A Journalistic Test: Covering the Tokyo Olympics

From an Inside the Times story by John Otis headlined “‘A Journalistic Test’: Covering a Restricted Tokyo Olympics”:

Times journalists attending the Olympics do much more than break down the play-by-plays and report the winners of each event. They tap into the local color of the host city, get behind the scenes of the vast operation and explore the lives of the athletes in intimate and organic ways.

“One of the joys of reporting on the Olympics is the randomness, the serendipity that comes from being at an event with representatives from 200 countries,” said Ken Belson, a sports reporter who is one of more than 30 people in Japan to cover the Tokyo Games for The Times.

Finding those scenes and moments will be much more difficult at these Olympics, where competition began this week.

Coronavirus cases are rising, and Tokyo remains under a state of emergency for the duration of the Games. Several Olympics personnel and athletes have recently tested positive. Anxiety over the Games was already high….

“How they pull this off, the effect it has, if any, on the athletes and events will be pretty dynamic to see,” said Randy Archibold, The Times’s sports editor.

Mr. Archibold is also in Japan, where he will oversee the desk’s broad report. That will include in-depth features, spot reporting in a daily briefing online and a more robust presence in print.

Heavy restrictions have been put in place by the Tokyo organizing committee and the Japanese government. Daily testing is mandated for all visitors. Athletes won’t be wandering freely, and many are leaving after they compete. There are no international spectators, and Japanese spectators were barred as well.

Some of these protocols will interfere with basic news gathering efforts. Capacity at every event is limited, and reporters are prohibited from conducting interviews outside press areas….

These are the 11th Olympic Games that the reporter Juliet Macur is covering. Past events brought unique stresses, complications and demands, she said, but nothing quite compares to the loss of unfettered mobility she faces now.

“Every Olympics has had its moment where you’re holding your breath, thinking, What’s going to happen? and it always works out,” Ms. Macur said. “This is obviously the nth degree of that.”

Although most events are expected to be conducted under conditions that are as normal as possible, gone are the raucous arena crowds, vibrant street celebrations and hordes of flag-waving fans parading through the host city.

“It will be a journalistic test for us to figure out how to make things as vivid as possible when we don’t have the great access that we’re used to or the party atmosphere that makes the Olympics what it is,” Ms. Macur said.

For Mr. Belson, the cultural loss is especially disappointing. He lived for 12 years in Tokyo, where he wrote about business in Japan for several publications, including The Times, before returning to New York in 2004. He began preparing for the Games three years ago.

“I was very much looking forward to telling the Japan story to our readers through my experiences there,” Mr. Belson said. “Unfortunately, that will be hampered.”

Andrew Keh is covering his third Olympics. As do most reporters, he enjoys mining the fringes for offbeat stories. At the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Mr. Keh chronicled his canvassing of the local cuisine. In Rio in 2016, he wrote about the athletes lamenting changes made to the official table tennis ball….

“The reason I always liked the Olympics is just the sheer number of athletes that are there,” Mr. Keh said. “Each one representing a potential conversation, a potential seed of a story, a potential opportunity to learn something.”

Mr. Keh described the Tokyo Games as “a great situation for a reporter.” He said the challenge of working in strange, obstructing circumstances should produce interesting journalism. There has never been an Olympics like this.

It’s why The Times recently sent to Japan around the same number of reporters, editors and multimedia journalists who have worked at previous Games. That doesn’t include the International desk’s Tokyo bureau…or the Times newsroom in Seoul.

Tokyo 2020 was already pushed back a year. Critics still question the wisdom of staging two weeks of events involving thousands of athletes, officials and volunteers where the coronavirus rate is rising. No matter what happens, there will still be important stories to report.

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