I'm sitting here in my tiny, but comfortable and clean Japanese hotel room in Shinjuku overlooking a skyline of high rise buildings with neon billboards and red lights flashing in the distance. It reminds of a scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlet Johansson is sitting on the window sill, gazing out over the vast Tokyo metropolis, not sure of her purpose in life. Unlike this famous Hollywood actress in her break-out role, I am here with a clear target: covering dressage at the 2021 Olympic Games, the Eurodressage way !
Postcards from the Edge
Never before have I had such a stressful, nerve wrecking, demotivating and worrysome lead-up to an Olympics as Tokyo 2020. I'm always well prepared and in principle easy and relaxed, not scared about the adventure you face in a foreign country with a lot of security and protocol. London 2012 went well although I felt lonely there, Rio 2016 was actually much better despite the far from finished organisation there, and Tokyo 2020 should have been smooth runnings based on the Japanese culture of efficiency and eye for detail. I had my Airbnb booked 5 minutes walking from the show grounds, flights secured, I was all set.. and then corona came.
We all know what corona did to global travel and health management, but the protocols put in place by the IOC and Tokyo 2020 to ensure that the Games would take place, were nothing short but utter madness. The Japanese are a very well organized culture, but corona was a curve ball that blew them away.
I had not rebooked my flight for Tokyo until May 2021 when I felt a bit more sure that the Games were happening. And then every week there was a new surprise email with forms, apps, paperwork, tests, and login and registry systems At the same time CDI competition in Europe was in full swing with weekends quadruple booked with shows that I had to cover for the website. By June I was drowning in work, having already attended and photographed 5 CDI's myself. I just could not stay on top of my work and this feeling of disorganisation and tiredness drove me to the edge. In addition, I decided to call my relationship of three years quits, unable to cope with the duties/obligations and role I should fulfil as a good, committed girlfriend. And as cherry on the cake, I had to deal with someone who has no idea what freedom of press is. This was a nice "bonus" on top of my already overfull plate. Just to give you an idea of my June postcards from the edge.
By July the rat race went into overdrive. Covering three youth divisions at the European Championships in Oliva Nova and doing 19-hour work days six in a row, came on top of everything else. Every day we got another Tokyo 2020 update with more obligations, more forms to fill in (of which the login never worked and the emails for help remained unanswered), more 50 page PDF files of Playbooks to read as CLO (Covid Liaison Officer). Funnily these Playbooks start with a two-page bullet list of "nut size essentials to remember." Not sure what kind of nuts they are thinking of, but they are more coconuts than peanuts! Nuts !! Unlike the riders who have an official in their national federation taking care of the paperwork, the press has to do all this by themselves, individually. Each their own.
By the middle of the month I had reached my saturation point (read: on the verge of a nervous breakdown - think Almodovar's Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios). I felt like I hadn't slept well since May, the terminology of CLO, COCOA, OCHA, ICON, MOFA, PCR tests and Activity Plan was haunting me in my dreams and my stomach literally started to turn when another Tokyo mail arrived in my mailbox. On top of that the Facebook "Tokyo Photographers & Press" Group, on which equestrian press from across the globe had been sharing their experiences of the labyrinthic process to get everything filled out and in order to enter Japan fell apart into two factions. I called them in my head "the panickeers" and the "Hakuna Matatas". The panickeers follow everything to the rule and on 13 July gave me the surprise message that not a single member of the press would be allowed to the horse show grounds without having done a 3-day hotel quarantine, while the Hakuna Matatas with their "all will be fine" mentality were much more reassuring to talk to. I started to listen a bit too much to the panickeers and fell apart last week Tuesday.
The Infamous Activity Plan
To manage the spread of Covid-19 all press has to hand in an Activity Plan in June, describing at which venues you want to work and what type of quarantine you will do: 14 days, 3 days, or operate on arrival. For the latter option you had to give a valid reason, which I detailed more and more in the three versions of Activity Plan I submitted. Normally your plan would get approved a few days before your departure to Japan, but the majority of the press got theirs approved just a day or even a few hours before their flight.
When I heard from the panickeers that I HAD to hotel quarantine I shattered into pieces. This is something I had not planned and I didn't want to was two full work days and missing Grand Prix day 1 locked up in a shoebox. I instantly went into overdrive. I started emailing responsible instances with questions about the validity of my plan and although I got assurance that mine would be approved without hotel quarantine (I have the emails to prove it), to this moment (15 hours after having arrived in Japan) my plan is still not approved and my OCHA (covid health tracking system) not operational with the required QR code.
I prayed to the Shinto Gods to let me just do the job I love to do, and adhere to all safety measures and all will be fine. I utterly believe that I will be able to do what I came here to do, but I have to admit that the stress of this past week took a year off my life and added another Grand Canyon crater size wrinkle on my forehead.
