Tokyo 2020 - under the microscope

21st of June 2022
Tokyo 2020 - under the microscope
Tokyo 2020 - under the microscope

ECJ correspondent in Japan Bobbie van der List reports from Tokyo on the enormous cleaning operation involved in the Olympic Games there last year. Among concerns around Covid-19, cleanliness standards were under the microscope, however there were concerns about how cleaning operatives were being treated.

WITH GREAT ENTHUSIASM the world watched athletes from around the world gather in Tokyo last summer to compete in the world’s first post-pandemic massive sports event, the Summer Games. Seeing the athletes compete one would almost forget about the pandemic – maybe this is one of the reasons why so many people supported the Games happening, despite the pandemic.

Of course, there was resistance against holding the Games in Tokyo, at some point 80 per cent of the Japanese people opposed them. During this Olympic Games hygiene, and cleaning, were more important than ever. In a way, it meant more recognition for the industry but it also made the operation all the more challenging, ECJ correspondent Bobbie van der List found out in an interview with a representative of the Japanese organising committee responsible for the cleaning during Tokyo 2020.

Lack of public support

Weeks before the start of the Games worrisome reports emerged about the lack of volunteers, many feared the coronavirus and so withdrew their offer to help. The organising committee faced similar challenges – finding enough staff to clean at the numerous venues was one of the biggest challenges said the representative, who prefers to remain anonymous.

As the number of infections was going up in Japan’s capital Tokyo, people were becoming increasingly concerned with catching the virus, possibly a variant. Especially the unvaccinated cleaners feared the possibility of catching the virus.

The representative says that on top of that, the stricter measures and cleaning rules made it harder to organise the cleaning operation. “Because of a new specific Covid-19-related rulebook the number of procedures to follow and tasks to perform increased. For example, cleaners had to continuously sanitise places with a high degree of physical contact, demanding far more manpower than originally planned for.”

Before the start of the Games, Tokyo 2020 set common cleanliness standards at each venue. A representative of the organising committee: “Countermeasures against Covid-19, (such as the sanitation of high contact areas) were introduced on top of regular cleaning duties, and Tokyo 2020 sought to create common cleanliness standards for all cleaning companies involved. Tokyo 2020 also made efforts to ensure all cleaning staff were informed on countermeasures to prevent infection, and guidelines were also outlined in the 2020 Playbook for Workforce.”

In fact, said the representative, the organiser delegated the duty of selecting cleaning company to so-called cleaning unions who would then hold strict screenings for companies to be allowed to work at the venues. One of the more challenging aspects of overseeing the quality of their work is the majestic scale of the Games. Therefore, they opted for a decentralised approach, whereby the organiser would try to select cleaning companies that were already working at the venues, and therefore had the right knowledge of their specific venue.”

These cleaning companies were familiar with their venues and were capable of carrying out cleaning operations specific to the characteristic of each site,” said the representative. “Throughout the Tokyo 2020 Games we could secure a certain standard for cleanliness and organisation while making the best use of each cleaning company’s strength. The experience was overall positive for those who participated, with the Tokyo 2020 Games being the first large sports event held on such a scale for the companies involved.”

Tech innovation

Aside from the human aspect, of course the Games were an ideal platform for cleaning innovations to be showcased. The most notable newcomer was Panasonic’s robot vacuum cleaner. “While aspiring to realise a society where human-friendly robots can help support a safe, comfortable lifestyle, the company strives to bring to life Tokyo 2020’s vision of holding the most innovative Games in history and bringing positive reform to the world,” Panasonic wrote on its website.

Its robot vacuum cleaner, intended for future research and development, was used for cleaning floors of the main press centre’s (MPC’s) common area. Equipped with cameras and LiDAR, the robots automatically recognise their surroundings such as people, walls and obstacles with high accuracy, and safely clean the floors from corner to corner without the need to prepare the area beforehand.

“They helped alleviate the burden of the cleaning staff during Tokyo 2020,” said a representative. Additionally, Panasonic’s nanoe X technology used in the dust box inhibits bacteria, creating a clean and comfortable environment for people in the MPC.

Thus, the Olympics turned out to be a great platform to introduce and experiment with new technologies. This already began years before the start of the Games. For instance, the innovative robots introduced at Haneda three years ago were in light of innovations that had to be finished before the start of the Olympics.

In the aftermath of the Games, anonymous cleaners criticised the process in an interview with a Japanese newspaper. One source said that there was a lack of empathy for the concerns cleaners had regarding the virus. The anonymous cleaner was quoted saying that “I’ve always loved the Games so much since I was a child. But I was treated like a slave, and I have nothing but sorrow now.”

Constant fear

In the same article the anonymous source explains how they worked as a part-time cleaner at one of the venues, mainly responsible for cleaning up food and drinks. “But I was in constant fear of becoming infected with the coronavirus.” The person criticised the lack of measures – for instance, cleaners were never told to disinfect handrails and other areas with alcohol before the Games began.

When it comes to cleaning the toilets, the source goes on to explain, they were told to stick their rubber-gloved hands into the toilet bowls and scrub them with a towel – not the most hygienic thing to do in times of a pandemic, the source said.

The cleaner qualifies the attitude of the employer and the organising committee towards part-time workers to be “very cold”. They were working eight hours a day and only had one 60-minute break per day. “When I felt like my knees would give out if I kept going, I went to sit in a dark bathroom for just one minute to rest. I was taking a rest from the heavy work and yet there was always someone on hand to tell us not to profit from being at the Olympics and watching the athletes.”


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