Tokyo 2021: the TV Olympics

Dr Peter English

Senior Lecturer in Journalism at University of the Sunshine Coast. His research focuses on sports journalism, with an emphasis on its journalists, content, and social media. Peter has worked as a sports journalist for more than two decades.

Twitter: @penglish77

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Since the emergence of television the Olympics have been made for the small screen, but for sports journalists and commentators Tokyo really was the TV Games. Covid, of course, was the main reason for the smaller journalistic presence in Japan, with reporting off the box necessary due to travel restrictions and health complications. 

Journalists at previous Olympics have often had the safety net of television for covering – or not missing – key events. At Tokyo 2021, the screen was vital for both the fewer correspondents in Japan, and those watching remotely for publications across the world. As the Olympics began, it appeared to viewers and readers that the reporters and hosts were actually at the events, but as the Games wore on they were more public – or at least less private – in revealing their real locations. 

In a series of tweets, Eurosport highlighted its green-screen technique for transporting medal-winning athletes from Tokyo to interviews in Munich and London. The BBC’s studio was in Salford, near Manchester, more than 9000kms from the Games. 

Australia’s event commentators for Seven were in Melbourne, describing races off televisions considered tiny in many lounge rooms, instead of sitting live in mostly-empty stands. There were also a small number of reporters across venues for interviews, or color stories, which are usually a major feature of Olympics coverage. 

In print and online, the reporting situation was similar to previous Games for reporters in Tokyo inside the ‘media bubble’. But on top of the ‘Olympic bingo’ of stories on medal success, doping accusations and athletes misbehaving – as well as standard security checks – there were daily Covid spit tests, health monitoring and a GPS tracking app.

However, media packs were smaller, with News Corp Australia sending around 30 reporters for its national, state and community publications. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, two of Australia’s major mastheads, had only five people in Tokyo. The Guardian assigned five writers and a desk editor from London, a decrease of four staff from Rio, and were supported by a Tokyo correspondent and reporters focusing specifically on US and Australian markets. India’s red-list status as a Covid hotspot reduced the number of journalists from the nation, and the daily health protocols increased the difficulty of coverage

In Australia, many senior sports journalists did not travel. The Sydney Morning Herald ran a column from its chief sports reporter titled ‘From the futon’, and journalists in Tokyo noted there were many more people working remotely than in previous Olympics. 

Another major change was limits to how many reporters could attend the mixed zone, where athletes pass through the media for interviews. In previous Games, Australian news organizations sent up to six journalists to ask questions, but this time were restricted to two ticket holders. Interviews did not occur face-to-face, but across a two-meter gap. While these interactions are usually brief, the conditions provided another barrier for gaining insight into events or moments. Instead, there was a greater reliance on televised quotes from the host broadcasters, rather than a team of reporters requesting extra details from athletes. In Australia, quotes attributed to Seven were frequent in reports and live updates

Writing off television was essential for the many who could not attend, including for Australian reporters who required two weeks in quarantine when returning home. The Olympic News Service, which provides transcripts of interviews, had previously been limited to journalists at the Olympics, but was opened to news organizations covering the Games, providing access for the many reporters not based in Japan. 

Live blogs have become a feature of modern reporting and were a daily staple, both because of the demands of rolling coverage, but also as the cheapest and safest seats in the house. The Guardian’s ‘Minute-by-minute’ blog, building on the style of its popular football and cricket posts, combined online commentary from watching events on television with input from staff writers in Japan. Daily coverage began in Sydney then passed to London and, when required, New York. 

For the casual fan, there may not have been a lot different about the coverage compared with Rio 2016. But the smaller on-the-ground reporting pool meant audiences received fewer details, more homogenous content and a reliance on updates from the carefully curated social media feeds of athletes or sports organizations. Competitor comments away from their heavy-breathing post-event interviews were more difficult and highlighted the obstacles of breaking news solely off the television.

Covid has changed the way many sports have been covered, and there is danger in newsrooms and sports organizations thinking this television-centric model can work in the future. By Paris 2024, it is hoped many things will have returned to normal, including more journalists in stadia and mixed zones, and greater access to athletes and events.