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Doing it for nothing

Volunteers are an important part of any Olympics.  Thousands of them are needed:  a whole pile to perform in the opening and closing ceremonies — an easy recruiting job — but many more to run the everyday work of the Olympic or Paralympic activity.

For some it’s pure selfless drudgery, knowing they’re making it easier for their country to do a good job.  They usher athletes, officials, press and normally spectators in and out of buses, through security.  They man information desks strewn everywhere across the Games footprint, explaining the transport system, giving directions, and being welcoming. Some just wave vehicles through gates, though at many Olympics this job goes to military personnel, the camouflage uniforms lending a menacingly serious air:  you don’t mess with them.  [In Athens, Beijing and Rio quite a few of those standing guard on security entrances toted submachine-guns, but London 2012 and Tokyo 2020 don’t go in for that sort of thing.]

Others are keen about a particular sport, so sign up to help that.  Great if you’re tasked with welcoming and helping spectators, standing in the grandstand able to watch the action with them.  Less enticing if you end up collecting smelly shoes off boat pontoons, wiping the sweat off equipment, or photocopying results in the media centre.  There is a whole roster of volunteers who simply organise numbers and country IDs (on boats, horses, and athletes), working to strict rules about where each identifying sticker must be placed.  The proportion who actually get to see sport at their venue, let alone at any other, is about 0.01%.  My personal volunteer’s award in London went to a superbly cheerful woman stationed on a tennis umpire’s high-chair day after day at one of the entrances into the Olympic park, greeting everyone with utter bonhomie in at least five different languages through a megaphone, trading hilarious banter with the Brits and being reassuring to visiting supporters.  I went in by the same gate each time I visited the park, just to see her in action. I doubt she saw any sport at all. 

Oh, and the kit.  Fun though it may be to brandish Olympic-themed clothing afterwards as a badge of honour, and the London 2012 volunteers are very proud of theirs, it is eye-wateringly garish, and often created from man-made fabric which can get a bit hot and sweaty.  In some jobs it appears obligatory to wear bum-bags.  I feel you can tell a lot about a volunteer from whether they wear their bum-bag on their bum, at the side or round the front. Tokyo has improved on this immeasurably by giving them over-shoulder bags instead, as well as fetching fabric hats which are very useful for keeping the sun off.  So anyone bumming their bag is doing so strictly voluntarily.  Colours, by the way, tell you which job the volunteer is doing. Blue with dark trousers in Tokyo for general helpers, red with dark trousers for specialists and tech, grey t-shirts and khaki shorts/trousers for the quote-takers and others working for the Olympic Broadcast Service. Yellow tabards for transport, red tabards for medical staff, while the security bods are from the Japanese peace corps with a natty red/blue/white uniform.

I’m not one for hyperbole, but the Japanese volunteers are unusually good.  One of my metrics is how often they officiously and unnecessarily intervene, and most of the Japanese volunteers manage to avoid that.  There’s nothing more exasperating to someone who’s been a week at the Games and knows exactly where they’re going, than to have three different volunteers interrupt you as you’re about to get on the correct bus, not to check your eligibility to use the service, but simply to determine your destination, slowly consult their clipboard (they always have clipboards) and explain that you should take the bus you had always intended to take.  Similar issues can arise anywhere in the Games, eg patronisingly explaining where the media centre is when you’ve just come from there, or blocking a crossing point without apparently noticing that you’d already stopped to let a vehicle go through.  

Fortunately the main offenders in Japan appear to be transport gnomes, and the rest behave.  Today I had one of those infuriating moments:  moving from the transport mall to the Main Press Centre, I headed for the electric shuttle bus which takes us round the big buildings.  No shuttle yet, so the first volunteer checked I was in the right place and made me line up in a bunch of coned-off areas, 1m apart from every other journalist.  (I stayed 2m away, on principle – it’s been fun explaining to Japanese people that we have had tighter rules in Britain.  They don’t believe me.)  While we waited, Volunteer Two came down the line asking to scrutinise our media accreditation from a distance of a few inches, which was odd since we all had ours very visible on our chests and the large number 4 showing we are media can be seen several feet away.  The bus arrived and Volunteer Three stopped each of us while we were trying to board, asking where we were going.  Finally Volunteer Four repeated Two’s job, again stopping everyone to check the accreditation and kindly explain this was the bus to the MPC.  I stifled a scream or two.  

I’ve wondered why I find it all so aggravating — after all, they are just trying to help and to do their best.  I think it’s because the Olympic experience, to a journalist, is one hedged round with restrictions even when there isn’t a global pandemic spoiling the party.  You’re told where to go, how to do everything and tracked non-stop in a way which isn’t normal.   At recent Games facial recognition has been used to log every time you enter any venue:  you face an immigration-style camera and hold up your accreditation to a scanner, which compares the photo on the card with the face the machine is detecting.  I spotted how they do this in Tokyo:  when our accreditation papers are laminated, an RFID-containing square a couple of inches across is laminated inside the folded paper, ready to connect with the scanner.  The sense of having stepped into the pages of 1984 is disturbing and the temptation to lose my rag simply to prove I have autonomy rises day by day.  

Apart from throttle-deserving gnomes though, the rest have been lovely, showing typical Japanese courtesy to greet, bow and farewell non-stop.  The security staff checking bags on entry to every single Games location beam with genuine kindness, priding themselves on waving us through cheerily when they confirm for the nth time that no, we’re not carrying bombs.  This year they are requiring us to sip a bit of every drink we bring through the X-ray machines, and look delighted when I lick my lips and say ‘yum’ to the water or orange juice I’ve just tasted.  

It makes the whole thing much easier, especially when this time we have to muck about with masks for the face-recognition machines, disinfect our hands yet again, and try to stay well clear of anyone in case they think we’re breaching social distancing.  So I’ve kept my temper.  For now.  

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Medal days for rowing: get used to fourth

The medal days for rowing — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — were frenetic and packed, so I fell behind on the diary.  This entry is reflections stored up from those days.

Medal days at the rowing course are intense.  To start with, underlying the whole dramatic day is the nerves for those you know, and want to do well.  The pandemic (and, it has to be said, the attitude of the new team management) has undermined my personal knowledge of the GB team:  I hadn’t interviewed any of them for 22 months before we got here.  That leaves me struggling slightly to make a decent connection with quite a few new members of the women’s squad, and some of the men’s sweep.  But for the men’s double and quad in particular, several of the men’s eight and four, and the women’s pair, old acquaintance makes it a little easier.  The trade-off is that I want them to reach the podium, particularly those I know well who have not had an easy progress here, such as Jack Beaumont and Angus Groom in the men’s quad, Graeme Thomas in the men’s double and cox Henry Fielding from the men’s eight.   [I always have a soft spot for a cox, it’s a much-misunderstood job.]

Athletes are accompanied to the mix zone by their press officers, who record everything they say

It’s ever fun to talk to Moe Sbihi from the men’s eight, whom I have covered since the start of his career, and who who bared his soul to me in Sarasota in 2017 for one of the best Row360 features we’ve ever done (LINK) complete with Ben Tufnell’s brilliant photographs which you’d never believe were taken within an hour flat on the riverside near the GB Rowing hotel.  But there are also non-Brits I’ve interviewed for features, here including the effervescent Sinkovic brothers from Croatia, Germany’s men’s eight cox Martin Sauer, world-beating Kiwi pair Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, scullers Oli Zeidler (Germany) Olaf Tufte (Norway), Sanita Puspure (Ireland), Aisha Chow (Trinidad and Tobago), and of course NZ legend Hamish Bond.  All have their own emotional stories, their own aims and ambitions.  One of my favourites interviewees, Ondrej Synek, sadly isn’t here having withdrawn from the Games only a few weeks ago citing medical problems.  Synek is the best sculler never to have won the Olympics, and one of his long-term rivals tells me it was due to post-COVID issues.  Synek is not likely to try for another Games as he will be 43 when the Paris flame is lit.  What a terrible way for such a brilliant career to end. 

