After a major wobble on the blocks, the Tokyo Olympics finally began, offering cheer and distraction to a Covid-ravaged world and the experience of a lifetime to those in the inner sanctum. By Kieran Pender.

Covering the Tokyo Olympics

Locals pose in front of the Olympic rings outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.
Locals pose in front of the Olympic rings outside the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.
Credit: Andrej Isakovic / AFP

The most poignant moments of my time covering the Tokyo 2020 Olympics occurred in exactly the same spot, two weeks apart.

On my first Friday in Japan, waiting to pass through security to enter the Olympic Stadium ahead of the opening ceremony, I noticed a parallel queue. As journalists from around the world lined up for the grand ceremonial opening of this sporting extravaganza, hundreds of Tokyoites were queueing to take a selfie with the Olympic rings.

Separating them from us was an imposing metal fence that wrapped around the perimeter of the stadium. A party bankrolled by Japanese taxpayers was about to begin, but they were not invited. A photo with a sculpture of the logo of the International Olympic Committee – the unaccountable global sporting body that was persisting with an event that four in five Japanese people did not want to go ahead – was their consolation. My heart sank.

As I walked out of the same stadium following the closing ceremony on Sunday, after 16 days hopping between Olympic venues, I looked up to see an adjacent eight-storey apartment block. Residents had come to their windows to wave goodbye. One had hung a Japanese flag; another had Tokyo 2020 spelled out in balloon form.

From their living rooms, they waved enthusiastically as the world’s sports media dispersed into the night. Soon we would be gone and Tokyo would be left to count the cost of the 32nd Olympics. But these local residents still wanted to send us off with a warm farewell.

The unfailing hospitality of Tokyo residents has been one of the many paradoxes at these Covid Games. They did not want these Olympics. They were unable to watch these Games live. They are now suffering negative public health consequences linked, at least indirectly, to the Games. And yet even those protesting Tokyo 2020, a small but hardy group gathered semi-regularly outside the Olympic Stadium, bore no ill will towards us. Arigato, Tokyo.

It was an Olympics like no other. In the preceding months we had been bombarded with ever-changing information from local organisers about rules and regulations to comply with in Tokyo. It was an unholy trinity: Japanese bureaucracy, Covid-19 restrictions and sporting event complexity. There were half a dozen portals for different things, all with deceptively similar but slightly different log-in formats. Keeping up with the dizzying requirements was our own mental Olympics.

It got worse on arrival. Covering a major international event is not a walk in the park at the best of times; in Tokyo, the ever-present Covid-19 countermeasures lurked under the surface ready to ruin our own Games. One reporter was deported on arrival because their pre-departure Covid-19 test had taken place 72-and-a-half hours before flying, not within 72 hours as required. Despite the fact we were all tested on arrival, and then daily, the 30-minute discrepancy left the reporter in travel purgatory.

Others spent their first 14 days in hard quarantine, confined to their room, having been a close contact of a positive case on the inbound flight. We all lived in fear of an unexpected phone call delivering such unwelcome news; not helped by having to cram onto overcrowded Olympic buses where social distancing was impossible. It was a daily lottery – the wrong bus or the wrong press desk companion could send us to Covid jail.

Then there was the fear of inadvertent non-compliance. For the first 14 days I could not leave the “Olympic bubble” – my hotel room, official transport and competition venues. Rumours circulated about other scribes having their credentials suspended or revoked for indiscretions, and we had been bluntly warned that locals had been encouraged to shame badly behaved journalists on social media.

The rules morphed – one day we were permitted to visit a local convenience store for 15 minutes, the next only if accompanied by the guard who sat expressionless in the lobby of our hotel. Accompanied or not, those daily trips were our only lifeline to the outside world – and the source of abundant pre-packaged food, which I lived on, together with Uber Eats, until I could finally leave the bubble.

The absurdity of the whole situation was underscored one morning when I was en route to cover the swimming. As we were not permitted to travel by public transit while in the bubble, the organisers had arranged a special taxi service. We were allowed to use that, but not ordinary taxis. I had asked my hotel reception to book me a “special taxi”, but when it arrived the telltale Olympic taxi sign was absent from the dashboard. In a hurry, and not speaking Japanese, I figured I would have to take my chances, but then spent the entire taxi ride fretting about being caught by security. The spectre of a sanction loomed when a traffic manager intercepted the taxi on arrival. After a brief exchange, my driver huffed and pulled out the official sign from the glove box before being waved through.

It was an immense privilege to cover the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. It was weird and wonderful to be one of a small cohort permitted to get up close and personal in what was otherwise a made-for-television special. That reality was made clear at the closing ceremony on Sunday night, when special effects generated a remarkable display for television viewers that those in the stadium could not see with our own eyes.

But in the various stadiums and arenas over the past weeks, the sporting action was entirely real. After all the will they, won’t they speculation about Tokyo 2020, the Games themselves lived up to expectation. They were a potent reminder of the simple power of sport. It is easy to feel cynical about the Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger. Yet for a few weeks every four (or, in this case, five) years, cynicism is suspended as ordinary individuals do extraordinary things.

These Games also highlighted the ongoing transformation of modern sport. American gymnast Simone Biles spoke powerfully about her mental health challenges following her withdrawal from a number of events. Athletes made the most of their platform to make political statements, despite the best efforts of the IOC to keep them mute. Some of the biggest hits of Tokyo 2020 were the new additions: surfing, sport climbing, skateboarding and BMX freestyle.

For Australia, the Olympics offered unexpected gold medal success after the disappointments of London and Rio. With most of the country in lockdown, Australian athletes knew that their performances meant even more than usual. They revelled in being able to provide some hope to a forlorn nation. New heroes were born – Ariarne Titmus and Emma McKeon in the pool (the latter now Australia’s most successful Olympian), Rohan Browning and Peter Bol on the track, Jess Fox slaloming down the white water, Patty Mills lifting the Boomers to Australia’s first men’s basketball medal.

Most of those athletes – like me – are now safely ensconced in hotel quarantine. The Australian Olympic Committee has put together a program of virtual events to keep its Olympians entertained, featuring a quarantine dance party, a trivia night and guest speakers. Judging by Instagram, some athletes are spending their time admiring a newly collected gold medal and doing puzzles. For others, particularly those who did not meet their own expectations in Tokyo, these two weeks will be immensely difficult – isolated from support networks and left to stew over what might have been.

I left Japan with a feeling of gratitude – to those athletes who had put on an amazing show, the people of Japan who tolerated our presence and especially the thousands of volunteers who facilitated our Olympics. In their readily identifiable blue T-shirts, they stood in the scorching sun directing us as we scurried for shade. They were at the Olympic bus stop to greet us at 2am, bright and perky while we were zombie-eyed after a long day.

But that gratitude was tinged with sadness. Absent the coronavirus, or postponed to a time of mass vaccination, these would have been a truly remarkable Games. Instead, the Japanese are left with little to show for the past three weeks.

Australians, meanwhile, can look forward to our own Olympics in just over a decade’s time. Roll on Brisbane 2032. We can only hope that, by then, Australians will be able to enjoy more than just a selfie with the Olympic rings.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 14, 2021 as "Covering Tokyo".

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