John Branch: “What These Olympics Are Missing”

From a Times Insider story by John Branch headlined “What These Olympics Are Missing”:

TOKYO — These are not like any other Olympics, and it is as obvious as the empty seats in the background. Television audiences can tell that something is amiss simply by what is missing: people.

For journalists covering the Summer Games, though, what is different is much more than the lack of extras. Those people, in the arenas and in the streets, usually provide the emotional heart of the Olympics. And there are usually articles to write about them.

The events are the architecture. But what’s lacking is style. Atmosphere. Life. Noise. Culture. Context. The Tokyo Games feel like only competitions.

It is strange here, in this moment. At any Olympics, there are two worlds — the city that hosts and the Olympics themselves. The more that those settings overlap, the more interesting and successful the Olympics are.

The Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 had plenty of logistical issues. But they felt wholly Brazilian, the contests were immersed in the local culture. That is not true in Tokyo.

Life in Tokyo is hardly normal — the area is in a state of emergency, which mostly means everyone (and I mean everyone) wears a mask everywhere they go outside the house, and restaurants generally close at 8 p.m. Spectators are not allowed in stadiums or arenas….

There are more than 30 New York Times journalists in Tokyo — from Sports, Photo, International and the Graphics desk — focused on the Olympics. We are scattered around several hotels….

I type my body temperature into a phone app each day. Foreign journalists are told that we cannot use public transportation until we have been here for 14 days. We are told that we can leave the hotel for 15 minutes each day in search of groceries or takeout food, but there is no clock.

We jam together on buses devoted to media members or call taxis that have been preapproved. We can go to the venues and to the main press area, inside a giant convention center. I have vouchers for breakfast at a public restaurant, where I can mingle with locals….

Once in the venues, devoid of fans, the rules tighten — kind of. Unlike previous Olympics, reservations to attend any event must be made a day in advance, which can limit the ability to chase news and emerging story lines. Imagine being in a newsroom when a fire break outs, and in order to rush to the scene you have had to make a reservation the day before.

We cannot spread out into empty seats; the sight of filled seats on television will raise questions. The mixed zone is where journalists speak to athletes after the competition, but now there are limits there too, and a daily fight to secure one of the spots — in the name of social distancing.

Yet, the press rooms where we work are shoulder-to-shoulder with journalists from a hundred different countries. The media buses are jammed packed as well.

That just makes it all a bit harder, a bit less serendipitous. No one is too cranky about it. There is a collective sense that these are unprecedented times, and I have not witnessed anyone losing their temper over the unprecedented rules.

What has gone missing most, though, is a lot of what the athletes are missing, too: the cheering of the crowds, the families in the stands. The carnivals in the streets, the bars packed with locals rooting for the next national hero. The unscripted moments beyond winning and losing.

When surfer Carissa Moore won a gold medal, there were only a few people on the beach to greet her achievement, not the throngs of surf fans or the hordes of family and friends, now scattered around the world.

When Sunisa Lee won the individual all-around gold in gymnastics, she did it in any empty arena. The real celebration was back home in St. Paul, Minn….

The tricky part is for us reporters who like to nibble around the edges. The edges have been fenced off, with keep out signs on both sides. Even emotion and color have had trouble getting through.

John Branch is a sports reporter. He won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for “Snow Fall,” a story about a deadly avalanche in Washington State, and is the author of three books, including “Sidecountry,” a collection of New York Times stories, in 2021.

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