When it’s an Olympic medal at stake and the British crew has a chance, suddenly the combined might of the GB press pack descends on the rowing venue.  Some are full of novice questions (“what’s the difference between rowing with one oar and rowing with two?”, “does it make a difference if it’s windy”) while others have been to rowing before and just need a bit of clarity on the more technical aspects.  The hardcore professional writers sit in the media centre well behind the grandstand for the whole day, coming out only to lurk in the mix zone ready to ask one question of an athlete who’s exhausted after racing for gold at the Olympics.  They never see any live rowing at all. But presumably it’s worth it to be able to ask their own question — often quite pointed — of the athletes.  They want background on the major changes of the last few years, having ignored GB Rowing while first its long-time performance director and then its talismanic chief coach left the programme.  Bit late, guys. 

I boot up Twitter and first up is a weather report for the 7,800 people who follow my @RowingVoice account, most of whom are die-hard rowing aficionados.  They include parents, this year not able to travel to see their offspring race, who are thirsty for anything which will help them feel as if they’re present.  So they want to hear about wind, weather, water conditions, how the crews look in training and all the paraphernalia of a rowing racing session.  I snap a few photos of the venue to give it colour, and swap conjectures with other rowing journalists about whether or not the FISA Fairness Commission, who are constantly on the case about wind difference across the lanes, will redraw to give the quickest crews the most sheltered water.  

I wave hello at Matt Pinsent as I walk through the media centre:  he’s busy prepping for the BBC presentation job he will do later, making sure he knows info about anyone the TV camera team might grab to interview.  They have to be on their toes – with no nailed-on GB medal hopes this year and live broadcasting time booked, they’ll snare top rowing names they know speak English, to fill the gap.   Surprisingly he fancies chewing the fat so we ruminate for a while on how the GB crews will do, some of the surprising races in earlier rounds, and whether or not the Dutch men’s eight can come good and shock everyone (probably not).  Normally he’s surrounded by other GB rowing gold medallists working for the BBC (James Cracknell, Garry Herbert, Katherine Grainger) so doesn’t talk to mere mortals, even ones who have known him for 30 years and used to cox him.  I suspect he’s a bit lonely at the moment with the rest all stuck in the UK.  But the nice thing about this sport is the way the real addicts tend to be those who stay around regattas even after retirement, and we can all witter for hours about who’s doing what, the latest equipment technology, and where the medals will go.  

Photographers sitting in the sun to capture the racing action

Snappers (photographers) are a different breed:  they also love chatting rowing, but are usually up at stupid o’clock each morning and first to the venue.  This is because the harsh overhead sunlight of the racing session is fine for stock boat and medal shots, but not exactly artistically fulfilling. So dawn, with the light low across Tokyo harbour casting long shadows from the athletes walking with boats on shoulders to the water, is their meat and drink.  Then the snappers sit burning up in the sun all day, stuck either on the start pontoon catching the first-stroke faces of the rowers, or beside the finish line ready to put celebrations into the album.  Will it be hands in the air, standing up, collapsing over the knees or smashing their hands on the water?    To the grandstand where I go and hide in the shade at the top until the sun moves and the writing desks are cool enough to sit at, and chew the fat again, this time with Gerritjan Eggenkamp, a lovely and very intelligent Dutchman who won the Boat Race with Oxford in 2002 before Olympic silver in the 2004 Dutch men’s eight, and is now the treasurer for the world rowing federation.  Good to hook up with friends like this for the first time in 22 months.  He gets a grandstand view of racing from the World Rowing offices up behind our desks but can’t resist sneaking out to watch some races live now and again and shoot the breeze.  As a VIP he will also get to join some medal ceremonies:  he and his colleagues, all former rowers, arrange who does what based on their country’s hopes.  G presents flowers to the women’s four and double, both of which end with Dutch medal-winners much to his satisfaction.

Cooling the phone down after interviews in the sun

Suddenly the medal racing has started, after a couple of hours of lesser non-medal finals.   I can watch the first medal races from the grandstand, taking notes and trying to capture the feel of the contest for my write-ups later, tweeting when it gets very exciting and trying to take a decent picture from the finish line.  Then an edgy 10-20 minutes waiting to see when the GB and other interesting rowers will come through the mix zone.  Long pause waiting for the BBC to finish interviewing them, keeping an eye out for non-GB medal hopes wandering through whom I can badger for a few quotes.  Hiding from the sun under the limited number of mix zone parasols, and blagging some iced water from the volunteers to cool my overworked phone/recorder down.  

The only results board visible in the mix zone – short on detail

When the next race starts I’m leaning over the fence into the TV pen to watch on a screen deliberately tilted away from the writing press (why?), so that I don’t entirely miss it.  The only results screen a simple text list. But I can’t leave the mix zone in case the Brits walk through.  Then as they arrive into our section, a sudden rush of adrenaline trying to think up the perfect opening question for someone who’s come fourth which will get them chatting.  “Not the result you wanted, but can you give us your take on that race?”  The one good thing about the rest of the mainstream press turning up is that we can share the questioning burden.  But especially when it’s a tough race, they often “let” me start, on the basis that I probably know how the outcome matches up to the rowers’ expectations.  

There’s an awkward bit at the end of any mix zone interview when neither the rowers nor the journalists really know if there’s anything else to say.  Twice this regatta we’ve reached that point when suddenly my final and rather rowing-specific question has resulted in a GB rower blurting out long-held concerns about treatment by others.  I think it’s the product of the team management having suppressed any interaction with the press, even by video, during the pandemic.  We had an ideal chance to talk to athletes out of season while the pandemic was going on, but fears that they would tell secrets about personal best scores and the coaching changes clearly inhibited the powers that be.  Bad move:  now there’s a two-year can of revelations waiting to be opened and the broadsheets and tabloids are poised to pounce for shock-horror headlines.  Ructions ensue, and the rowing action is downgraded to a couple of sentences tacked on the end.  I feel slightly bad my questions kicked it off — this feels uncomfortable for the sport and results in the outspoken athletes being ostracised by team-mates — yet wonder whether it isn’t a good thing.  GB Rowing has said that they want athletes to become more independently responsible and also better supported emotionally:  free speech about what they feel is part of both those aspects.  And the rowers knew they were talking on the record to the whole press.  

The end of a medal day has, in the past, been ecstatic for me.  Loads of GB medals even at the Olympics where they are hard to claim, and hugs with happy athletes whom I’ve known for years.  Then an emotional crash as I settle down to distill the experience into words, punctuated by reading tearful celebrations from the UK.  A writer’s work really begins while everyone else is packing up to go home. This year is different, with a silver and bronze the measly result of five years hard work and £27million in funding, and no consolatory hugs for anyone.  Britain 14th on the medal table, the worst for 49 years, and a clutch of fourth places, stereotypically described as ‘agonising’ by writers despite in some cases being better than could have been expected.  It’s not a disaster, and GB Rowing was lucky to have twelve years at the top of the sport.  These results have been coming since we first knew there was trouble in 2017:  athletes retire after which rebuilding has to happen.  I just hope that the rowers and coaches I know will have the guts to accept they weren’t quite good enough to win when the luck also went against them, and the mettle to throw themselves at the new challenge of rising back up the ranks of the rowing nations without expecting gold to turn up again instantly.  

