Opening photos: The official opening of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the Tokyo National Stadium, July 23, 2021. Photo by A. Ricardo

By Angelica Harrison

After a year’s delay and with strict new protocols in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Americans were looking forward to seeing Team USA compete in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. What was seen on TV was the result of years of preparation by the athletes to compete in this year’s event; however, all the hard work that happened behind the scenes—which included the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) support to security and liaison efforts at the Tokyo Games—wasn’t shown.

A Diplomatic Security Service special agent serving as a field liaison officer (left) attends the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Taekwondo event, July 25. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service
A Diplomatic Security Service special agent serving as a field liaison officer (left) attends the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Taekwondo event, July 25. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service

In 2018, DSS embedded an Olympic Security Coordination team within Embassy Tokyo, years before the challenges of a global pandemic were on the radar. Choosing and deploying a team years in advance of the Games is a routine practice for DSS. It also fulfills their obligation to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to ensure Team USA competes in safe and secure environments abroad.

Serving on the initial team, DSS Supervisory Special Agent Nicole Gallagher was appointed as the deputy Olympic security coordinator (OSC), where she was able to put her Japanese language proficiency to use. After the Olympics organizers announced a one-year delay of the 2020 Tokyo Games, the originally appointed OSC moved on to his next posting, leaving Gallagher to take on the role, bringing in deputy OSC Special Agent Josh Berk. Rounding out the Olympic Security Coordination team was Foreign Service National Investigator Kei Ishii and Security Assistant Hiroaki Shino. Both Japanese citizens, Ishii and Shino were pivotal team members due to their knowledge of Japanese culture and local law enforcement, which helped solidify connections with local contacts. 

The main role of the OSC was to liaise with Japanese counterparts to enhance coordination for the Games. Gallagher and her team facilitated visits for Japanese security personnel to observe security operations at the 2019 Pan American (Pan Am) Games in Lima and at the 2020 Super Bowl in Florida—where DSS also supported security efforts. The team used these events as practice and incorporated lessons learned as they prepared for the Tokyo Olympics.

“I really valued our engagement with the event organizers, local law enforcement agencies, and other organizations involved in major event security,” said Gallagher. “As a huge sports fan, [attending the events] was a definite highlight.”

Diplomatic Security Service personnel and interagency partners work at the Joint Operations Center, which provides TVs with a bird’s-eye view of the Olympic games, July 12. Photo by Angelica Harrison
Diplomatic Security Service personnel and interagency partners work at the Joint Operations Center, which provides TVs with a bird’s-eye view of the Olympic games, July 12. Photo by Angelica Harrison

While Gallagher and her team coordinated ground efforts in Tokyo, back in Washington, the DSS Major Events Coordination Division (MECD) managed the overall U.S. government security footprint for the 2020 Tokyo Games. This included more than 150 temporary duty (TDY) personnel assigned to support the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The division’s work is part of DSS’ responsibility as the chair of the International Security Event Group (ISEG). ISEG is a U.S. government interagency effort that coordinates amongst multiple U.S. agencies to protect American interests at designated security events overseas. MECD supports various events, including the Olympics, World Cup, Pan Am Games, G7, G20, and other designated summits. The Summer and Winter Olympics continue to be its largest events and most complex coordination efforts. 

Overseas Security Advisory Council Major Events Manager Phil Walker (left) meets with NBC’s vice president of global security in one of NBC’s control rooms at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 24. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service
Overseas Security Advisory Council Major Events Manager Phil Walker (left) meets with NBC’s vice president of global security in one of NBC’s control rooms at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, July 24. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service

Although MECD was able to conduct much of its coordination work from Washington, members of the division deployed to Japan in April and May to conduct site surveys and meet with contacts. MECD’s event lead, Special Agent Scott Schonauer, talked about the division’s innovative approach to preparing for the Games while observing COVID-19 protocols. 

“We were able to visit more than 30 sites with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA)… to produce 360-degree photos, which allowed our personnel to virtually tour each site before they even stepped on the plane and departed for Tokyo,” said Schonauer. 

On top of the usual challenges of planning a major event, the rescheduling of the Olympics had a great impact on MECD. 

“For starters, we essentially had to plan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics twice,” said Candace McFetridge, MECD’s administrative coordinator. “We’ve had to make several shifts based on new COVID-19 protocols put into place,” added McFetridge. Modifications like the lack of spectators at the Olympics and COVID-19 testing requirements “often required changes at the last minute.”

With borders closed to tourists, getting visas was laborious, but they were eventually approved. Embassy Tokyo was the only embassy able to secure visas for their TDY personnel, unlike previous Olympics, where other countries similarly brought in security support.

