“Everything seemed very complicated”: Journalist experiences of covering the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

Dr Veronika Macková

Academic researcher at The Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University. Her research interests include sports journalism, media coverage of athletes with a disability and  journalism of artificial intelligence. Since 2008 she has been working as a sports reporter in Czech Television.

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

The Paralympic Games provide an important opportunity to influence public opinion on athletes with a disability. The International Paralympic Committee seeks to raise public awareness of athletes with a disability. Their aim is to help the public to see the sports of the disabled as more than just a therapeutic tool, but as elite sport. However, the Paralympic Games are often the only way for athletes with a disability to enter news channels around the world. 

The Tokyo Paralympic Games differed from previous games. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was postponed for a year, and spectators could not be at the venue. The media played a more important role than ever before because only they brought athletes with a disability to the attention of audiences around the world. In Tokyo 2020, 800 foreign journalists and photographers reported directly from the venue, in addition to the 500 local journalists and photographers, and over 1,600 journalists related to broadcasting. Many more did not come to Japan at all due to strict measures against coronavirus. A journalist from the Czech Republic told me: “I’ve been to two previous Paralympic Games, but I didn’t dare to fly to Tokyo this year. Everything seemed very complicated, and I think it would make it very difficult for me to do a good job.”

I was one of those journalists who covered the 2020 Paralympics from Tokyo, for Czech national media, and also conducted a number of interviews with international journalists in Tokyo. Journalists (regardless of coronavirus vaccination) had to undergo repeated PCR testing, were only allowed to move around sports venues in specific zones, had to keep a two-meter distance from athletes in the mixed zones, and were not allowed to walk the city for 14 days. They were confined to the hotel, the Media Press Centre or individual sports venues. A Spanish television producer regretted the absence of social contact: “For me, it is so hard because I have to come to Tokyo for the Olympic Games, and then I stayed 14 days in quarantine, and then returned home. And when I arrive to Tokyo, again, I have to spend another 14 days in quarantine.”

A press journalist from Slovakia told me: “In addition to traditional security measures, health care has been added, and this combination of security and health sterility is killing for journalists.” A French journalist who wrote for the French Paralympic Committee talked about some of the required measures that did not make much sense: “It is a little bit weird actually because we cannot talk to athletes and be close to them, we cannot go inside the stadium, so I don’t think these are very good measures.”

However, most journalists got used to the new work habits very quickly, such as a journalist from Switzerland who told me: “We can’t meet the athletes, do some shots. In the beginning, I found it crazy, but now I think that’s okay, and it works anyway.

How we report about athletes with a disability is changing, but their life stories remain

Dave Arthur described the inequality between Olympians and Paralympians, which he explains by the attractiveness of a sporting event, team, competition, or individual from a commercial perspective. The situation changed significantly before the Paralympic Games in London in 2012, mainly due to media coverage, sponsorship, and media campaigns. The British Paralympic Committee, for example, have published a media guide that describes how to communicate athletes with a disability, what terminology to use, or how to relate an athlete’s life story. Paralympic sport is becoming more professional, and journalists are changing the style of their articles and reports. The life stories of athletes with a disability no longer predominate, instead journalists focus on performance. The press officer for Team USA told me: “I think they are athletes first and, you know, obviously people first as well, but they should be covered the same way as other professional athletes.”  In some countries, the whole strategy and presentation of some national teams is changing: “Actually, in France, we have the approach that we want to put the Paralympics and Olympics at the same level and give to the athletes with a disability more visibility than they had before.”

A Spanish television producer highlighted that the audience’s perception has changed, whilst the viewers are paying more attention to athletes with a disability than in previous years. A journalist from the UK also observed a greater journalist interest in Paralympic sport: “There is definitely more awareness about this sport in journalism now.”

She also sees the attitude of journalists towards the Paralympic athletes has changed: “I think there is more sensitivity now about not going and just asking people in particular if there is any traumatic reason behind the disability.” But the stories of what happened to athletes, how they came to their disability, how they overcame it, can educate the public on disability-related issues. A journalist from Iran revealed his motivation for writing such stories: “I put life stories into the articles to inspire other people with a disability.” A Japanese journalist explains why he writes about the life stories. “I think it is important, and people want to know why they have a disability or why they do not have legs.”

Despite the recent changes, the media coverage of Paralympic sports is going to stay clinched between the reporting about athletes as professionals and the life stories easily accessible to general audiences.