And the British quad’s first-ever silver was truly brilliant: it needs to be celebrated. Two days after their result one of Britain’s former sculling stars Alan Campbell tweets from the Wetherspoons in Henley that the boys have flown home, two of them are with him, and that drinks can be sent to table 60. Half an hour later another tweet: “Send receipts please. They’re no serving us any more”…. The power of t’internet.

It’s a big deal winning a country’s first medal in a category – something to do with belief not yet existing. The GB men’s quad managed it.

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Tears on camera, and Tokyo nightfall

The story of tennis player Naomi Osaka’s recent concerns about press intrusion has affected everyone here, not least because national Olympic committees and team management keep quoting it at every chance.  So do venue media managers.  In the past there were rules saying that every athlete involved in a competitive session had to be prepared to talk to the press (TV, radio or written) straight after they finished.  But now the rule is that they must walk past us, but don’t have to stop, and even if we ask questions, they don’t have to answer them.  Nobody in charge wants to be accused of harassment or bullying an athlete.  

So it’s interesting to see what the athletes want to do.  Sometimes it’s at odds with their team advice.   
On Saturday, after the GB men’s eight performed so badly in their heat that they came last and put themselves into the repechage (a second-chance race included in some outdoor speed sports including rowing), Rio champion Moe Sbihi from the engine room of the crew was in to see the BBC.  Sbihi, a six-foot eight giant with a voice I have described as being like molten chocolate, who is the second Muslim to compete for British rowing at the Olympics, and the first to become a champion (also the first Muslim to carry the Team GB flag), could have refused to talk. Uppermost in reporters’ minds was the chance that his late night and early morning paddle might have impacted on their race.   In fact we were told by the rowing team’s press officer that he was going to walk through without stopping, and that she would be able to ask him just two questions herself while walking with him, sending us the answers afterwards.

Norway’s seven-time Olympian and double Olympic champion Olaf Tufte, grimacing as he repeatedly fights back tears over his crew’s defeat and relegation to the B-final.

But Sbihi, who has since 2013 been keen to live up to his responsibilities, not only stopped but chatted for a long time, with no question off-limits.  Good guy.  It really makes a difference when athletes can give time to those who have travelled to see them in real life, something which has become even more apparent this summer when so many press are staying away.  

Matching the Briton for courage — and with a tougher reason — was Norwegian legend Olaf Tufte, who faced up to the press for more than an hour after his men’s quad lost their last chance to get to the Olympic final.  At his seventh Olympics (he has two silvers and two golds from the previous six), Tufte aged 45 took on the task of propelling to the medal final a Norwegian quad filled with youngsters born when he was already competing as a senior.  

It didn’t quite come off and Tufte, a household name in his home country, the Norwegian equivalent of Steve Redgrave, felt utterly responsible.  He stood for ages speaking in both Norwegian and English, repeatedly choking back tears as his dream of leading the next generation to the top race in the world lay in tatters.  One of the strong men of the sport of rowing, who has already inspired new Norwegian world champions in a country which doesn’t find summer sports easy, breaking with misery yet determined not to run away and hide.

Sunset sweeps in fast in Tokyo at around 7pm, and from the looks of it a red sky at night is warning of rain coming in from the west, which British rowing coach Paul Stannard captured the other day from the high-up floors of the GB Rowing team in the Olympic village.  My hotel doesn’t have quite such a gorgeous view….

Bus timetable changes led to a nice experience in the evening, walking several streets to my hotel since the nearest drop-off point was at a hotel a few blocks away.  The Hamacho area is a mix:  office buildings, some malls (none near me), quite a lot of tiny restaurants and cafes (most of which shut at 8pm and are off-limits to me except by delivery), a mini-market on most blocks. Soaring modern buildings with old architectural curiosities tucked into corners and crannies.  

As dusk fell the relatively empty streets were dotted with locals walking their dogs in the cool of the evening.  There’s an offer of some kind of permitted press tour which I might try to take advantage of after the rowing finishes:  normally I’d be out and about for several days but if I can’t do that then a guided tour would be more mind-expanding than being indoors.  

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Time catching up with me

Time runs oddly at the Olympics.  It may be the hours frittered away waiting for things to happen (buses to arrive, races to start).  It may be the fact that I never allow for having to write long Telegraph pieces, which then turn out to be needed.  Nor for the basic tasks such as eating and walking around.  But it’s probably just because there’s a lot to do and some of it has to be reactive.  My illustrious Telegraph predecessor Geoffrey Page and his like aside, you really can’t write a sports story before the action has happened.

Geoffrey — portly, beset with health troubles from mid-life onwards, with a knack for making everyone run round after him — was one of the old school, and they delighted in writing the story or at least most of it before the crews had crossed the line.  It was a badge of honour, being able to predict the outcome, and if you were canny you could always pretend the unexpected development was what you’d expected all along.  My older colleagues in the former British Association of Rowing Journalists (BARJ) tell stories of the real old-timers like Jim Railton, who would write their article (and sometimes even file it to the phone-in copytakers) then go and get legless and/or go to sleep, hoping that when they came back to consciousness nothing would have gone wrong.  I’ve never had the nerve to do that, and in fact don’t feel inspired enough to think up good phrases before the event.  

Anyway, by Saturday 24th July I was suffering from writing lag, too tired on 4-5 hours sleep a night to keep my eyes open while writing this blog.  When you fall asleep while typing, you know your body’s telling you to stop.  It’s my fault – too much time spent on my feet in the mix zone not writing, and too much live-tweeting too, some would say.  But the tweeting (mostly to rowing fans stuck back in the UK) does help me process what’s going on and sometimes throws up stories and ideas I can use later.
So I called it a night, went to bed early, told my Row360 editor (fortunately himself away for the day/night) I’d send everything late, and just got some kip.  This is where being 8 hours ahead works, since while I was waking up on Sunday morning local time, everyone in the UK still thought it was Saturday.  Bonus, though it means this blog is now very delayed.  

The other oddity is how quickly you settle into a routine at the Olympics.  Even when I’ve had to cover other sports for the Telegraph in previous Games, it’s a reassuringly regular treadmill.  Here the day begins with a lateral flow test in my hotel room (in case I need to attend TeamGB press conferences), but not logging the result on the system until it’s past midnight in the UK.  Then take my temperature — it’s the first time I’ve had to take a digital thermometer to an Olympics — and log it in the OCHA health app.  If I forget to do it I get increasingly insistent reminders by email and on the app throughout the day.  Check that I’ve got everything I might need for the day – sunscreen, glasses, rate watch, wallet, computer, adaptor, connectors, taxi vouchers and of course the crucial accreditation.  Finally downstairs to take a special dedicated taxi to the rowing course — arranged by TOCOG because most of us aren’t in Japan for more than 14 days so aren’t yet allowed to take public transport.  This is a major bonus, because otherwise my only option is one bus to the central transport mall and another out to the course, taking 60-90 minutes depending on connections.  Instead the taxi whizzes me there in 20-25 minutes.

Looking west along the Sumida River, a tranquil perfect rowing club location, surely?

