The COVID Olympics get underway

The Olympic Games officially open today. Thousands of people, including journalists, have faced a gauntlet of health restrictions to gain access to Tokyo, where COVID-19 cases recently spiked. Before leaving their home countries, reporters were asked to record two negative tests and log health data into numerous apps, which often didn’t work. Upon arrival, visitors have been held, in some cases for hours, at the airport, where they’ve been asked to download more apps and take another test by spitting into a plastic tube—an exercise, David Wharton writes for the LA Times, that is “a lot harder than it might sound” after “eleven dehydrating hours” on a plane. (Officials “have taped up snapshots of citrus fruit, with the suggestion that you ‘imagine,’ to help generate the necessary bodily fluids.”) Next: three days of quarantine in a hotel. With nowhere else to go, journalists have written and spoken about the weirdness—and tedium—of the experience. “For two days, I sat here and just watched this dolphin swim back and forth,” Tony Florkowski, a producer at ESPN, said, referring to a tank visible from his window. “He’s kept me engaged.”

Some journalists—a team from the BBC, for instanceare being held in quarantine for as long as fourteen days, after being deemed to have been in close contact with an infected person somewhere along their journey. For the rest of the press, once the three days are up, they’re allowed out, but only to travel in approved vehicles to approved venues within the Olympic “bubble.” This week, a group of reporters was escorted outside the bubble for what they thought would be an opportunity to report, but which turned out to be a brief tour of empty tourist sites. There’s been plenty of grumbling that many of these rules feel arbitrary—athletes exposed to COVID have not been asked to isolate, and there is no flexibility for reporters who are fully vaccinated. Worse, some journalists say that the rules feel ineffective and out of step with the latest science about the virus. “Reporters are packed onto buses shoulder-to-shoulder but are forbidden from sharing a taxi. We can loiter on the sidewalk outside our hotels for only 15 minutes, but we can linger together in clumps indoors,” Michael Rosenberg writes, for Sports Illustrated. “The operating principle seems to be that as long as protocols are time-consuming or voluminous, they must work.” As of early this week, at least seven media workers in Tokyo for the Olympics had tested positive.

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Throughout the Games, these restrictions will sharply limit reporters’ access to events and athletes: members of the press must apply in advance for the former, owing to space restrictions, and can only conduct interviews in authorized zones. “One of the joys of reporting on the Olympics is the randomness, the serendipity that comes from being at an event with representatives from two hundred countries,” Ken Belson, of the New York Times, said—something that will be much harder to document this year. ESPN’s Florkowski, who is covering his fourteenth Games, described these Olympics as “the biggest challenge of my long career. Normally at an Olympics we don’t have a lot of access because we’re not NBC. So that’s hard. Now you put it into a pandemic and it just ramps it up everywhere.” Not that NBC (which holds the rights to the Olympics in the US) is finding things a whole lot easier—according to the Hollywood Reporter, a handful of NBC correspondents have served enough time in quarantine that they can leave the Olympic bubble, but other staffers will have to work and broadcast from their hotel. “We think of the Olympics as this idea of welcoming the world,” Lester Holt told THR. “In this case it is just the opposite in the face of the pandemic.”

The Olympics are a big deal financially for NBC, which has sold advertising worth more than a billion dollars and counting. The disastrous run-up to the Games—which, at one point, looked like they might not go ahead, given the rise in cases and widespread public opposition in Japan—threatened to jeopardize the network’s plans; even now, advertisers have concerns about associating their brands with the event. (Toyota pulled its Olympics ads from Japanese TV, citing a lack of public support for the Games, though the company will continue to run ads in the US.) Ratings, even if they’re solid, are expected to be down from past Olympics. The absence of spectators at most events poses a paradox of sorts for NBC’s coverage: empty arenas, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy notes, mean that “by definition” the Olympics will be a “made-for-TV event,” and yet, as Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand put it recently, the definition of a good made-for-TV event—in the US, at least—involves “fans, and cheering, and noise, and cutaway shots.” To compensate, NBC plans to highlight sound that viewers might not otherwise hear, from “thrashing and splashing in the pool to those intimate conversations between competitors and coaches”; the coverage will also incorporate US-based watch parties. Still, per Ourand, the absence of fans will likely be “jarring” for TV viewers, who have grown accustomed to seeing full stadiums on their screens again.

Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBCUniversal, has sounded sanguine about the success of the Games: ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, he said, “everybody was worried about the traffic”; in 2016, in Rio, there was pre-Games fear about the Zika virus. “Once the Opening Ceremony happens, everybody forgets all that and enjoys the seventeen days,” Shell said. “And I think this is going to be the same thing.” As well as being insensitive, that seems like wishful thinking—it’s not unusual for non-sports stories to gain traction in the run-up to an Olympics, but COVID is of an entirely different magnitude and won’t exit the stage. In some coverage, the build-up to Tokyo has been framed not as an outlier, but as a tipping point—a perfect illustration of the Games as Rapacious Multinational Business, riding roughshod over the interests of its host countries, the world’s poor, and the climate. Some commentators have suggested that, going forward, the Olympics ought to be hosted in a single central location. (As Dave Zirin, of The Nation, pointed out this week, that would likely upset journalists, who love an opportunity to travel on the company dime as much as anyone else.)

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The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch has noted that NBC is casting the Olympics as ​“the communal experience the world needs right now” and that it’s been pushing that theme in its coverage of the opening ceremony, which began around an hour and a half ago. (Seeking a communal experience in the US, NBC will repackage the ceremony with a special pre-show and broadcast it again tonight, when everyone will be awake.) For all the athletes filing in, however, the stadium—and consequently the footage—feels eerily empty. The more consequential gathering may be one that is happening outside the stadium, where anti-Olympics protesters have convened. Their shouts can be heard inside. There’s your atmosphere.

Below, more on the Olympics:

  • A challenge: Last month, Andrew Keh, a sports reporter at the Times, joined Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, on our podcast, The Kicker, to discuss the Games, the likely limits to reporting, and the broader erosion of spontaneous access to sports stars. You can listen here. This week, Keh told John Otis, a Times colleague, that, perversely, the restrictions might make the Games “a great situation for a reporter.” In Otis’s words, “the challenge of working in strange, obstructing circumstances should produce interesting journalism. There has never been an Olympics like this.”
  • Peacock: In addition to NBC, Olympics coverage will be shown on eight other channels owned by Comcast—including CNBC, USA, and Telemundo—as well as on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service, which was launched last year to coincide with the Olympics that were pushed back by the pandemic. Matt Bonesteel writes, for the Washington Post, that Peacock’s live Olympics coverage will be pretty limited, offering only gymnastics, track and field, and Team USA men’s basketball events that take place early in the morning. (Peacock will also offer Olympics news and highlights shows.) Per Bonesteel, the “limited menu of the Olympics’ most popular sports is part of NBC’s plan to increase the subscriber and digital advertiser base for Peacock.”
  • Sexism: According to EFE, a Spanish news agency, the United Nations’ gender-equity body and the International Olympic Committee have co-produced a guide that aims to help news organizations avoid sexist coverage of women’s sports. In the past, coverage has mentioned “aspects outside of the realm of sports,” Lisa Solmirano, an official involved with the guide, told EFE. “There are comments related to their sexual orientation or physical appearance. They are treated like children and described as ‘the girls.’”
  • Cardboard beds: Ahead of the Games, a mini-news cycle sprang up around the presence of cardboard beds in the Olympic village. Numerous news organizations reported that the beds were designed to prevent athletes from having sex (and thus risking the spread of COVID), but that isn’t true. “These beds were designed long before Covid, and the aim was not to prevent athletes from having sex but to promote eco-consciousness as they are 100% recyclable,” Joshua Hunt, a former Japan correspondent, tweeted. “I’ll never understand why western media are so obsessed with projecting weird sex narratives on Japan.” (An Irish gymnast also demonstrated that the claim is “fake news”—by filming himself jumping up and down on his bed to test it.)


Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.