I’m in a really unique position as I head off to the Tokyo Olympic Games this weekend. Not only is this my first time traveling to cover the Olympics, but we also happen to still be in the middle of a pandemic, which has limited access to just a small percentage of those who would normally get to go.
Logistically alone, this has been a wild ride, and I haven’t even arrived in Tokyo yet! So I thought I’d share a behind the scenes look at what it’s like to cover the Olympics both from the perspective of a gymnastics blogger but then also from the perspective of someone who is a first-time “Olympics journalist” navigating my work in the midst of COVID and everything that came up because of it. I’m not sure what kind of access I’ll have in the arena yet, how interviews will work, or anything like that…it’s all going to be a really fun surprise. But I’m really excited to try and share as much as I can from my journey, the arena, the village, Tokyo…everything.
So how did my journey start?
I started my website in July of 2014 after spending the previous four years covering the sport for the Couch Gymnast. Though I had been on the U.S. scene for years, I had never covered an international meet at that point, and since my site was born only about a month before the USOPC would open up applications for Rio press, I decided not to apply.
Instead, I made the Olympics my goal for 2020. I got my application in somewhere around the fall of 2018, and in November, I received a call from a seasoned Olympic veteran reporter who said he had to “advocate” for me at the USOPC’s meeting to determine who to credential (this is a process that happens for all first-time media outlets, since priority is given to those that have had more of a long-term presence at the Games). We had a long chat about the kind of work I do and why I should be credentialed, and he must have done an incredible job fighting for my participation, because on December 17, I got the email informing me that I was approved and would be traveling to Tokyo.
That was somehow more than two and a half years ago. Throughout 2019, I’d occasionally have little administrative things come up, like applying for media accommodations in Tokyo, planning my travel, and reading up on everything I’d need to know logistically to get things in order, but then – of course – the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Olympics were postponed, and I was in a kind of standstill for the next year, wondering if the Games would even go on.
Throughout the first few months of this year, the Games moving ahead went from a concept to something that started to feel real again. I think it was when I got to take part in the USOPC’s (virtual) Media Summit where I actually started getting excited, even…just seeing the U.S. athletes from pretty much every sport at the Olympic and Paralympic Games talk about everything they went through during the shutdown and everything they were sacrificing in their fight to keep that Tokyo dream alive was something that sparked me awake again after months of pessimism and apathy about the Olympics coming back.
At one point during the year of “will the Olympics even happen” I asked myself if I even really wanted to go to Tokyo with everything that was going on, and honestly, at the time, I didn’t. I told myself that if the Olympics did go on, I’d stay home, because it would be easy enough to cover them via streams the way I always did when I had to miss a meet. But I think the Media Summit reenergized me, and my feelings about going to Tokyo and about the Olympics in general, and I felt really excited and motivated to go once again, just like I did when I first got the email approving my accreditation.
The past couple of months have been a HAUL. It seems like there’s always something to be done, especially as a blogger who is not part of a large organization. In an effort to keep everyone safe from COVID, the press operations team had every media organization appoint a COVID Liaison Officer, or CLO, but since my website is just me, it means the CLO role and all of the administrative duties that come with being a CLO are all under my control. There are dozens of PDFs and handbooks and instructions for everything a CLO needs to do, and I feel like I have a pretty firm grasp on about 20% of it all. I was thrilled to get an FAQ document answering all of these questions I had, only to find that the answer to nearly every question was “talk to your CLO.” SO CLOSE.
So that’s been fun, especially as we get closer and closer to the Games. It seems new rules pop up every week, our activity plans detailing the access we’re requesting for arenas and other locations – which we need in order to enter the country – likely won’t be approved until hours before we arrive because the press operations team is just SO busy, my initial media hotel accommodations were canceled and rebooked with no new confirmation until two days ago, the COVID testing process is obviously very important but figuring out how and when and where we need to get tested is basically a second job, on top of being credentialed to cover the meets there’s a whole booking system aspect involved to being able to access the arena during the competitions…
I created a cheat sheet with all of the information I need so I don’t forget anything or make some other tragic misstep that leads to me not being let into the arena or, worse, being sent home, but even the cheat sheet has multiple pages of information, and as organized as I am, I am a constant ball of anxiety trying to pull everything together before my flight this weekend. But I’m telling myself that for my first Olympics to be the absolute wildest Olympics due to restrictions in place because of the pandemic, if I can handle ALL OF THIS…any future Olympic Games I’m lucky enough to attend will be a BREEZE.