We’ve gone several routes to the course over the last few days, once over the iconic Tokyo Gate Bridge, which brought me down the off-ramp along the south side of the rowing course, though at too high a speed to see much.  Mostly we go variations on the route wending its way past the main press centre and various venues, then under a very deep tunnel below the harbour, and across to the “man made dump island” which is what the rowing venue island is apparently called in Japanese.  Tokyo has quite a lot of elevated roads, some even double-height, curving around 21st century business towers and past more residential districts.   The amount of gorgeously rowable water here is extraordinary – if they had the keen rowing community that London has, they’d be amazing at the sport because there are clearly many 2-3km unused stretches, often connected, with flat largely non-tidal water and plenty of nearby space for rafts and boathouses.  Inner-city rowing sprints of the type tried in Bristol a few years ago would be fantastic here. 

Looking south from the Tokyo Gate Bridge
Satellite map of the rowing island, man-made, and used normally for industrial and waste processing.
The Metropolitan Surplus Soil Recycling facility

After passing all that, we usually take the Second Channel Undersea Tunnel (upper left of the map), continue south past the Tokyo Rinkai ECO Clean centre, and then turn left onto the road along the northern side of the course.  Past the Central Breakwater Waste Processing Facility and the unlabelled Tokyo Metropolitan Government Environmental centre (which has Tokyo 2020 branding stretched across its top floor in defiance of the general local disinterest in the Games), and then left again to pass between the Oversized Garbage Crushing & Processing facility and the rather colourful Tokyo Metropolitan Surplus Soil Recycling facility.  A bit of jiggery-pokery looping round a roundabout and through some traffic cones near the Nittsu Central Breakwater Container Yard, then right onto the back road along past the Sansyu Bussan Daiba Yard (clearly some kind of reclaim/recycling), and round the back of the Olympic cross-country course down a long undulating unmarked tarmac road.  We can’t see anything of the equestrian venue, because surrounding the gentle turf and jumps of the cross-country course are thick forests of recently planted trees.  I can always tell when the driver’s nervous because he will begin to take his foot off the accelerator, wondering if this bizarre industrial wasteland is the right place.  Time for a lot of nodding, thumbs up, and “yes, yes”.  

The container loading docks behind the rowing island

Top left corner of the island, turn right at the Central Breakwater Signal Station, and past the technicolour container loading docks which are magnetically visible catching the eye every time you see them.  Along the short end of the island, round a few more corners, and into the parking lot behind the Outdoor Boat area.  By this point my taxi driver is always completely bemused, because I have a different one every time, and pathetically grateful that I do know exactly where we’re meant to be going.  Sign his chitty, which will see his company paid directly by the Olympic Organising Committee, and a short walk to security and then into the back of the venue and the grandstand. 

At this stage in the event I like carrying on working at the venue as long as possible after racing finishes at lunchtime, it’s a good chance to find out more aboWorld Rowing decisions, scheduling, and to see crews training.  While I’m working the UK is waking up, and there starts to be a trickle of emails.  Restrain myself from the temptation of texting friends at their 5am in the morning…. Going back in the evening I use the buses, so as to save up my taxi vouchers as I only have 14 and need to save a few for emergencies and going to the airport in early August.  The buses, unlike the taxis, are beautifully air-conditioned and have their own Games wifi, plus the chance of some journalists I know to chatter to and swap rowing gossip.  The innovation in London of running an Olympic Transport app was a great move since copied by Rio and Tokyo, and it means there is less chance of being left behind by mistake at a venue.

On busy rowing days I don’t bother to go to the Main Press Centre but hop straight from the rowing venue bus onto another official bus to my hotel, and carry on scribbling, transferring photos to the computer and uploading online.  Quick chat with the hotel desk asking them to book the next day’s taxi (always better done by a Japanese speaker) then upstairs to take off the accreditation for the first time in 12 hours, decide what to order for dinner through Uber Eats — since we aren’t allowed to go to restaurants ourselves — do some more writing, and finally flop.  


A few hours later, repeat.

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Journalism and working the system

Days when you crack a travel hitch are always good, and Friday began with a dream whizz to the rowing venue with a taxi driver who knew exactly what he was doing and slid eel-like through security with a casual smile and wave of his official pass.  Which got me to my desk at the water’s side right on time as the first race came past.  Later on the day turned mildly crazy but that’s par for the course especially when rowing races begin.  

Let me describe what a day in the life of a working sports specialist hack is like at the Olympics.  It is essential, before competition begins, that you have nailed certain keys to working success, such as where to grab a free coffee, taming the complex Olympic printing system, mastering the (limited) opening hours for the expensive media food counter, memorising the return bus timetable and discovering how to score a chilled water off the media centre volunteers, when they are determined to make you take one which has been sitting in the warm air for several hours.  At an outdoor sport such as rowing, you also need to have worked out which corner of the open-sided media tribune (press grandstand) will first get the shade, and beat the Italian and German writers — who put invisible towels on everything if not heavily discouraged — to bag a spot there.  If you’re lucky, such a spot will also be out of the range of rain flying in under the roof when it begins to pour, will have decent wifi and power sockets, and will have a helpful and non-obstructive volunteer nearby.

A selection of photographers sitting waiting for races to come past, in the hot Tokyo sun in front of our more comfortable shaded grandstand

My personal jobs at a regatta are multiple:  storing up information and ideas for stories for Row360 (the specialist magazine I regularly write for), keeping an eye out for anything which the Daily/Sunday Telegraph might want, but also live commenting as @rowingvoice on Twitter.  I realised long ago that while TV footage is good and articles are fine to read later, those who can’t travel but would want to watch — rowing parents and friends, former athletes/press now too busy to attend, general rowing geeks — find live commentary and chuntering entertaining.  I do it from all international regattas I attend, and also from Henley Royal Regatta where there’s always something going on out of sight of the cameras. Grist to this mill includes rumours, nerdy details, background thoughts and speculation, and off-camera incidents the official commentators are never going to draw to your attention.  It used to be one-sided via webpages, but Twitter has added an interactive dimension, with regular readers dropping suggestions, questions and answers, or asking me to find out something specific not visible on the TV coverage.  I used to write what was happening in the racing, but there’s not often much need now that smartphones allow virtually everyone to listen to or watch coverage themselves.

So the day begins with a weather update, the first racing, some tweeting, chat with other journalists about how the big names are doing, and then at the Olympics it’s time to brave the mix zone.  At most championships this doesn’t appear until the medal races start, but at the Games it’s expected that nearly all athletes will traipse through a maze of railings after they race, in case a TV crew, radio interviewer or writing journalist wants to get a few comments on how things are going.  That sounds great, but it’s made more complex by the hierarchy of importance long established at the Games.  

The mix zone in Tokyo – athletes on the outside right, TV cameras and interviewers inside with a 2m gap. The athletes walk towards the tower down the TV row, to radio at the far end then back round towards the tents for writing press. The tents are for athletes not press – we just burn in the sun….

Top dog is the OBS (Olympic Broadcasting Service) which monopolises all the most interesting people first.  Running them a close second are the BBC, NBC, Eurosport/Discovery and the host’s main television station, who send back live reaction from favourite athletes to their eager national audiences.  Which one wins depends on the sport, but BBC always bags a better spot than any other country at rowing due to some unseen alchemy.  Next are agencies which sell TV coverage to multiple places, and international news/sport services such as CNN.  During the Olympics, even arcane sports make the main news. That’s the whole of one side of the mix zone.  Round the corner to radio, which is a shrinking option nowadays but is still regarded as being only slightly less important than TV.  Then down the other side is the area I’m allowed into, for writing press.  This is also hierarchical:  the OBS writers who grab “quick quotes” to publish instantly onto the press MyInfo system always get first bite followed by agencies such as PA and Reuters who file quick stories to be used around the world by those who can’t send journalists.  This is fine when they limit themselves to the standard couple of questions, but sometimes when the writer is the same nation as the athlete they indulge themselves and ask half a dozen, not letting anyone else get a look-in.  

