After the busiest week ever, I finally have a free day to get back into the behind the scenes of the Olympic Games, and it’s been a wild ride, so buckle up!
We left off on the day before my COVID tests in New York, so let’s go to Thursday. I had two separate tests just in case something went awry with one of the doctors’ offices…I was super anxious about the turnaround time for the tests, because we had to get them done within a specific window before flying, but most of the doctors we were allowed to see had limited hours and were slow with delivering results, so I had to time everything so carefully. It took 36 hours to get the results for the first two back, and naturally I was freaking out the entire time, but thankfully those results and the results from the test I took on Friday morning all came back negative, clearing me for my flight on Sunday.
I was also super anxious about getting my activity plan approved. The activity plan lists all of the places we’re allowed to be while in the country, and not only does it go through the Tokyo 2020 organizers, it also goes through the Japanese government. I had only listed a few places on mine – the hotel, the arena, the Main Press Center, and the Olympic Stadium – but was worried because I had requested to operate from arrival, meaning I wouldn’t have to do the three-day quarantine stuck in my hotel room. If I had to quarantine, I’d miss podium training, so I wanted to make sure I would be allowed out ASAP. I had submitted my activity plan in June, but still hadn’t heard anything and didn’t have any responses, so I was a little worried, but the USOPC sent us an email letting us know they were moving really slowly with thousands of activity plans to process, and I found out that some journalists hadn’t been approved until after they arrived, which eased my fears a little bit. But thankfully, on Saturday – the day before my flight – I got a call from the organizers confirming a few details and then letting me know I was approved with no quarantine!
I spent Saturday and Sunday morning preparing everything else…I made five copies of every single piece of paperwork I had, in addition to making digital copies of everything, shopped for a bunch of last-minute items, cleaned my entire apartment top to bottom so I won’t have any work to do when I get home, and finally, packed!
Now, the flight. This was like, the most exciting part of the trip for me. I discovered that first class seats on Japan Airlines flights were only 80,000 miles if you booked through American, and I had a ton of American miles saved up, so I was able to purchase the rest of the miles for less than what an economy flight would cost, so I went for it, and it was amazing. I had a giant armchair for a seat in a walled-off “suite” and a big, comfortable bed…normally I can’t sleep at all when I fly, but this was like being at home, and it felt like I never left the ground. The 14 hour trip nonstop from JFK flew by, and I got to Japan around 4 pm feeling super rested and like I was already adjusted to the new time zone.
Traveling like the queen
This was literally like being in a real bed.
Processing at the airport was a whole four-hour ordeal. When we got off the plane, agents at the gate asked if we were there for the Olympics, and if yes, we had to stand off to the side. There were a few other journalists on my flight, including several people from NBC, and I also had a coach from St. Kitts and Nevis sitting across from me, and Wimbledon champion Ash Barty was in business class.
First up was showing our COVID tests and other paperwork to the COVID screening officers, and once we were cleared there, we were escorted through to take our first of MANY spit tests at the Games. From there, we had to go into another line where more of our paperwork and documents were checked, and then we were given a number and had to go wait in a chair for a couple of hours while we waited for our results to come in.
Paparazzi waiting for Ash Barty
Once that was done, we got a little slip of paper saying we were cleared to go through, and then did the usual immigration and customs before being led out to a bus going from the airport to the city, where we were then put into taxis on the way to our hotels.
In the airport! An OBS intern I met during processing,me, Gina from Inside Gym, and Jess from Gymcastic
We made it on the bus!
My hotel has the absolute tiniest rooms, which was expected based on the photos online, though it was a little annoying because the media cost for hotels – a “discount” apparently – was $120/night, and yet when I looked on Expedia, the same room only cost $40/night, which is just not cool. But it was a bed, and there was air conditioning and a shower, so what else could I possibly need?!
My tiny little room, pretty sure my airplane bed was bigger
Tuesday was my first full day in Tokyo, so I met up with Jess from Gymcastic and Gina from Inside Gymnastics so we could explore the Main Press Center, a massive site in the Tokyo Big Sight building with anything we could possibly need – COVID testing, a general store, a souvenir shop, restaurants, a million help desks for things like accommodations and transportation, and the offices for some of the bigger press organizations, so we grabbed lunch and then ran a bunch of little errands, including stopping by the USOPC offices to say hi.
The dining hall at the MPC
COVID testing at the MPC
Inside the MPC
We also had to figure out the bus system. There’s a “media transport mall” at the MPC with a billion buses going to all of the hotels and venues. Our hotel isn’t far from the MPC or the venue, but the bus routes can be somewhat complicated, so it was nice to get our footing on that first day before we had to start with our busy competition schedule.
The media transport mall
Wednesday was our first day in the venue. Jess, who is in my hotel, and I booked a taxi the night before. We have taxi vouchers that we can use for traveling around when the buses are inconvenient, and since it would take more than an hour to go from the hotel to the transport mall at the MPC to the gymnastics venue – for just a three-mile trip! – we thought a taxi would be a better idea…and it was great. There are all of these taxis set aside just for the Olympics, and while we’re not allowed to take the trains or any other public transportation, these are allowed and they make life so much easier.
My first glimpse of the venue!
Podium training for the men started at 10 am on Wednesday, so we got to the Ariake Gymnastics Center just before then. Just arriving at the venue is a whole process…you have to sanitize your hands and do a temperature check, then you have to get your credentials checked and face scanned, then it’s security time…and then finally you’re allowed in. When you walk in downstairs, there’s a gigantic media workroom with dozens of tables filled with journalists and photographers from all over the world, then you head around the corner and the competition floor is just casually right there. Off to the side are some stairs, and up those stairs is where the press seating is, at tables along the side of the arena. We ended up close to beam, and got to meet up with others in the media we know from covering all of the U.S. and international events.
