Jul 23, 2021 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

Olympics greet visitors with app chaos

Illustration of app icons in the shape of the Olympic logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the days leading up to the Tokyo Games, journalists had two big concerns — whether the Olympics would really happen, and if they would ever get access to all the mobile apps and websites required to get into the country and do their jobs.

Why it matters: Battling COVID-19 is crucial, of course. But most of the challenges faced by media and other Olympics participants were technical obstacles that had little to do with preventing the virus' spread.

With the Games taking place amid a state of emergency in Japan, strict testing requirements were inevitable.

  • Attendees had to submit their flight information, as well as an activity plan listing everywhere they planned to go for their first 14 days in Japan. Participants also had to take multiple COVID tests before departing for Japan, and another as soon as they landed — as well as to monitor their health and alert authorities to any symptoms.
  • Yes, but: Complying meant not only gathering the necessary information, but also uploading each piece of information to a different app or website — on the order of half a dozen. And that's where things went wrong for myself and nearly everyone I talked with before and after entering Japan.
  • Yet another system, this one a web app, is required for journalists to apply for access to the events they wanted to cover each day — part of an effort to avoid overcrowding. Access to that system, though, was granted only after participants landed, made it through the immigration process and had their Olympic credentials validated. That wasn't clear up front, adding a fresh hassle to the process.

Between the lines: The logistical nightmares were the talk of the pre-games for journalists, many of whom were held up at one of Tokyo's airports because they were unable to put all the pieces of this puzzle in place.

  • I received a query from a Spanish journalist who was also doing an article on the process. Among his questions was: "Have you suffered anxiety, nerves or anguish in this process?"

What they're saying: Organizers acknowledged the problems in an email to reporters.

  • "We know that there has been a lot of pressure and stress involved in the preparation and travel coming here to Tokyo/Japan and we deeply apologize for the difficulties you have experienced on arrival," they said.

The big picture: The real issue of course, is stopping the spread of COVID-19, not navigating through the bureaucracy.

  • The Olympic protocols focus on testing and contact tracing, rather than vaccination. But the focus for journalists and authorities alike became making sure all the right boxes were checked rather than practicing actual safety measures, such as social distancing.
  • Testing, which should be central, was barely mentioned, though journalists are supposed to be tested for their first three days in Japan and every few days thereafter. None of the apps asked for reporting of test results — rather, they asked participants to enter their temperature and self-certify that they were symptom free and not in contact with someone known to have COVID.
  • Communication issues exacerbated glitches with the apps themselves. And since problems were so widespread, support staff were clearly unable to respond to everyone.

The other side: Some systems worked relatively smoothly, including a web app designed to help people navigate the system of buses established so that media could comply with a requirement to avoid public transit for the first 14 days in Japan.

The bottom line: For many, the technical issues got resolved, though I ran into one journalist at the entrance to the main press center berating a volunteer because there was no one on site to answer questions, with a sign simply directing people to e-mail or call the same folks who had been unresponsive before.

Technology was necessary, but insufficient, to make the games safe. And the many tech snafus diverted the energy of organizers and visitors alike from what should have been their focus: the physical actions, like testing and social distancing, needed to reduce the risk of infection.

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