In the writing press part of the zone, with 2m gap between the right-hand barriers and athletes (under parasols) to the right.

By this point the athlete is hot, bothered, keen to get away, and often being urged to hurry back to shade and rest by their team press officer or by a coach.  So the rest of the writing press don’t always get a look-in.  This is where it helps to know the athletes, and where the pandemic has made it much more difficult since there are newcomers to the team I’ve never even met, let alone interviewed.  Fortunately on Friday the OBS and agencies didn’t mind the British writers joining them in a single huddle, but that may stop later in the week.

Why do we all need to talk to athletes, you may ask?  One reason is that there is nothing like using their own words to describe what happened.  A typical sports news story is pretty short – 200 to 500 words – and needs to cram in what happened, where, when, who was involved, followed by how and why.  

I could write “Bloggs was surprised by the speed of Jones in the third quarter of the race” but that isn’t nearly as good as Bloggs saying “Just when I thought I had it wrapped up, Jones put in this massive sprint and came back on me, so I went up a gear and luckily pulled through”.  But equally, we don’t all want to write the same story with the exact same quotes — or why would anyone buy your publication? — and journalists may have different angles they want to emphasise as well as different languages in which they want to quiz the athletes.  

Agencies and OBS writers often work to the lowest common denomination, asking simplistic non-sport questions, and particularly for specialists this can be frustrating.  Emotions need to be conveyed, but without the context of understanding the sport it’s just a soap opera story which doesn’t work when writing for a rowing publication whose readers want to know why the crew unexpectedly came third.  On the flip side it’s rewarding when a good rowing question elicits a smile from the rower and a proper answer you know the knowledgeable readers will want to hear.  We do interview in groups (bang goes the social distancing) but tend to choose different selections from the answers, though there is quite a bit of cooperation in swapping audio files and transcriptions especially when someone has a technical malfunction.  Oli Rosenbladt, a long-time American friend and fluent German speaker interviewing for the US specialist website Row2k, kindly translated some of the answers to domestic media from Germany’s top sculler, while the Sun’s assigned reporter Rob Maul traded transcriptions of interviews for a bit of rowing know-how so that he could avoid misunderstanding specialist terms.  Funnily enough I don’t think I’ve met Rob before but he made a bee-line for me at the start of the day, clearly knowing that I can’t resist the chance to explain our weird sport to outsiders. 

My workspace for the week, with a spectator grandstand to the left and the scaffolding holding up the massive outdoor screen to the right.
Barriers stop coaches and athletes bagging media desks (and they will do it if allowed).

There is, of course, one hiccup.  Fun as it might be to talk to athletes, since Beijing 2008 the mix zone has always been located out of sight of the race — either behind a building or past the finish line.  So you trade watching live rowing for talking to live rowers, and that means rushing about between grandstand and mix zone.  On Friday a series of unfortunate mishaps led to me going silent on the tweeting — there’s no point when I’m not seeing anything to tweet about — because I was stuck waiting in the mix zone for an athlete who never appeared, catching up with racing only on TV.  It makes you wonder sometimes why you’ve bothered to fly halfway across the world.  But it’s also a typical early-days teething problem and has to be appreciated as a chance to work out how to do it better later on.  
Despite all this, the urge to grab a quote or find a real story is strong, and of course time-limited.  Today’s news will be tomorrow’s common knowledge.  Once in a while though the embedded rowing knowledge and contacts pay off.  

Four hours before the opening ceremony began I was tipped the rumour that World Rowing were asking permission from the IOC to move the men’s and women’s eights races from Sunday to Saturday, which would mean Moe Sbihi racing 16 hours after carrying the British flag into the Olympic stadium.  A rival in a similar position, New Zealand eights member and double Olympic champion Hamish Bond, had already withdrawn from the Kiwi flag honour, and been replaced.  Unsuccessfully chasing down Moe quotes to see if this worried him, I realised he must still be going ahead given that the excuse for why I couldn’t talk to him was “he’s busy with opening ceremony duties”.  But even knowing that a change was on the cards — because of bad weather forecast for Monday which meant Monday and Sunday races had to be squeezed into the weekend — put me ahead of the game, especially since not even the GB rowing press officer had known it was likely.    It took three hours to confirm the story and file it to the Telegraph, who then cherry-picked parts to use for a general ceremony piece while I crawled home knackered.  

And then finally the ceremony, watched on my computer at the hotel, thanking my employers Oxford University for giving us a free VPN account which means that the BBC iPlayer thinks I am in the UK even when I’m away.  (Channel 4 is more sophisticated and can still tell the difference). Opening ceremony tickets are always like hen’s teeth at the Games, and the sports sketch writers are the ones who are allowed to go, so I never get the chance to go.  Mind you, my best opening ceremony experience was in Beijing, where my hotel room had a balcony 200m away from the Bird’s Nest stadium, so the GB rowing press sat there drinking beers and watching the fireworks live after seeing the main ceremony on-screen.  

With medal races still several days away, the daytime is frittered away waiting for athletes, changing plans about articles, chasing information, and then sitting on buses (though I’m now adept at typing with my laptop on my knee, as many journalists do). I can’t wait for Monday — with rowing rescheduled it will be much more of a day off.  No opportunity at the COVID Games to bag a pass into a different sport, alas: in previous years I’ve seen live track cycling, athletics, diving, handball, hockey, pentathlon, gymnastics and triathlon when I have time.  Now all that is banned because I am not needed to write about them, and touristing visits to other venues aren’t allowed. But I can have a lie-in and watch all of that on TV.  And I might even get my washing done….

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Not so much calm before the storm

80 national flags at the rowing venue, along with the IOC and FISA (World Rowing) flags, a record for the sport at the Olympics

The phoney war feel of the last day before the Olympics is a great time for shocking stories to break. This time there were two, the sacking of the director of the Olympic opening ceremony after he made a shocking anti-Semitic joke, and the publicly broadcast derogation of a female colleague by John Coates, a strongminded Australian Olympic and rowing bigwig who successfully spearheaded the Brisbane bid to bag the 2032 Games.  Coates told his colleague she had to go to the Tokyo opening ceremony rather than lurk in her hotel, in a manner covering both bullying and misogynism which stunned all who heard it.  By contrast the few sporting stories were anticlimactic.  No doping busts – at least not since yesterday’s public booting-out of Australian show-jumper Jamie Kermode, caught with cocaine metabolites in his system from a test taken after a social event in June.  Unfortunately for his professional career most recreational drugs are rather effectively performance-enhancing so a World Anti-Doping Agency ban after the current provisional suspension is highly likely, especially since he’s admitted it. 

The COVID case numbers associated with the Games continue to grow slowly, though on Thursday there were more new cases amongst athletes who haven’t yet travelled to Japan than there were in the Village.  The Czech Olympic Committee has had to investigate its delegation’s safety behaviour after a fifth person associated with the beach volleyball team came down with the bug, but the overall numbers are still very low.  Total Olympic-related cases are now more than 90, but that’s including all diagnoses since 1st July when the techs and volunteers came in, and most of them are amongst support or background staff rather than coaches or athletes.  There were 12 new cases at the Games on Wednesday, only four of which were athletes.  But walking about, I can see why we might have ended up like this since COVID-precautionary behaviour very much varies.  Yes, there’s a lot of handwashing and sanitising going on, yes there are signs everywhere.  However it seems to be lip service.  