Men’s podium training was men’s podium training…there were three subdivisions and multiple hour breaks between them so with no food nearby we were able to order Dominos on Uber Eats and sit outside to eat, which was nice. Aside from vault being a disaster, podium training was pretty good for most of the guys, and we also got to do a few mixed zone interviews, though the whole process was a bit weird, because the media volunteers seem to think that because we’re from the United States, we only care about talking to U.S. athletes, and they often won’t let us stand in the sections dedicated to other countries, which is a bit frustrating when the gymnastics reporters are obviously there for everyone.
The Ariake Gymnastics Center
Thursday was the podium training for the women, which also went on without too much drama…the days with multiple subdivisions are just SO long, it can be hard to push through them, so I was exhausted by the end. There are five total subdivisions for the women, and no breaks at all between some of them, though we did have one break where we could run out and grab lunch, and then by the time I got back to the hotel, I had wanted to work on previews, but couldn’t physically keep my eyes open and had a super early night.
In between sessions during WAG qualifying
Getting to see Denis, who coaches Brooklyn Moors, during podium training was a highlight!
The first real free day for me was Friday, so I got to sleep in a bit longer than usual and also was able to get a little bit of work done…and at night, I had the opportunity to go to the Opening Ceremony at the Olympic Stadium, so I headed over around 6 pm and got to sit up in one of the media seats to watch. It was so eerie being there without any fans in the crowd cheering for the athletes, and whenever things got quiet, we could hear the protesters outside chanting. As someone who still thinks the Olympics shouldn’t have happened despite physically being here and enjoying my time, I was sitting there like, I completely understand the protesters…but while watching the beautiful, somber beginnings to the Ceremony and then seeing all of the athletes so happy to walk in and live their dreams, I was also feeling that the Olympic movement itself – outside of the corruption and greed of the IOC – is so incredible and I wanted to live in that moment forever. I definitely teared up a few times, and it was amazing to take a few hours away from doing coverage to just focus on celebrating the Games and the athletes remembering why I wanted to do what I do.
Opening Ceremony in an empty stadium (the seats are colorful so it looks full but there’s no one there)
The flame is lit!
I’ll also add that the experience of being here is incredibly different from how the press is sometimes reporting it. I’m reading about how there are a billion positive COVID tests and that we’re all here locked in hotel rooms living in fear, but for the number of people here, the positive tests have been pretty low, and most people I’ve seen are taking precautions, staying inside, wearing masks…it’s felt pretty safe. I was tested my first four days here and then have to be tested every four days after that, so I’ve had five tests total since arriving in addition to the three before arriving, and as soon as we’re notified of being positive, we go into full lockdown and quarantine in a specific government hospital.
Also, there are stories about how everyone in Japan hates that the Olympics are happening and that it could be dangerous for those here at the Games, but aside from those outside the arena at the Opening Ceremony, who have a right to voice their opinions about the IOC caring more about money than the health of Japanese citizens, everyone has been so nice and welcoming, both in and outside of the Olympic-specific areas. Like, if I run into a restaurant to grab food, which is allowed, everyone is very excited to ask about the Games and everything, and at the Opening Ceremony, all of the apartment buildings facing the Olympic Stadium had people in their windows with balloons waving and cheering before the Ceremony began. I’m sure many would rather see this not happening at all, but I also think most are just like, well, it IS happening whether we like it or not, so let’s just embrace it.
The bus situation coming back from the Opening Ceremony was absolutely terrifying…more than an hour of waiting for a bus among the other several thousand members of the media, only to get back to the transport mall and have to wait for another bus to get back to the hotel. By the time I got there, it was 2:30 am, which was really fun knowing I had to be up for men’s qualifications just six hours later. I would say about 95% of the people in line were all men, and they were all so aggressive, shoving people out of the way, knocking down the barricades along the line, the behavior of some of the men I’ve come across here has been atrocious! Gymnastics media (and non-gymnastics but reporters who cover the sport a lot) is funny because we are all so passionate about following the athletes, but the majority of media here is made up of a lot of photographers who don’t really care about anything they’re seeing and are just here for a job.
I’ve obviously talked extensively about qualifications for both the men and the women this weekend, so I won’t get into like, how the teams and athletes and everyone did. I’ve done that, and still have recaps and previews and more along the way. But on both days, the overall vibe on press row was really fun. We were all experiencing the best moments and the most devastating moments together, so even without a crowd, it felt like there was a still a good energy. It was obviously endless amounts of work and super long days, but we made it entertaining, and we had plenty of snacks and candy we shared around to help us through.
Don’t leave your laptop open EVER
Now that qualifications are over, our days are much easier, with meets at night but nothing else to do, so I’ll actually have time to write things without falling asleep in the middle of it. Today, the day of the men’s team final, has been great. I didn’t sleep in or anything but got a lot of stuff done and felt productive outside of the arena for once! I also got to watch some of the other Olympic sports for the first time all week, which I can’t do in person due to COVID rules, but I love so many sports and it’s been fun to follow them online as much as I can.
I’m so excited for the team final tonight – it’s probably the final I’m looking forward to more than anything else here! It’s going to be so emotional. I know I’m supposed to be objective when I’m reporting but inside I will be rooting for the Russians all the way. I love this team so much!
Edit: I wrote this a few hours before men’s team finals but didn’t get a chance to format and find photos until after. Russia!!!
Article by Lauren Hopkins