With the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in the unusual circumstance of having two Olympics – the Tokyo Summer Games (July 23 – August 8) and the Beijing Winter Games (February 4-20, 2022) – only a few months apart. So we wanted to take the unique opportunity to talk to both U.S. Olympic Security Coordinators -- Nicole Gallagher for Tokyo and Aria Lu for Beijing -- to gain a better understanding of how the State Department supports U.S. athletes, organizations, and citizens during major international events. This interview was conducted in mid-June by Phil Walker, OSAC’s Major Events Lead, and has been edited for length and clarity.
OSAC: Please tell us a bit about yourselves. How long have you been with the Diplomatic Security Service? And what other major events roles have you held?
Nicole: I have been with the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) for almost 20 years. When I was the Assistant Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Frankfurt, Germany, I worked the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Our consular district was responsible for three stadiums, including the Final, where the USA lost to Japan on penalty kicks. So definitely looking for some revenge in Tokyo!
Aria: I joined the Foreign Service in 1997 as a DSS Special Agent. In 2001, I was the Security Coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, China. I was a Field Liaison Officer (FLO) for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics in 2008. And in 2017, I was the U.S. security lead for APEC in Da Nang, Vietnam.
OSAC: What is the role and purpose of the Olympic Security Coordinator (OSC)? And why were both of you interested in this role?
Nicole: The OSC is the forward-deployed representative of Diplomatic Security’s Major Events Coordination Unit. We liaise with host-nation law enforcement and the organizing committee to ensure Team USA competes in a safe and secure environment. I was interested in the role because I love sports. I always wanted to volunteer to serve as a FLO at the Olympics but timing never worked out. As my career is reaching its peak, I saw this as a great opportunity.
Aria: I wasn’t really tracking that the OSC position would be available at the same time that I was bidding for my next assignment but when I saw it I realized that it was going to be a little bit different this time around because it would be important to have someone with a high level of Chinese language ability who had China work experience and was familiar with the differences in culture, society, and business practices. There aren’t that many DS agents at this level who have these attributes, and who would be available and interested in bidding on this job, so I decided to give it a shot and apply for the OSC position.
OSAC: Most people know that the Japanese have instituted a ban on foreign spectators for the Tokyo Olympics. Who then is still coming?
Nicole: A very limited number of people outside of athletes, coaches, and Games-essential personnel. We still have sponsor companies that will be sending very limited delegations, if any at all. We also have the VVIP program comprised of world leaders, sports ministers, and others who may be coming. It’s a very fluid situation with people likely making decisions at the last minute whether they will travel given the health situation across the globe.
OSAC: What’s the status of foreign spectators and international delegations for the Beijing Games?
Aria: The Beijing Organizing Committee has not made a decision yet. They are waiting to see what unfolds in Tokyo, but they haven’t ruled out foreign spectators. It’s still under consideration but I think you will have to wait until this Fall to see what decision will be made.
OSAC: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve been dealing with on the athlete support side and the private-sector support side?
Nicole: I think it’s the uncertainty of how the Games will be executed. The Tokyo “Playbooks,” which the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo Organizing Committee together with the Government of Japan (GOJ) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government have put out, have been very informative for all stakeholders. But it’s a guide and as with all guides there are areas where the information is incomplete. Working with the sponsors and other OSAC constituents I think we’ve done a good job of trying to understand where those voids are, gathering information among ourselves and sharing that so that we can do the best for our respective organizations.
Aria: In general, there are three primary challenges. The first, of course, is COVID. The second challenge is because the Tokyo Games have been delayed by a year it has really shortened the amount of time we have had to prepare for the Beijing Olympics because a lot of the focus by the National Olympic Committees, sponsors, and others has all been on Tokyo. And understandably so but it has meant that our ability to fully engage with all of the stakeholders is a little bit limited until after the Tokyo Games conclude. The third really big challenge is working in China and working with the Beijing Organizing Committee. Because there is so much uncertainty about what might happen with the Tokyo Olympics and the course of the pandemic, the organizers are not able to share information so it is a little bit like planning in a vacuum.
OSAC: How are the security plans for the Tokyo Games different due to COVID? Have they changed?
Nicole: I would say the security plans have not changed that much. What security planners are focused on is, of course, health safety. So making sure people follow the measures to prevent the spread of COVID. Certainly we will see a lot of mask wearing, maintaining social distance, good hygiene practices, but overall security efforts have remained the same.
OSAC: Beyond COVID, what are some other risk factors to consider or ones that you think might be getting overlooked due to the overwhelming focus on COVID?
Nicole: One of the biggest factors that has the potential to be overlooked is the extreme heat. Certainly COVID and having to wear a mask at all venues could be a driving factor. It’s hot and humid in Tokyo during the summer and then having that added mask layer could be challenging for some participants, volunteers, and others throughout the Games. Although not overlooked, another risk factor is of course the threat of natural disasters in Japan.
Aria: The focus has primarily been on COVID. I think Beijing will follow Tokyo’s lead. Fortunately, in this area of China there are not that many natural disasters. Up in Zhangjiakou, the mountain cluster, it is really cold and windy but I think that is to be expected. Pollution can also be a factor but the Air Quality Index has been improving year over year so we are anticipating that it should not be as much of a problem as it has been in years past.
