A dense block of high-rise towers barely stands out across the sprawling skyline of the world’s largest metropolis.
But the Olympic and Paralympic Village is certain to become a focus point for the pandemic-affected games when more than 15,000 athletes descend on Tokyo in the next few weeks.
Keeping those athletes, as well as tens of thousands of journalists, sponsors, officials and millions of Japanese people safe during the event will be one of the greatest challenges major event organisers have ever faced.
Organisers are preparing for infections, but hoping the systems and rules in place will prevent clusters.
But experts are divided about their chances of success.
Annie Sparrow is an Australian population health expert based at New York’s Mount Sinai Centre.
With the Games unlikely to be cancelled, she said it is now up to organisers to make sure they could be done as safely as possible.
“Our mission is to get everybody in the car home safely — not just to the athletes — but across Japan and globally because of the incubation period, the impact. This is not going to be felt until after the Games are finished.”
Yesterday, organisers showed off the Olympic and Paralympic Village that were almost entirely built and ready to go before the pandemic began in early 2020.
What does the Tokyo Olympic Village look like?
The Village really is a city within a city. And it has to be, considering the strict rules that prevent athletes from venturing beyond the walls for anything other than training or competition.
The Village is where athletes from around the world will eat, sleep, pray, meditate and relax.
Alcohol will be allowed, though it can only consumed within private areas.
Athletes have been told to spend as little time in the main dining area as possible, but to just grab their meals, eat alone quickly, and return to their rooms.
Organisers expect 80 per cent of the people staying here will be vaccinated and they insist their safety protocols are rock solid.
Most rooms have two beds and a communal area, and it will be up to each country to decide who bunks with whom.
But Dr Sparrow has raised concerns about the level of ventilation within key facilities and the risk that potential aerosol transmission of COVID-19 may pose.
Some of the rooms in the athlete suites have two windows. Others rely on a single window and door being open to ensure sufficient ventilation.
The playbook of rules for athletes asks them to ventilate rooms regularly where possible — at least every 30 minutes, and for a period of several minutes each time.
Dr Sparrow said Australia’s hotel quarantine experience showed all too well the risks of aerosol transmission.
“When people get infected in hotels, it’s because COVID-19 actually comes from a hotel room into the corridor and nobody ever thinks to clean the corridors and then it’s introduced into other hotel rooms,” she said.
“So this is deeply worrying.”
Rooms are directly connected to the outside and organisers were confident they were sufficiently ventilated, though they did not give specifics on how frequently the air within indoor spaces was totally refreshed and replaced every hour.
“Office environments, for example, where people are going back to work are putting in place nine air changes per hour,” Dr Sparrow said.
“That way you’re cleaning and constantly introducing new air into your rooms to protect people.
“The village has pre-COVID ventilation. That means two air changes per hour, which means people are not protected.”
At the main dining hall, organisers said it would be changed three times per hour and at the main fitness centre, they said it was being circulated constantly.
Athletes using that fitness centre will have to keep their mask on no matter what equipment or how intensely they are training.
It was unclear how this will be enforced, but the Director of the Athletes’ Services section, Atsushi Iino, said they were in discussions with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), but one possibility was banning athletes for non-compliance.
He said that running with a mask was tough, but they could not afford to have a cluster in the gym that would shut it down for several days.
Olympics playbooks try to minimise risk of outbreak
All those entering Japan for the Olympics will be required to follow complex testing rules, before leaving home and after arriving.
The fever clinic at the Village will be their first port of call if they have potential COVID-19 symptoms.
The risks are getting real for organisers, after one of nine Ugandan team members arriving for the Games tested positive for COVID-19 at Narita Airport late on June 18.
All of Uganda’s team members had received two shots of AstraZeneca’s vaccine and had tested negative 72 hours before departing for Japan.
The athlete has been isolated at a Government facility because the fever clinic will not be operational for another few weeks.
His eight fellow athletes are confined to their rooms at a hotel in Osaka.
Athletes must also agree to have their location monitored by GPS, and they must download several apps, sign a pledge to follow the rules, maintain social distancing, stay off public transportation for the first 14 days, and keep organisers informed of their whereabouts.
While many other major tournaments have been held without super-spreading events, the current Copa America soccer tournament being held in Brazil has had at least 66 infections — 27 players and staff and 39 workers — in the last week.
The outbreak is far worse in Brazil, which recorded 82,000 infections yesterday, while Japan confirmed just 1,500 cases.
Last week Olympic officials unveiled the third version of their “playbooks” which are the rules outlining exactly what everyone coming to the Games can and cannot do.
It threatened disqualification or fines for those who breach the strict rules and provided more detail about testing procedures.
While athletes have been required to sign waivers, which are typical of the Olympics, this time, an added clause relieves the IOC of responsibility from any fallout from COVID-19.
Experts fear big gaps remain in COVID safety measures
The second version of the playbooks, published earlier this year, was strongly criticised in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine.
It warned the playbooks were “not built on scientifically rigorous risk assessment”.
“They fail to consider the ways in which exposure occurs, the factors that contribute to exposure, and which participants may be at highest risk,” the article said.
Dr Sparrow was the lead author of that article.
After the release of the third playbook, she warned big gaps still remained.
“The playbook looks like a version of lip service where we’re not seeing them adopt any of the measures that we know are important,” she told the ABC.
“What the playbooks don’t even do is recognise that the dominant and the most important mode of transmission is the aerosol fine particle transmission. That is a huge problem.”
The IOC is hoping the vast majority of people at the Village will be vaccinated and this would help curtail the spread of any potential infections.
It expects 70 to 80 per cent of the news media covering the Games would be vaccinated as well.
Dr Sparrow said it was “lazy” to simply rely on vaccination, especially given the risk of variants.
“These risks are amplified by the fact that the variants … are increasingly transmissible,” she said.
Organisers said they were aware of the risks of new COVID-19 strains, including the Delta variant, and flagged that there could be further changes to rules and restrictions if more information emerges.
Brian McCloskey, chair of an independent expert panel advising Olympic organisers said they they had never relied solely on a vaccine.
“On top of the layer of protection from the testing, on top of the cornerstone protection from the public health and social measures, I think these combined give us significant reassurance that these Games will go ahead in a safe and secure way,” he said.
The Japanese medical community has largely opposed holding these Olympics in Tokyo, arguing the risks are too great.
The government’s main medical adviser, Dr Shigeru Omi, has said it was “abnormal” to hold the Olympics during a pandemic.
Some epidemiological studies have suggested the Games themselves can be held safely, but that the increased movement and contact between spectators is what could spread the virus across Japan.
Hiroshi Nishiura, who also contributed to the report, said cancelling the Games would be optimal to save lives and for the health of the nation.
“But, the decision is the government’s and organisers,” Dr Nishiura said.
“If the epidemic situation worsens, no spectators and cancelling the Games in the middle [of the event] should be debated.”