Tokyo Olympics and the Mysterious City in the Eyes of British Media Reporters

With Team Japan winning the most medals in its history, How will the foreign journalists look back on this summer in Tokyo where various factors intertwined?

By Satoshi Takehana

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The Tokyo Olympics have ended. What are the reflections of the foreign media reporters who had an up-close look at the games?

Already four days since the Tokyo Olympics ended. Many dissents on holding the games before the opening, the spread of the pandemic during the games, and team Japan winning the highest number of medals ever… How will the foreign journalists look back on this summer in Tokyo where various factors intertwined?

From U.K.’s nationwide broadsheet (quality press) inews, chief sports correspondent Kevin Garside who also covered the 2012 London Olympics, and sports editor Matt Butler, talked with us 10 days after they returned to the U.K.  

– How do you see the operations of Tokyo Olympics compared with the past Olympic games you covered? 

Garside: Tokyo is certainly world-class regarding the infrastructure such as the stadiums and the transportation network. It’s over 10 years ago, but I went to the Suzuka Circuit and Fuji Speedway for F1 coverage, so had an idea of how I would do my work in Japan. You can’t really help various operations differing from usual with the COVID related restrictions. 

Butler: I used to live in Japan for three years and also speak the language, so I had fewer problems than other foreign journalists. And wherever the Olympics are held, it is an event organized by the IOC. If you omit the COVID-related restrictions, I don’t think there was that much difference compared to the London Olympics operations. 

One big difference I noticed was that at the London games, some volunteers got grumpy when they became tired, but the volunteers in Tokyo always responded kindly with a smile, however tired they were. 

Since both had experience reporting from Japan, I guess they could take a cool view of the operations at the Tokyo games. They say they were busy covering not only the traditional sports like track and field, swimming, and taekwondo, but also the new games that were attracting attention such as skateboarding and BMX.

– Games in Tokyo in mid-summer. What did you think about the weather?

Garside: I suffered from the heat and humidity. But none of the athletes I talked with complained about the weather. They weren’t concerned about the heat or humidity, but were just grateful that the games took place. 

Butler: I heard the skateboarding players suffered the heat at a venue with no shades at all, but other than that, I heard no voices saying the weather was a problem. The athletes all knew that Tokyo in mid-summer was hot, and had each taken their measures.

It is ironic and good news that people from the U.K., often poked fun of for the national trait of complaining about the weather, did not moan about the mid-summer heat of Tokyo. I guess even the city’s heat was part of the dream stage for the athletes that made it to the event that was doubted to take place. 

– Protests by people opposed to holding the Olympics were also a topic.

Garside: I did see the protests, but I’ve never seen such a well-behaved demonstration. People were holding up signs and seemed to voice opposition, but there were no violent acts or behaviors and it looked like a very peaceful protest. 

Butler: I saw on the news that many people opposed holding the Tokyo Olympics. However, on the day of the opening ceremony, I saw many people calling out to us foreign reporters, “Welcome to Japan!” During the games, lots of people were smiling and waving at the bus carrying the foreign press. I was honestly surprised at this.

With the pre-games opinion poll results and COVID-19 restrictions, Garside had been saying, “To be honest, I don’t want to go to Tokyo.” Yet, having been there, both reporters seemed to have experienced pleasant surprises. 

– Did you have any negative experiences?

Garside: The buses operated by the Olympics organization seemed so obsessed about running on schedule that when we arrived a minute late at the bus stop, the empty bus left even though journalists frantically waved to be let on board. There were other situations where the staff just stuck to the rules without thinking. But I had expected things like that might happen, so I didn’t mind that much.

Butler: On the day the BMX competitions were held, I saw a policeman telling off people who were trying to snatch a look from outside the venue. Despite hearing that the majority were against holding the Olympics, I was pleasantly surprised that people were so interested in the games that they were eager to watch. So I was a bit disappointed with the policeman.

Several days later, I found the same policeman in the same place. I asked him if he was warning those trying to see the competition. He said, “Well, a bit…”  I guess it was his job to stop people peeking from outside, but he must have felt bad about making too much fuss. 

As for the COVID-related restrictions from last year, the U.K. had restrictions that prioritized practicality, and were laxer than those in other European countries. So for the two reporters from the U.K., the Japanese way of strictly abiding rules must have seemed rather funny.

Chilled Chinese Noodles from the Convenience Store

– How about the food at the Main Press Center (MPC) and hotels that became a hot topic?

Garside: Everyone knows the Japanese don’t usually eat such meager meals, and better food is provided these days at any international sports events. But if you consider they managed it under various restrictions, I think it couldn’t be helped. Well, if I was hungry, I ate anything without complaining. 

Butler: I didn’t have any problems because I bought my food at the convenient store or ordered on Uber Eats from the hotel. The chilled Chinese noodles from the convenient store are superb for eating on a hot day.

Having extensive international experience, the reporters seem little bothered about the food that aroused some criticism. Their spirit of eating what’s available and focusing on their work bears resemblance to the toughness of athletes.

– How about your activities after the 14 days within the Olympic travel bubble? 

Garside: We went out for a stroll in Ginza with our colleagues and enjoyed beer and nibbles at an underpass stall. We could feel the humble side of Japan, and it was a wonderful night. But despite times like this, people were crammed in a small space sitting side by side, and I saw many smokers. All the Japanese people I’ve been seeing were good mannered and rigorously stuck to the rules, so I found that night’s experience quite refreshing. 

Butler: I went to the Takeshita-Dori in Harajuku where I often went when I used to live in Japan, but I’ve never seen this street so empty. I guess it’s because people are refraining from going out. Yet the people I saw in the city seemed to lead ordinary lives. Even though it was under the state of emergency, trains were running as usual, and bars and restaurants were open. So it was a strange situation with a mixture of normal times and emergency.

Even though they came to Tokyo to cover the Olympics, intense curiosity is the nature of journalists. Being able to view the current state of Tokyo outside of the sports event must have been a benefit for them.    

– So looking back, what is your impression of covering the Tokyo Olympics?

Garside: The people we met in Tokyo were all really kind and polite. Excessive obsession with keeping the rules is one aspect we saw, but I believe we had an exceptional experience. I’m extremely grateful for the volunteers and people in Tokyo who supported us foreign reporters.

Butler: I really felt a joyful surprise for the local people showing interest in the Olympics, and the Japanese who welcomed us much more than we expected. It was really a pity that there were hardly any events letting in spectators at the biggest sports festival.

It is good news for Japan that foreign reporters feel grateful towards the volunteers who supported the Olympics operation and general Tokyoites. Although there were controversies over holding the event, both reporters witnessed the captivating power of sports, and must have spent a fulfilling three weeks. 

Both reporters are veterans having extensive overseas experience, including Japan, with a mental toughness not to complain about a few inconveniences. The U.K. won total 22 gold medals this time. Although this is less than 29 in the London games and 27 in the Rio games, the U.K. came in fourth following Japan, and Tokyo Olympics must have been a wonderful occasion for the two. 

Deliver excitement and joy through sports to the world hurt by the pandemic—with such a mission, the two sports journalists from the U.K. performed an excellent job worthy of medals, and left the Tokyo games.

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