The last days before my departure to Japan I planned a little afternoon or evening R&R to take my mind off the pre-flight anxiety. On the weekend I had to do not one, but two PCR tests, which required me to drive to Hasselt on Friday and Lommel on Sunday to accomplish. A small Tour de Flandres in its own right. My lack of sleep problem did not get solved as on Saturday morning I decided to get my nails done Tokyo style and had to be at the nail salon at 7h30. I told the nail artist to expect a zombie sitting in front of her. My brother's reaction to my nails was, "how old are you, 13?" Noted.
Monday was spent hanging on the phone for around 3 hours calling, whatsapping, emailing with Allianz insurance in Holland and Belgium about my travel insurance which was wrongly set for the Dutch nationality (Hello, I'm Belgian), calling with my bank, calling with the corona labs to get my official MOFA forms. Joy Joy !
I was so overcooked with all these pre-flight duties that in the spur of the moment I decided to upgrade my economy class seat to a Business one, a major financial splurge. The money I could have spent on the Christian Dior toile de jouy bag I had been eyeing for a while but just don't buy because it's too expensive, I now wasted on a one-way business seat on a KLM flight. It makes no sense. I'm very careful with the hard earned money I spend and the last time I flew business was to the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Kentucky. I used frequent flyer miles for that. Since then I never saved enough miles for an upgrade and the good miles I had went up in smoke with the bankruptcy of Air Berlin.
Monday evening I drove to my neighbour and sat outside on her terrace just chatting about non-horsey things. It was heaven but I still didn't sleep well, waking up in the middle of the night, checking if my Activity Plan got approved, NOT!
KLM to Go
Fortunately Tuesday went smoothly. The drive to Schiphol was an easy two hours with little traffic, I had a sandwich and a cappuccino in the airport and then boarded the plane, realising I was surrounded by dressage people. Judges Magnus Ringmark and Francis Verbeek were on my right, and horse dealer Andreas Helgstrand in front of me. And then the rest of the plane was full of colourful athlete outfits with remarkably a whole delegation from China on this Dutch flight. I read a bit in Patrik Svensson's The Book of Eels and watched the movie Ammonite during dinner. I chose this movie based on the lead actresses Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronin and it certainly was intriguing. Its heavy duty lesbian sex scene made me blush, though, looking over my shoulder to inspect if nobody was watching me watch this movie, wondering why I selected on-flight soft porn. When I pushed the button to turn the seat into a flat bad I realised why I paid so much money for this luxury. However I only slept two hours, abruptly waking up in worry, realising that I had taken my house key with me in the car instead of leaving it behind for my uncle, whose sitting my house and horses. I hope he's clever enough to look for the spare in the secret hiding spot. After two hours of sleep I needed to stretch my legs and apparently I wasn't the only one wide awake again. Andreas was there too and we had a nice chat before I made a new attempt at more sleep.
The flight was perfect! Not a bit of turbulence and a smooth landing rounded it all off. We arrived timely at 8h30 AM at Narita airport, ready for the long immigration process, which was rumoured to take between 3 to 8 hours. I was mentally prepared for it and just went with the flow. Of course the fact that my Activity Plan was still not approved and I had "No Ocha?" made many Japanese eyebrows frown but the helpfulness, kindness and gentility of the volunteers in the airport was unparalleled.
Desite having "No Ocha?" I was processed through the system, slowly but steadily, and the first to hear in our group that my covid test in the airport was negative too. Apropos this covid test: you have to spit in a tube, but when the girl in hazmat suit showed me you have to produce at least 1 centimetre of spit, it turned out to be a challenge. They funnily have a photo of sour plums and lemons hanging against the wall of the spit-cube you stand in as a stimulus. I wanted to take a photo of that, but it wasn't allowed. After a long wait in a lounge, we got the negative covid result and laminated press pass and the end was near. I picked up my second suitcase and walked to the exit, where another plethora of super helpful volunteers showed me the way, first to the post office to pick up my pocket wifi and then to the bus that takes you on a 45 minute drive into Tokyo city after which you ushered by another army of super helpful volunteers into a taxi for another 30-minute drive to my hotel.
I'm staying in Shinjuku Prince hotel and the room is clean, comfortable but small. It's perfect. My desk is tiny though and I have no real chair to sit on while I write my articles, but like this I practice my back muscles. I had a quick one hour nap round 18h as I was knackered, then went for dinner in the hotel but the Japanese restaurant on the highest floor already had final calls at 19h30, so I was relegated downstairs to the basement cafe where the menu was... Italian ! Oh no, definitely not what I want in Japan. Tomorrow I plan my dinner better.
I feel like I've been awake for 48 hours and it's time to turn in. Tomorrow Lily Forado and I will go to MPC (Main Press Centre) to pick up our photographer's bib, taxi vouchers, do the daily covid spit test and have my lenses cleaned by Canon. More blogging to come.
Text and photos © Astrid Appels
Eurodressage Coverage of the 2021 Olympic Games