Getting visas for more than 150 TDY personnel was just one of many steps in the process. DSS travel specialists Laurie LaFrance and Nancy Ledesma made sure everyone had their flights booked and had to coordinate multiple flight cancellations, arrival times, and accompanying COVID-19 testing procedures to ensure entry into Japan. Meanwhile, Senior Meeting Consultant Alyssa Kolat and her team ensured lodging accommodations were taken care of—a challenge in a country where “capsule hotels” are a norm. 

Before they could get to work, TDY personnel had to complete a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine as part of the visa negotiations. The 14-day shut-in did allow everyone to complete virtual training, informational briefing sessions, and online team meetings organized by assignments. Schonauer stated that the training MECD provided for the 2020 Tokyo Games has been unique, adding, “it’s almost all online, so it’s been a challenge.”

A Foreign Service National Investigator with the Diplomatic Security Service’s Olympic Security Coordination team (right in white shirt) greets an operations team member during a security check with the U.S. men’s basketball team, July 21. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service
A Foreign Service National Investigator with the Diplomatic Security Service’s Olympic Security Coordination team (right in white shirt) greets an operations team member during a security check with the U.S. men’s basketball team, July 21. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service

Once all the COVID-19 protocols were met, DSS special agents and interagency partners supporting security efforts could begin their work. Getting out into Tokyo was crucial for agents assigned as field liaison officers (FLOs), who needed time to acclimate to public transportation, conduct security walk-throughs, liaise with Japanese counterparts, and move between locations. DSS embedded FLOs with Team USA across 42 venues scattered throughout Tokyo and outlying cities as far as Sapporo.

FLO duties varied greatly depending on the assignment. Some FLOs stayed in the heart of Tokyo, escorting their teams from the Olympic Village via shuttle, and accompanied them to indoor training venues. Other FLOs stayed at Airbnb accommodations, rode bicycles to work, and supported security efforts at outdoor venues all day, miles away from Tokyo. Regardless of their respective assignments, FLOs provided the critical task of being eyes on the ground and reported Team USA movements or incidents to the Joint Operations Command (JOC) for accountability and tracking.

If FLOs were the eyes on the ground, JOC was the eye in the sky. At Embassy Tokyo, a control room dubbed “the JOC” was set up as the command post to monitor the U.S. Olympics and Paralympics security. JOC is an interagency, information-sharing hub led by MECD and staffed 24/7 by DSS and interagency partners monitoring threats, cybersecurity, and the movements of Team USA. DSS’ Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), which coordinates security information between private and non-governmental agencies in the country, was also part of JOC. With its major events team lead on the ground in Tokyo, OSAC coordinated with private sector companies and Olympics sponsors to gather security updates and relay information. Other law enforcement agencies that provided support in “the JOC” included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, NGA, the Department of Homeland Security, members of Japanese law enforcement and intelligence services, and other partner nations.

Aside from law enforcement entities, Embassy Tokyo’s Bureaus of Information Resource Management and Consular Affairs offices were co-located in JOC to provide critical support for emergency passport issuance and technical support. 

Diplomatic Security Service special agents serving as field liaison officers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics pose in front of the Olympic Rings in Tokyo, July 16. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service
Diplomatic Security Service special agents serving as field liaison officers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics pose in front of the Olympic Rings in Tokyo, July 16. Photo courtesy of the Diplomatic Security Service

Besides JOC and FLO personnel, other DSS offices played a major role during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The DS Command Center, located in Virginia—which serves as a 24/7 information center for all of DSS—provided remote support during the Games. Embassy Tokyo’s Regional Security Office was the security lead for the high-level U.S. government visits to the country, plus day-to-day security and liaison efforts. DSS public affairs staff and senior leadership were also on the ground to support the mission. 

DSS Deputy Assistant Secretary for Domestic Operations and ISEG co-chair Mark Sullo addressed the 2020 Tokyo Games DSS cadre and discussed his former experience as an FLO for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. He emphasized the need for professionalism and unity of message. Highlighting the larger role of DSS at the games, Deputy Assistant Director for Protection Galen Nace, who served previously as an OSC for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, added, “we’re here for more than just the athletes; we’re here to support a broader platform for diplomacy.”

The perseverance of the 2020 Tokyo Games, despite all the hurdles, was a symbol of global unity overcoming any obstacle.

“It is nothing short of extraordinary…” Schonauer said of the planning experience. To have that happen in the midst of a pandemic is something the U.S. government and Americans really should be proud of.” 

Angelica Harrison is a Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service special agent assigned to the Washington Field Office and supported efforts at the Tokyo Olympics.

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