OSAC: Given the one-year postponement, you have gotten more time than usual to observe the Olympic machinery, if you will. What has stood out to you?
Nicole: I have a ton of compassion for the Japanese organizers. I would not want to be in their shoes trying to figure out how they are going to put on these Games given the different [COVID] situations for so many National Olympic Committees. It has been really insightful being an OSC and seeing what it takes to put on an event of this magnitude. Even if you look at some of the sporting events that have taken place in the last year, they’ve typically revolved around one sport. This is a sporting event with 33 sports and 339 events across 43 competition venues. It’s a huge challenge and my hat is off to the GOJ and the Organizing Committee for everything that they have been able to accomplish.
OSAC: With the postponement you’ve also had the opportunity to interact more with OSAC members and other private-sector stakeholders for this event. Is there anything you learned or benefitted from in your engagement with them?
Nicole: Absolutely! OSAC is a great opportunity to collaborate. During COVID, OSAC has been able to really successfully pivot to the virtual world. We’ve been able to interact with many private-sector stakeholder groups by having many informative discussions. OSAC members are present in the countries we operate in and have a wealth of knowledge. We’ve been able to benefit from their understanding -- their having been here for a long time and understanding local culture and norms -- and how we can best work together in the current challenging operating environment. So OSAC has been a wonderful resource for us.
Aria: I think our OSAC Olympic contacts see these two events like we do: it’s a marathon bookended by two sprints – the Tokyo and Beijing Games. It’s been a great opportunity to work with the corporate sponsors. Although we haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person, by having virtual calls it has really helped me understand private-sector priorities and concerns, which helps inform our security planning. Although it’s been a challenge doing things virtually, it also has presented some opportunities for us.
OSAC: Nicole, do you have any interesting connections to the Olympics? If you could, what event would you most like to attend?
Nicole: No, I do not have any formal connections to the Olympics but I am forming one. My nieces are really excited that I have a role to play at these Games. If I could go to any event, it would be the 4x100 meter relay, men’s or women’s, though I do believe for Tokyo there’s a mixed relay for the first time. I’m fascinated by the speed of the runners and their ability to pass the baton.
OSAC: Aria, do you have any hidden Olympic talents that you would like to share with us? Do you recall the first Olympics you paid attention to as a child?
Aria: I, unfortunately, have no sporting talents whatsoever. And, ironically, I also don’t like the cold so it’s a bit of an irony being here working on the Winter Olympics. I don’t really remember a specific Olympics but I am from a family of huge figure skating fans. None of us can skate but we love watching it. So if there were one competition that I could attend, it would be the women’s singles figure skating final.
OSAC: Nicole, what do you enjoy about living in Japan? What will you miss when you depart?
Nicole: I’ve enjoyed getting to travel throughout Japan. The pandemic has put a stop to that at times but meeting the Japanese people and understanding the culture [has been a joy]. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Asia, I’m more of a Latin America hand; that was a focus of my studies in college as well. So it’s really been eye-opening for me to be here and experience this culture.
OSAC: Aria, this isn’t your first time working in China but anything you didn’t know you missed until you returned?
Aria: When I was here as an Assistant RSO twenty years ago things were not quite as developed, particularly for tourism outside of cities. So this time around because I can’t leave China I have taken the opportunity to really travel and see all of these places that weren’t even talked about back then. To see how China has developed over two decades has been really revelatory for me because it’s not the same country or economy or society from when I left the last time.
OSAC: Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the welcome fact that we have two female Olympic Security Coordinators at the same time as the U.S. Government’s lead event security representatives. Any career tips or pointers that you would like to share with fellow agents as they climb the ladder in a law enforcement agency?
Aria: I think the best advice I can give is to just go for it. People might tell you that you can’t do it or you shouldn’t do it, but I don’t think you should listen. I think you should toss your name in the ring because if you don’t do that then you don’t even get the opportunity to try. And then I’d also recommend to reach out to other female law enforcement officers or security professionals because it’s not just the professional information that you can share but also the experiences in how to deal with circumstances and situations which is really enlightening and really helpful on a personal and professional level.
Nicole: I agree with everything Aria said. In fact, even before I applied for my current OSC position I was the Deputy OSC and only later became the OSC. I reached out to Wendy Bashnan, who was the Deputy OSC for the 2008 Beijing Games, and so exactly like Aria said, getting that insight from one female agent to another was enlightening and helpful as you make the OSC decision or any job within DSS.
OSAC: Nicole, what’s next? Where will you be heading after the Tokyo Games conclude?
Nicole: After Tokyo, I will be heading to Guatemala where I will be the RSO.
OSAC: That’s great to hear. We have a great OSAC program in Guatemala. You can’t escape us! Well, thank you both so much for taking the time to talk with OSAC today. A lot of security and logistical preparations take place in the background, out of sight, in the lead up to and during the Olympics that many people know very little about. It was wonderful to hear more and shed a little light on your important contributions to keeping U.S. athletes, organizations, and citizens safe during the upcoming Tokyo and Beijing Olympic Games.
OSC Nicole Gallagher with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch and OSC Aria Lu with Beijing 2022 Olympic mascot Bing Dwen Dwen.