H&H Olympic reporter’s blog: final reflections on Tokyo – smiling with your eyes, the rings and origami horses

  • “Did you have a good Games?” I asked the newspaper journalist I found myself sitting beside on the plane on the way home yesterday, turning over my Tokyo Olympics memories in my mind.

    “Did you have a good Games?” I asked the Team GB athlete who had paused beside me on the way to their seat – after “What’s your sport?” (women’s hockey, yes they had a good Games, bringing back team bronze).

    Did you have a good Games?

    Yes. Yes, sitting at my desk at home today, somewhat jetlagged and trying to remember what my normal job is, I can confidently say, we had a good Games.

    The build-up to this Olympics was hard work and, at times, pretty stressful. There were several points when I thought we genuinely might not get there, maybe one or two when I sort of hoped we wouldn’t.

    But in the end, once we made it to Tokyo, everything was easier than I expected. Aspects of the press operations which had the potential to be catastrophic when viewed on paper – such as not being able to go to the Equestrian Park every day – simply weren’t an issue once we were on the ground and talking to the people approving those venue attendance applications.

    Food and transport proved easier than I imagined. In the case of transport, the free taxi service meant we actually had an easier time than if we’d travelled by train daily, as would have happened if the Games had gone ahead in 2020 without Covid.

    In the abstract, I had also been terrified that we’d be in a world where every moment you expected a tap on the shoulder telling you to go and self-isolate, where you never knew who would not appear the next day, having tested positive or been told they were a close contact. The official figures now say that there was a 0.02% positivity rate for tests at the Games and a less than 0.09% positivity rate for airport tests. I’m not aware of any cases in equestrian athletes, journalists or officials. Gradually, over the days we were there, that fear slipped away – but of course, we were lucky. It could have happened. We got away with it.

    Did I feel like I had an Olympic experience? Yes.

    There were aspects of a non-Covid Olympics that I missed, of course. Spectators was the obvious one, although one quickly became accustomed to the empty seats. But when the roar went up for Ben Maher’s jump-off round – and with riders and supporters in the stands, there was still an appreciable noise at key moments – I wondered what it could have been like with packed seats.

    For me, it was the small things. Smiles. We wore masks every minute in Tokyo unless we were in our hotel rooms, eating or drinking. I missed those moments where you pass someone in the media centre and do that, “I’m in a hurry, you’re in a hurry, I don’t know your name even though I’m spending six hours a day with you in a mixed zone, but we’re all good” smile. I really missed being able to smile at riders while interviewing them. Conveying delight or encouragement or sympathy. I tried to nod a lot, to make encouraging noises and most of all, to make the thrilled or encouraging or sympathetic faces under my mask, in the hope it would carry to my eyes and, at a 2m distance, they’d know what I meant.

    Pins. Swapping pins, which you pop on your accreditation lanyard, is a big thing at the Olympics and leads to all sorts of small, fun interactions. After learning this in Rio, I planned to organise H&H pins for Tokyo. In the event, there was so much essential admin in the lead up that I never got round to it. And with everyone less keen to touch things other people had touched, pins were less of a focus at this Games. I came home with just a few, my favourite being the kangaroo, courtesy of Aussie press attache Kirsty Pasto.

    But there was still plenty that said to me that this was an Olympics. We still got our pictures with the rings (see above). We had lots of British athletes on our plane home – and announcements thanking them. One of the hockey players produced a medal in the queue for passport control, to cheers all round.

    Volunteers are always a huge part of an Olympics and that was the same here. Having read a lot online before the Games about how Japan didn’t want us, it was amazing to be so welcomed by everyone we spoke to, from those helping at our venue – including one who presented us with paper horses she’d made to take home – to those waving us off at the airport.

    Tokyo Olympics memories: origami horse presented to H&H by a volunteer

    Most of all, it was clear that this meant everything to the riders – and it was a fantastic Games for Britain. Five medals, with two golds, a silver and two bronzes. Medals in every discipline. Having reported the medal-less eventing at Rio as my first Olympics, the eventing team gold was a huge one for me. Our jobs are so much easier and more enjoyable when Team GB are on the up.

    Thank you, everyone. The Tokyo Olympics memories will be there forever. Onwards to Paris – it’s just three years away.

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