy Tokyo’s consular section, that message rang true for American Citizen Services Deputy Unit Chief Jason Dyer. Over time, Dyer found that regular and transparent communication with his diplomatic counterparts at other missions in Tokyo allowed them to identify mutual issues and collectively approach the government of Japan or TOCOG with a unified voice—which was more effective and efficient than if each country had brought up an issue on its own. Building camaraderie among peers at other diplomatic missions was just one of the many examples of how the Games fostered the Olympic spirit within the world of diplomacy. For Dyer, however, the most memorable experience leading up to the Olympics happened more than one year earlier when the Diamond Princess cruise ship returned to Yokohama with positive COVID-19 passengers on board, becoming the world’s first quarantined passenger ship in nearly a century.
“The relationships we cultivated in preparation for the Olympics were critical in helping with the Diamond Princess crisis and have only strengthened as we jointly battled COVID-19,” said Dyer.
After working tirelessly for weeks, Dyer, his consular colleagues, and the rest of the team at Embassy Tokyo successfully repatriated more than 300 Americans in February 2020. Thanks to Dyer and the embassy team’s quick and close coordination with local, municipal, and central governments, Americans received timely, life-saving medical care. One by one, each of the more than 80 American citizens who were hospitalized returned home, and not a single American life was lost in the Diamond Princess crisis. Dyer is proud to have contributed to these efforts and help his fellow Americans. The lessons learned continue to be applicable for the consular team as they support the Games in the 24-hour Joint Operations Center.
The U.S.-Japan Alliance that began more than 60 years ago has blossomed into a steadfast friendship among the two nations and their people. It serves today as the cornerstone for peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond—a deep friendship seen throughout the Games. Before the Games even started, Captain Brad Stallings, deputy commander and chief of staff for U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, served as a torchbearer for the Olympic torch relay going through the southern city of Sasebo.
“Our alliance is proven strong by the fact that they asked an American to run the torch in Japan,” said Stallings.
As the former commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Base in Sasebo, Stallings forged close friendships with townspeople and local leaders over more than three years. The city mayor nominated him as one of 16 torchbearers for the city. As he ran the torch, he could hear the people lined up along the streets cheering him on by name.
“It was an amazing experience,” recalled Stallings.
In a show of American solidarity with Japan, First Lady Jill Biden led the presidential delegation to the Olympic opening ceremony. In addition to attending the opening ceremony, Biden also attended a private dinner with Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and his wife Suga Mariko, signaling the close friendship between the two countries as her first engagement on the ground.
Later in an interview with NBC, the prime minister stated, “For Japan, our only true ally is America.”
The following day, Biden was received at the Imperial Palace and met Emperor Naruhito, an invitation afforded only to heads of state. The first lady also joined Embassy Tokyo staff for an Olympic softball watch party, virtually met with Team USA athletes, and watched some of these athletes in action. Representing America, Biden brought with her the hope, love, and support from home for each American Olympian. As she cheered on the athletes, every American team she watched won their event that day.
The challenges preceding the 2020 Tokyo Games were overwhelming, but the unity that the Olympics and Paralympics represent will never change. Thousands of athletes came together to participate in friendly competition, and Japan delivered on the unprecedented task of hosting the 2020 Tokyo Games amidst a global pandemic. In the true spirit of the Games, the collective efforts of everyone involved—from athletes to volunteers to public servants—were acts of hope, friendship, and peace.
Thanh C. Kim is a public diplomacy officer in Embassy Tokyo’s Public Affairs Section.