The July 23 Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which took place a year later than planned, was described by global media outlets as “muted,” “somber,” “subdued,” “overshadowed by a pandemic, but defined by hope, tradition and gestures of diversity.”
Rio Olympian swimmer Colleen Furgeson, modeling a traditional Marshallese costume provided by Iroojlaplap Michael Kabua, carried the RMI’s flag with first-time Olympian and training partner Phillip Kinono.
This subdued atmosphere was consistent in all of Tokyo’s stunning, state-of-the-art, and near-empty sport competition venues following the March 20 decision by the Five Parties — the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the Organizing Committee Tokyo 2020 and the Government of Japan — that international spectators would not be allowed to enter Japan to attend the Olympic Games.
Then on July 8, just two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, the announcement was made that even fans resident in Japan would be banned from all Olympic venues in response to the coronavirus state of emergency and to prevent any possibility of the Games becoming a “super spreader” event for Covid-19. In line with the requirements detailed in “The Playbook,” a Covid-19 countermeasure guidelines developed by the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Games Organizing Committee and agreed to by each Games participant, daily Covid-19 tests and health surveys, temperature checks at the entry to the Athletes’ Village and each practice and competition venue, strict mask-wearing and contact-tracing were in place. Any infraction against The Playbook or deviation outside of the Olympic “bubble” was met with stiff penalties. Some athletes who chose not to comply were stripped of their Games accreditation and sent home.
Despite the challenges of these unusual restrictions, the Marshall Islands delegation enjoyed a successful Games. “I am happy that I was able to represent the Marshall Islands as Chef de Mission at the Tokyo Olympics,” said Amy LaCost, who is a long-time swim coach at Kwajalein. “There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in order to have each country’s athletes and coaches be able to compete and do their best. My background is in swimming and coaching so I was very familiar with all the protocols related to helping Colleen and Phillip be able to swim their personal best!”
Colleen was the first to compete on Wednesday, July 28. Due to her previous competition times, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) recommended that she swim in the women’s 100-meter freestyle competition. Colleen’s stint at Azura Florida Aquatics in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, elite training made possible through a FINA Training Scholarship, proved fruitful as she produced a personal best time of 58.71, which would have won gold at the 2014 Micronesian Games and put her in contention for bronze at the 2019 Pacific Games.
The men’s 50-meter freestyle competition took place on Friday, July 30 and Phillip also achieved a personal best time in the second heat of the competition. Coach Johnathan Jordan, Colleen’s former coach and Phillip’s current coach at Lincoln College, stated that he is delighted with Phillip’s progress and is fine-tuning a high-performance training schedule in preparation for great success during next summer’s Micronesian Games.
“Colleen and Phillip embody the hearts of a champion,” said Coach Jordan. “They both made sacrifices to achieve their goals and dreams of representing RMI at the Olympics. I could not be more proud of their swims and achievements.”
“It was truly an honor representing the Marshall Islands,” said Furgeson. “I am so proud of my teammate, Phillip, who dropped time. It was such a great experience. Kommol tata to everyone who supported us along our journey.”
Before Team MHL’s arrival in Tokyo, media coverage reported the majority of Japan’s citizens were not in favor of the rescheduled Games moving forward in Tokyo. However, upon arrival there was no hint of negativity. The Tokyo 2020 Games staff and volunteers were gracious, friendly and efficient. As the Games progressed and Japanese athletes excelled, the widespread sense of pride and enthusiasm for the Games was palpable.
*The author is the Secretary General of the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee and was in Tokyo for the Games.