The Japanese constantly cluster together to chatter when not having to do anything particular, come right up to you to talk unless asked not to, and the perspex screens in front of helpdesks are routinely leaned around.  On Games buses at busy times volunteers urge us to move right up the bus or sit together on double seats (this is after we were reassured that 1m+ distancing would be mandatory on transport), and the overspill press seats in the rowing grandstand are only 0.75m apart, even with every other one blocked out.  Athletes tell me that behaviour in the Village is actually very good, but amongst the officials and volunteers it does not surprise me that cases are continuing to spread. 

I had a taxi-borne tour around the seafront this morning while the driver tried to find the entrance to the rowing (sorted out when I recognised the massive quarry/stonebreaking operation near the start line) and spotted a massive Ferris wheel not far from the main press centre.  The bits of Tokyo I’ve seen are actually rather lovely:  it has a charm similar to London because it’s grown organically over centuries, so flyovers and tunnels wind through old and new buildings, but it’s also very green.  Trees, bushes and little gardens can be found everywhere, the bigger plants offering shade in the heat of the day and balm to jaded citydweller eyes, mixing effortlessly with the 21st century high-rises.  

The intricate harbour and docks area which has been colonised by the Olympics yields views of sparkling blue harbour sea round unexpected corners, but tides only move by a few feet daily since the edge is a long way from the open ocean.  On the way back from the rowing the bus took us past one particularly neat Japanese style choice:  an elevated bullet track heading for Tokyo main station painted a beautiful sky blue underneath.  The effect was to make it feel light and airy, instead of massive and metallic, soaring above the city lightly rather than bearing down on it.  I shall imagine the Chiswick flyover given the same treatment next time I go to the Tideway, and see if that helps dispel the rain-stained gloom.

The rowing course is a channel formerly used for dockland industry now blocked at both ends, though it still has two much-used bridges across it.  There’s a lock near the finish line, and the island on which the rowing has been plonked has had a whole new park (complete with forests and noisy-as-hell cicadas) grown on the acres behind the rowing frontage.  The plan is for this park to be used for the equestrian cross-country event next Sunday, before the rowing waterway is switched to sprint canoeing. On the other side of the channel, directly opposite the grandstands, a long road sweeps gently up and eastwards to turn into the Tokyo Gate Bridge, its steel bones giving it the appearance of two crouching dinosaurs facing one another. Since the Japanese drive on the left, anyone rolling slowly towards the bridge in a traffic jam during the mornings next week will get a perfect view of the best rowers in the world fighting it out in gold-medal finals.

The Tokyo Gate Bridge, aka the Dinosaur Bridge, arching past the finish end of the rowing course

The media room late afternoon was starting to hum with activity, as opening ceremony tickets were crowed about, despite the scandals and a comment from a senior ceremony advisor that the Friday night event will be more “sobering nevertheless beautiful” rather than a celebration.  Someone in the TOCOG offices has not forgotten that they’re holding the Games after more than 4 million people have died after catching the wretched misbegotten virus.  Tempers were fraying – one mild-looking bloke wandered past conducting a lengthy argument with his mobile phone and uttering the immortal phrase “You’re questioning my professional integrity”, which just whetted the desire to slink along behind him and find out the rest of the story.  Surely involving his editor.  The adrenaline is rising surreptitiously in all of us, fuelled by the early contests which include women’s soccer, baseball and softball, and tomorrow, rowing.  

Soon we will be plunged into the full panoply and madness of the Games.

Can’t wait. 

Rachel Quarrell

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

The vaunted Olympic logo is everywhere at the venues

Sshhhh…. nothing to see here

The subtle approach

There’s a secret lurking between the green avenues and harbour bridges of Tokyo.  The five-ringed circus, that extravaganza commonly called the Olympics, is hiding away and trying to pretend it isn’t about to start.  On the day when IOC President Thomas Bach said “Cancellation was never an option for us”, only for Tokyo chief Toshiro Muto to say he didn’t rule cancellation out if cases rose to too big a number, the outward signs of an Olympics in town are minimal to the point of pulling off a vanishing trick.  

No flags, billboards or bunting around the place.  No banners on every lamppost, not even outside venues.  Just one half-hidden bridge banner spotted in my ride across the city on Wednesday morning.  No mascots gambolling in the streets.  It’s incredibly low-key.  Tokyo’s own infection burden is rising, with 1800 new city cases on Wednesday of which only  two or three were Olympics-related, and a total now of eight cases overall at the Games.  But with an alleged 10,000 volunteers having pulled out (not that as many are needed with no spectators around the place) there are concerns rising locally.  At this rate they won’t even hold a fireworks display on Friday night, even though in bangs (literally) for bucks it does give a very good socially-distanced return.  They don’t dare antagonise the local population, which is why none of the press or athletes are allowed into anywhere which sells alcohol, even after their first 14 days in the country. 

Cases are not rising fast, the IOC says Games breaches of rules seem to be very minor and largely due to forgetfulness, and it’s possible some of the handful of positive participants may have caught the virus en route or before they left.  That’s certainly true of at least one athlete picked up as positive at the airport.  Anyway, Team GB are being elaborately careful, and the head BOA honcho out here took the time to warn me that apparently a Romanian press guy had his accreditation withdrawn for not following rules.  I’m being as careful as I can, though after a year at Oxford trying to stay well away from infectious students, it’s second nature.  Though there was a nasty moment as a guy walking past me sneezed into his elbow in the food canteen.  Ugh.  Where’s that hand sanitiser gone?

Tokyo stash

Wednesday had some minor victories – picking up free stash from the BOA’s Team GB office and also from TOCOG.  And laughing at my US friends’ attempts to generate a Dick van Dyke-like Mockney accent good enough to food Team GB into handing them a British bag too.   However, things aren’t as generous as they used to be:  the high point was Beijing 2008 when all press got a massive backpack with 50-odd freebies and gadgets in, some of which I still use today.  (Athens, before that, wasn’t quite as open-handed but did include a weighty and convincing resin replica of an Ancient Olympics discus, which was bizarrely wonderful, even if it did tip my suitcase into overweight on the way back.)  London and Rio yielded a backpack, a water bottle and a pen, and Tokyo isn’t very different.  

The TeamGB bag had nothing in, the TOCOG one a COVID-friendly reusable seat cover for the press tribune (no thanks), a handy but heavy media handbook, something which is either a very heavy and unfashionable canvas neckscarf or a decent enough mini tablecloth, and some “salt chewable candy tablets” which I intend to inflict on unsuspecting jobsworth volunteers if they direct me to the wrong place…. I also scored some taxi vouchers for free rides, which might just get me to the course early tomorrow if the hotel reception has managed to book the taxi for me, and checked out some of the main press centre shops and restaurants.   

The atrium of the MPC

For once the writing press have lucked out, being housed in a stunning and massive four-floor pagoda-like exhibition and conference centre normally called Tokyo Big Sight, which is airy, cool, spacious and felt almost empty even in the afternoon when more press had come out of quarantine.  No, I’ve no clue what the big fake saw is doing there – rather an aggressive artefact for a conference centre, though perhaps they’d just been hosting a carpenters’ convention.

Lunch was a rich seafood and beef broth with cold noodles (yum) and my tastebuds are once more getting used to the Japanese cold green tea drink which is ubiquitous and probably quite good for you.  


