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Drawn to the flame: Travelling to Tokyo for the 2021 Olympics

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You know how travel can bring out the quirks and curious passions of some people, like the traveller who follows the footsteps of Jane Austen or the devotee who visits James Bond filming locations across London?

I’m not ashamed to admit I am one of those travellers, and with me it’s all about Olympic cities. The glory of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games lit a flame in me, and I’ve been on a quest ever since to visit the Olympic parks and venues of previous host cities.

That quest has taken me through Olympic venues in Munich, Berlin, Rome, Barcelona, London, Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Los Angeles, Athens, Melbourne and Sydney. Whenever I have planned a travel itinerary to these cities, I’ve allowed at least half a day to explore their Olympic parks, to revel in the great history that took place.

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John Burfitt, at Berlin Olympic Stadium, is an Olympic trivia buff. Picture: John Burfitt

John Burfitt, at Berlin Olympic Stadium, is an Olympic trivia buff. Picture: John Burfitt

It’s not unusual for me to book a tour of the Olympic stadium at the same time as I’m choosing which hotel to stay in. Before setting out to explore each park, I’ve done the research to know who the great competitors were, who took gold and who didn’t, what history was played out, and what the opening and closing ceremonies are best remembered for. It’s also about the architecture and how each city chose to express itself through the myriad designs of their various venues.

A little obsessive? You bet. And I can be a little impatient to get exploring, like on my 2019 visit to Tokyo. Only hours after arriving in the city, I was heading across town to the Japan Olympics Museum and to look around the new Japan National Stadium, which is hosting this year’s event and was built on the site of the one that hosted the 1964 Olympics.

He often books Olympic stadium tours at the same time he books his hotel. Picture: John Burfitt

He often books Olympic stadium tours at the same time he books his hotel. Picture: John Burfitt

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I did the same thing the year before on my first day in Berlin when I wasted no time hopping on a train to the Olympiastadion for a stadium tour, which offered an avalanche of fascinating history about the grand spectacle and Nazi dramas of the 1936 Olympics.

In Athens, I made a day of it, visiting the 2004 Olympic Stadium in the morning and then the Panathenaic Stadium, the venue of the 1884 Games, in the afternoon.

Every single experience of exploring each of these Olympic parks has paid off with lasting memories. The thrill is in the combination of being where history was made, where greatness was achieved and seeing the legacy each games left behind.

Coming from an Olympic city creates an instant bond when visiting others. Picture: David Madison/Getty Images

Coming from an Olympic city creates an instant bond when visiting others. Picture: David Madison/Getty Images

I think all this goes back 20 years while on a bus trip around Germany, and I had a free afternoon in Munich. With the glories of the Sydney 2000 Olympics still very much in mind, having finished a matter of months beforehand, I decided to explore the Olympic Park site of the Munich 1972 Games.

Upon arriving, I got swept up in the excitement of seeing the beauty of the glass-roofed stadium, the imposing swimming complex and the parklands. I also experienced a flood of Olympic memories, like being a little boy watching on TV as swimmer Shane Gould took gold, and the horror of the slaughter of the Israeli team hostages.

Shane Gould on the podium at Munich, West Germany, in 1972. Picture: Tony Triolo/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Shane Gould on the podium at Munich, West Germany, in 1972. Picture: Tony Triolo/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

It was when I went to pay for entry to the stadium that I first experienced what I’ve since called “the Olympic city connection”. The cashier asked where I was from and when I replied Sydney, she excitedly exclaimed, “You’re also from an Olympic city – come straight in!” and waved me through without paying. I have had that same experience a few times since when visiting other Olympic parks.

So in the coming weeks, as the world faces the most abnormal Olympic Games ever, I will be ferociously committed to the TV screen for the good, the bad and the historic. It will also be preparation for my next visit to Tokyo, when I’m sure to, yet again, go looking around the Olympic venues.

The Tokyo Olympics is going to be an event like none other. Picture: Charly Triballeau via AFP

The Tokyo Olympics is going to be an event like none other. Picture: Charly Triballeau via AFP

All the controversy over Tokyo has, however, sparked a new fascination with putting Montreal high on my travel list to explore where the chaotic 1976 Olympics unfolded that almost bankrupted the Canadian city.

But that’s another story, one I’m sure to happily share in detail with anyone close by as I embark on my next Olympics escapade. Any takers?

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