Tokyo – Holly Hixson Stratton did not get to “horse around” per se, but she sure enjoyed her stint as an equestrian volunteer in the first week of the Olympics.
She also learned much about Japanese culture and sanitary precautions. Glove blowup machines at buffets are among the sanitary innovations she encountered.
The longtime Weaverville resident is one of merely seven Americans among the 50 foreign equestrian volunteers. Four were Southerners. She observed that most were British, Irish and Australian.
Horsing Around for Years
Holly said she grew up a “horses-crazy” person. “I mucked stalls just to be around horses.” The Upstate New York native eventually owned a Tennessee Walker while living in Indiana. She volunteered at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon in 2018. That helped her get accepted as a volunteer. The application process had written then video rounds.
She is very detail-oriented and thorough. The married mother of three grown sons is a retired computerized geographic info system (GIS) mapping coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Asheville.
‘Here Comes Da Judge!’
Her most enjoyable assignment was as a fence judge for cross country on the Sea Forest course on an industrial island in Tokyo Bay. She said that volunteers’ “other ‘primo’ slots were timing, photography, and moving obstacles on the field of play.”
She radioed others from a tunnel between horse barns and the arena to help “control access points” and keep horses clear of worker electric carts.
Her first day was at dressage’s “final prep ring. It was beautiful to watch the last-minute spit and polish by their coaches, pep talks and nerves.”
A major perk is that after volunteering she was allowed to watch the competition at the venue – but not other venues. Holly marveled at the “absolute teamwork between horse and rider, the control and timing almost invisible to my untrained eye” in dressage. They kept going in hard rain.
There were grunt tasks. “I picked up a lot of (horse) poo, delivered ice blocks to cooling areas” in the stables for horse mist tents and wrapping their inflamed legs. She peaked at the stable. They were heavily decorated reflecting “national spirit.” She got up at 3 a.m. for early shifts and worked 12:20-10 p.m. on other days. It was as hot as 95 degrees.
Volunteer advance training was online. It focused on etiquette such as “appropriate quietness — don’t be a ‘loud American,’” Holly said. The Japanese she worked with acted “extremely welcoming.”
She paid merely $840 for airfare by flying out of Raleigh. Volunteers were each outfitted with two zip-off pants, three blue polo shirts, a hat, ASICS sneakers, two pairs of socks, a water bottle and a fanny pack, she said.
Volunteers originally were to otherwise pay their own way — in exchange for a vacation on the side. That changed for the better and worse due to the pandemic.
The main perk was a free stay in an upscale 25-story hotel, free breakfast in the hotel and a free dinner (i.e boxed rice, protein, side food) in the volunteer mess hall each day.
But she was denied the “sightseeing cultural connection I expected.” Volunteers were strictly restricted to the venue they volunteered at or their hotel.
Holly enjoyed a relaxing mile-and-half walk in Tokyo just before flying home. She visited the ancient Meiji Jingo Shinto Shrine temple. It had rent-a-prayer wooden tablets. She calls it an “island of peace in the hectic city. Huge trees lined the walkways — a welcome relief from the sweltering streets.”
Sanitary standards were very strict and reflected Olympic guidelines and Japanese caution, obedience and pride. “Tokyo is the cleanest large city,” Holly observed. “There are no trash cans in public — because one is expected to take trash home to dispose of it. And everyone does!”
She had her saliva tested for COVID (she passed) once every six days. Volunteers were bused to venues. Clear plastic dividers were between bus seats and hotel dining seats. At the venue, each volunteer’s head was scanned for body temperature and to facially identify those with fevers.
“Everyone wore their masks at all times,” Holly said. She found out “talking while eating with no masks on is greatly discouraged.”
Above all, foot-operated “hand sanitizing stations are everywhere — every few feet at the venue,” she said. “They make sure you sanitize at check-in” at the venue, and before handling meals.
Bathrooms have heated seats that – when sat on – activate “masking” sounds of birds and waves, Holly said. She saw no electric hand blower or towel machines in bathrooms. Studies showed blowers suck up fecal matter from nearby commodes.
She raved about two gizmos. The hotel buffet has the “super cool glove blowup machine. After cleaning (with sanitizer), you wave your hand over a machine that activates a blower. It inflates plastic gloves. The person slips hands into these gloves before handling buffet utensils.
She had to insert her keycard into the door’s inside slot to activate lights and leave the card in until departing. For energy efficiency lights and other functions turn off once the card is removed.
Holly termed her experience “incredible.”