We couldn’t smile in our photos so I’m letting Ron Swanson smile for me
And as stressful as it’s been, it’s the Olympics and it’s WORTH IT! Whenever I look at my accreditation card with my mugshot photo, I get excited all over again and remind myself that this whole experience will be over and done with in the blink of an eye, and I need to enjoy it, even through the frustrating logistical aspects that are making me crazy right now.
My first COVID tests are tomorrow. As press, we need to be tested within 96 hours of our flight, and again within 72 hours, so I’m getting one out of the way at 8 am tomorrow morning and then the second later in the day so that both fit into their respective windows. We can only see Japanese doctors who have been approved by the Tokyo 2020 organizers for our tests, because they need to fill out and sign the negative test certificates required by the Japanese government in addition to giving us the results. There are a number of doctors on the list for New York City, where I live, but none are open on evenings or on Saturday, and they all take about 36 hours to send back the results, so cramming them in on Thursday made the most sense. I even rented a WeWork office above the doctor’s office so I don’t have to run home between them and miss even more time out of work than I’m taking already!
I have a third test booked on Friday morning with a different doctor just in case, and then I plan on spending Saturday getting the final preparation underway before my flight on Sunday.
I’ll arrive in Tokyo on Monday, which is considered “day zero” in terms of our three-day quarantine, meaning my quarantine actually starts on Tuesday and goes until Thursday. After that, we’re technically in a 14-day quarantine in the city of Tokyo, but we’re still able to go out and handle our Olympic business, meaning we can leave our Olympic hotel and get on the Olympic bus to the Olympic arena and back again, and we can eat at one of two restaurants in the Olympic press center and at our hotel restaurant, but that’s it. We can’t go anywhere else in the city, and we can’t go to any Olympic venues that haven’t been approved on our activity plans.
Some people already in Tokyo have said that we can’t leave the hotel at all during our initial three-day quarantine, even to get food delivered, and that instead, the organizers are going to bring us bento boxes three times a day, so I’ve packed SO MANY SNACKS just in case.
A delicious collection of sugar and salt
While COVID has made covering the Olympics much more difficult, the fact that the Tokyo 2020 organizers are doing whatever they can to pull this off during a pandemic is incredible, and the USOPC press team has also been so helpful with navigating some of the most confusing aspect. I’m torn over what I think in terms of “should the Games happen?” At the very core of the argument, I think no, keeping people healthy should be the first priority and we absolutely shouldn’t be organizing a sports event that even without spectators will still involve tens of thousands of people.
But then I think about the athletes and everything they’ve fought for and risked throughout their lives to get here. Athletes like Danusia Francis and Elisa Hämmerle, who will both finally make their dreams come true in their mid-20s after trying since the 2012 quad. A decade of being at this level and fighting through injuries and team politics…public health is still the priority but I desperately need both of them and everyone else across every sport to finally see everything they’ve worked for become a reality, and if the Tokyo Games can be done as safely as the organizers are trying to make them, then even though I have this part of me that is against them happening, I also have this part of me that is glad they’ll be able to go on.
That’s why all of the little struggles I’ve faced so far have been worth it. I’ve been fully vaccinated for four months and I still wear masks everywhere I go because I don’t even want to take the chance that I could potentially have COVID but be asymptomatic and not know it and spread it to others. So while I think that sitting in a hotel room for three days and getting tested upwards of ten times over the course of this next week is probably overkill, if that’s what they need from me to absolutely, positively, one hundred percent ensure a safe Games, I’m ready and willing. You need a kidney for some reason? My DNA? It’s all yours, Tokyo 2020.
I hope this has been somewhat interesting to read just to get a sense of what has been going on behind the scenes for the media going to the Games, but I’m so excited to actually get to Tokyo and share everything I can from my experiences, and I’m even more excited to bring you as much live coverage as I possibly can so we can celebrate all of the athletes who are finally going to get the chance to compete.
From a kid who dreamed about going to the Olympics after watching the Magnificent Seven but who was an absolute pile of garbage when it came to physically doing gymnastics, going to Tokyo feels like that dream is finally coming true for me in the strangest of ways. I didn’t even know bloggers were a thing in 1996, so I obviously never imagined this would be how I’d get there, but 25 years later it’s finally happening. Despite it being in a totally different way than I hoped for, just being part of the Games in any way is so special and given everything the world has been through over the past 18 months, I don’t want to take any of it for granted.
Article by Lauren Hopkins