The main press room (below) will look huge to most people, but is in fact much smaller than normal, probably because a lot of press are staying at home. This is the annoying period, when every time you look round another local news reporter turns out to be using you as a backdrop for their straight-to-air piece about how the Games is gearing up to start, but they’ll get tired of doing it soon, and I haven’t yet had to use the standard tactic of setting my phone’s ringtone off very loudly in the middle of their filming.  (The less classy version is burping loudly, but one has to keep standards up).  The funniest thing I saw at the press centre was this, the smoking queue:  there’s a line about a dozen long of people waiting to go into a small outdoor garden section labelled for smokers, to get their nicotine hit in a hurry before going back indoors.  I didn’t see any nicotine patches in the shop, but if they stock them they must be doing a roaring trade.  

Queueing to cram in more nicotine
Half the Main Press Centre workroom. – the other half is behind me

Already bewildered by 16 months of seeing masks, on top of a bit of genetic face-blindness inherited from my maternal grandmother, my brain’s recognition centre is totally bamboozled now that I’m back in a sports press centre.  Everywhere you look there are shortish, fattish blokes with saggy t-shirts and receding or greying hair (the former have it cut short, the latter wear it long because they’re ‘arty’ types), all of whom look vaguely familiar because they resemble sportswriters, techs or snappers I’ve known.  There’s a lovely line in one of Terry Pratchett’s genius books where he refers to ‘Interchangeable Emmas’, who look down at heel but display great competence, and I reckon this lot are Interchangeable Andys.  Or possibly Brians or Tims.  But it’s a good-natured community, and it’s very common for people to earwig conversations on coaches and in queues, which makes it much quicker to find out useful things.  

One question buzzing round all our heads currently is whether or not it’s possible to walk from the MPC (main press centre, purveyor of wifi and food) to the MTM (media transport mall, the hub from which all our coaches depart to various venues and hotels).   There is a shuttle, which is pretty convenient, but the distance is only about 900m, and could well be quicker at bad traffic times.  Plus we are all banned from going for runs or using athlete static bikes/ergs this year, so a bit of a walk could be good for the soul.

One hack next to me in the shuttle spotted what we think may be a path route to walk between the two, on a side of the MPC which could be quite cool and shadowed in the mornings, so at some point I’ll try and find where it starts.  

Just behind the rowing venue, looking west towards Haneda Airport

The problem is that there are massive areas we simply aren’t allowed to go into, and that includes many areas near roads, because they’re scared we will get run over by Olympic vehicles, of which there are thousands.  

I’ll do more about the rowing venue – which I visited for the first time on Wednesday – later on, but the red letter discovery is that I can see the back of the course area from the MTM transport mall area.  And this is because the Sea Forest Waterway, as it’s called, is a patch of water between two manmade islands in the same docklands region of Tokyo as the majority of Olympic areas, so it’s the closest it’s been for years to the centre of the action.  

A mere 15 minutes by slow official coach door to door from the MTM to the venue, and no spectators means very quick security checks.  Bonus!  There are two massive wind turbines on the island where the rowing grandstand and venue is located, and the Tokyo Gate Bridge the other end of which I can see from the MTM.  

The course view from the rowing press tribune, with the westerly end of the Tokyo Gate Bridge visible beyond the finish line
Looking from the Media Transport Mall to the back of the rowing island, with one wind turbine visible and the bridge hidden by the green ridge

I was also delighted to find I’d been right when I thought I spotted the rowing waterway from the plane as we landed on Tuesday:  I was peering out over the wing and suddenly realised I was seeing rowing pontoons in their characteristic big-venue configuration, while our plane buzzed the entire course from finish to start before landing nearby at Haneda airport.  The flight path veers a bit with the wind, but on Wednesday was almost directly overhead.  And yes, the umpires do have permission to hold a race for up to 2 minutes so the noise doesn’t interfere with the start:  luckily a plane even slowing to land swipes past the whole 2km course in a handful of seconds, so it’s not too big an issue. 

Jetlag nearly over (I hope), feet mostly found, nearly feeling ready for the start of racing early on Friday morning local time.  Most of the Games action will be from midnight to 2pm UK time once it gets started, but at least the racing sessions are short, allowing plenty of writing time afterwards.  This is my second Asian Games (to add to two European and one South American) and as long as the publishers the other end don’t mind you filing early and going to bed, I think I prefer the timezones a long way ahead, certainly much easier than being 4 hours behind as we were in Rio.  

Rachel Quarrell.

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online. 

Landing tangled in red tape

Diary of a Tokyo 2020 journalist, visiting her fifth Olympic Games
Olympic Chronicle Day 1

Surreality has reigned for the last sixteen months, hasn’t it.  How many times have you suddenly wondered if this global pandemic is some weird fever dream, and that you’ll just jolt awake and find out it’s a bad joke?  But going to an Olympic Games in the middle of said pandemic is layering bizarreness onto phantasmagoria, making for the oddest experience.  A mix of bureaucracy, intense Olympic insanity, high-level sporting achievement and the no-contact vacuum left by the coronavirus whose sole aim, it seems, is to sever contact between humans.  When am I going to wake up?

The trail of red tape trailing me across the skies from Oxford to Japan started months before (of which more later), and culminated in a spaghetti-like tangle in Tokyo Haneda Airport, where we were processed like cars being built in a Toyota robot factory to get into the country.  A direct result of the administrative noodling is that I now know my (new) passport number off by heart, along with the entire address and phone number of the Hotel Tokoyo Inn Nihombashi Hamacho Meijiza Mae, my home for the next two weeks.  Along with my Olympic accreditation number, flight numbers and a bunch of fresh passwords for the many apps and logins I will need just to function on a daily basis at the Games.

Japan is in fact closed to non-residents at the moment, with an extremely limited list of people who don’t have Japanese nationality or residency allowed in.  Fortunately tucked away right at the bottom of that list is “those engaged on Olympic or Paralympic business”, the important waiver accorded to all those with formal Games accreditation.  This relatively short trip (no I’m not staying for the Paralympics in September, specialist writers rarely ever get accreditation for the second Games) is so I can see and write about live international rowing for the first time in nearly two years.   

The real get-out-of-jail-free card is the Pre-Valid Card, a bit of standard Olympic business which is sent to you a month or two before the Games.  This slip of paper with name, photo and accreditation number on it is the single most important item I possess at the moment, acting as my visa to visit Japan, my pandemic permission, my pass into every Games location, and the best bit of photo ID while I’m in Tokyo.  Usually it would also act as a bonus travelcard, getting me free public transport anywhere in Tokyo, but since I’m limited to non-public travel for the whole of my two weeks stay, instead I’ll be getting Games vouchers for an Olympic equivalent of Uber cars.  

In normal times getting into an Olympic host country is the easiest process imaginable.  Walk swiftly through the passport check in a special Olympic lane, wave the PVC at everyone, line up for a slick operation which laminates the PVC paper into an A6 accreditation card which will live round my neck on a lanyard for the whole of my stay, and then go and pick up your bags before being whisked away by official transport to your accommodation.  Simples.  

Confirmation that this would be no normal Olympic arrival began an hour before landing, when the Japan Airlines stewardesses gave out no fewer than four bits of paper. Customs card, immigration card, written pledge that we had to sign saying we would do everything required for a stay in Japan during the times of COVID, and a health declaration.  The latter was a written form of something I’d already had to fill in twice online, and everything needed the full name and address of my hotel, to be written into a single square inch of paper.  Just for fun, Japanese dates seem to alternate so one minute you have to write the year first, next time the day first, and it’s never the same twice running.  

But as I finished my mad scribbling on pieces of paper, the plane dipped a wingtip and turned south from its Great Circle trajectory towards Tokyo, and I had my first motivating glimpse of Japan’s northern mountains through cottonwool clouds before we descended over the capital. Grimly clasping my folder of paperwork, I stepped into Haneda’s terminal and into a Huis Clos nightmare of queues and admin, including a blizzard of “arigato” thank-yous and bows issuing from every keen volunteer.  

Fifteen different admin stages — I counted — with the nervy highlight being the saliva PCR test, which is real-time analysed on-site at the airport and thus only takes a relatively short while to get results.  Reporters spat repeatedly to load their saliva tubes to the mandatory and surprisingly high red 1ml line (not including bubbles, you try it) and then filled the 30-60 minutes wait joking about how we’d all just signed a pledge that we would stay well away from others at all times, but had been herded into different queues with volunteers urging us to stand much closer together.  

Lucky to have a short test delay of just over half an hour, I was less freaked out than I’d expected to be starting to smell the hordes of unwashed, post-flight media and technicians as we waited in queue 12 to go through to immigration checks, in fact it felt almost reassuringly normal despite the accompanying fret that this might mean I was close enough to be pinged by some idiot who had caught COVID after their PCR test.  I had quickly realised that brandishing the yellow OCHA piece of paper, given at the start, got me into each new Olympic queue fast with a mere wave, and similarly holding up the small pink slip confirming my test was negative sent me swiftly through the next three stages with a bow rather than being stopped and asked to show it to yet another person stationed to check that a non-tested journalist hadn’t managed to sneak through.  Small wins.

Nerd alert – the next four paragraphs are a bit technical

I said I’d talk about the pre-Olympic stages, well they haven’t been easy.  TOCOG (the city Organising Committee of an Olympic Games is always given such a moniker, LOCOG being the uneasy acronym for the 2012 Games which always made me think of synonyms for ‘mad’)…. TOCOG has distinguished itself with a frankly Kafkaesque ludicrosity finely calculated to send any self-respecting journo round the twist.  The attention to detail has been minute, with specific instructions issued for everything from how to get saliva test kits to how to travel from one Games venue to another.  So far so standard, even if hyped to the max with all the extra COVID-related bumf.  But TOCOG’s added a layer of insanity, because virtually every system manual has some key bit missing or delivered late.  The in-Tokyo COVID test kit booking info came through the day before I flew, and turned out to be impossible to access without at least 6 days notice (this is when I was 2 days away from needing my first three kits and might have needed to quarantine).  Logging into the Press Extranet – for venue info and travel timetables – unexpectedly needed a Microsoft account, which was easy-peasy for me since I already have one as a staff member at Oxford.  But it turned out several important sections of various websites and apps didn’t activate until you were already in Japan, though of course the manuals never said so.  One particularly vital manual, delivered by Powerpoint, turned out to need a level of Microsoft access no journalist had, while my Activity Plan file to show where I would be and when was protected by a password of a length many computers don’t recognise.  Another I was sent was a blank file, didn’t contain any data at all, so it was impossible to copy key codes from it to a very important website which would confirm the Activity Plan.

Then to cap all this it became quickly apparent that TOCOG were not really keeping up their side of the bargain.  The standard answer was that their helpdesk was overwhelmed and meanwhile would I kindly consult the manual – that was a corker when the enquiry was about the impossible-to-access manual. Two different TOCOG phonelines were useless:  the helpline for the Activity Plan issues was a dud number, and the helpline to allow international media to access COVID test kits in Tokyo had just a Japanese-only recorded message, which was not much help.  At one stage I was being told to email one of five people, but although their names were in Western characters, their job descriptions were in Japanese script, so it was impossible to tell which to contact.  I emailed them all…. Activity Plans, meant to be confirmed weeks before arrival, were being approved the night before flights, and panicky last-ditch emails were issued telling us which twenty pieces of paper we had to print out and take in hand baggage in case the TOCOG approval didn’t come through in time.   

The fun and games continued with pre-flight testing:  I’d taken advantage of what looked like a very good deal via the BOA, to get an “authorised provider” (ie accepted by the Japanese government) to do PCR tests via mailed kits at £30 a throw.  Bargain……?  Think again.  The provider was Randox, who are in Northern Ireland, and who send kits out by DHL, and have them returned via Drop Boxes located around the UK.  Having paid for my two tests which had to be done on Friday and Saturday of the last week before I flew, I was told – when it was too late – that NI had a bank holiday on Monday 12th, so my kits would be sent out on Tues 13th and arrive the next day.  They didn’t.  Nor did they come on Wednesday, so by Thursday I was in a stew, spending hours on the phone and email seeking help, and starting to think about backups.  Randox assured me my kits would come by 12 noon Friday, but the samples had to be taken by actual doctors or nurses – and no GPs won’t do it as it isn’t NHS work – so I was lining up medic friends to be on standby to do my test depending on when the kits might arrive. What on earth people who don’t know lots of qualified doctors or nurses should do, I have no clue.

Eventually, in a fret imagining being sent straight back to the UK on a return flight by Olympic immigration officials, I booked a £170 Friday in-person test with another approved provider at a West Oxford location, which was at least an expensive reassurance when the Randox kit didn’t arrive until 3:30pm that day.  Then it was doctor-pushed nasal swab all the way up the nose (right to the back) for the first Randox kit, and driving two stops along the M40 to deliver it, whilst being nagged by the BOA press officers because I hadn’t yet logged that I’d sent the kit off.  Same routine the next day, more hours in the car, more time during which I couldn’t carry out my intention of mowing the jungle which is my lawn before leaving (There will be letters when I get back from annoyed neighbours who have been attacked by my overgrown hedges while walking along the pavement…..) Meanwhile taking an NHS lateral flow test every day because if I want to go to a GB Rowing or BOA press conference at the Games I need to demonstrate a continuous testing regime for two weeks logged via QR codes on the NHS app.  Randox results, unsurprisingly, didn’t come the next day but 36 hours later – good thing I’d gone for the earliest time I could get the samples taken, as I had to have the certificates before flying.  I drove to Heathrow convinced that I would have to go the all-paper route and be in a nightmare of continuing complexity even if I was let into Japan. 

Out of the nightmare and back to reality

Tokyo’s finest hotels for the Olympic press

But it wasn’t all bad.  My PCR tests were all negative and there were no jams on the M25.  Heathrow Terminal 5 was a sparsely populated ghost town resulting in transit through security taking precisely 1.5 minutes, we were given access to the business lounges, and the plane was less than half full — we all had the luxury of no neighbours in adjacent seats so plenty of space to spread out.  

And while I was munching a free T5 business lounge brownie my Activity Plan did come through — a mere 110 minutes before my flight departed — including permission to avoid the 3 days quarantine most press are having to do, because I’m a freelance working solo so can’t miss the first day’s rowing this coming Friday.  Which means I won’t be shut up in my tiny shoebox of a Tokyo hotel room for 72 hours, and can go to the Main Press Centre and the rowing venue on Wednesday.  I’m glad something finally went right.

So after watching the sun set on Tokyo at 7pm from the taxi, then filling up on rather delicious Uber Eats sushi from a little restaurant round the corner, I’ve written this then taken yet another lateral flow test – my daily LFT for Tuesday 20th July – and that’s negative too.  So far that’s 18 different tests of four different types taken during July 2021, over two thousand words written in Tokyo, and the Games haven’t even begun.  

Rachel Quarrell.

This diary is copyright Rachel Quarrell 2021 onwards.  It is not to be reproduced, republished or quoted/extracted without direct permission from the author.  However, this page may be linked to online.