Writer’s playbook: What it’s like to report at the Tokyo Olympics

David Goldman/AP
Journalists work between plastic barriers in the main press center at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. "This year," Monitor reporter Noah Robertson writes, "covering the Olympics has itself been a sport."

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I am no athlete. But for the past two weeks, covering the Olympics in Tokyo, I may as well have been: competing against thousands of journalists, a nonstop schedule, and a slew of safety protocols. A mask and lanyard is my uniform. Reporters’ rules come in a so-called playbook. My editors are my coaches. Winning is enduring the abundance of red tape on the path to each event, where I get to watch some of the world’s best athletes (the real ones) perform feats physically impossible for the viewing public. 

It’s a worthy prize, but challenging for this first-time Olympics reporter. Emerging from my closet-sized hotel room after the required quarantine, a vampiric stranger to the sun, I spent breakfast trying to decipher the Games’ bus system, which is written in a foreign language – not Japanese, but bureaucracy.

Why We Wrote This

Monitor reporter Noah Robertson thought he was headed to Tokyo to watch other people play sports. Turns out that covering the Olympics is a sport in and of itself – one where teamwork makes all the difference.

But help, it turns out, is all around. The U.S. Olympic Committee press delegation, a merciful group of veterans, recognized a rookie when they saw one. An Australian cameraman helped me navigate the opening ceremony. When I found out the press center’s convenience store wouldn’t take my credit card, an Associated Press producer behind me in line bought me a pack of floss. 

Covering the Olympics may be a competition, but it’s a team sport.

I gave up organized sports after high school, which made it all the more comical, and flattering, when my pre-Olympics COVID-19 tester asked me in what event I was competing at the Games.  

Laughing, I corrected her mistake, telling her I was only going as a journalist. But if I was just a bit taller and skinnier I might make it into the pole vault – as the pole. 

It was only when I arrived in Tokyo days later that I learned she had been on to something. 

Why We Wrote This

Monitor reporter Noah Robertson thought he was headed to Tokyo to watch other people play sports. Turns out that covering the Olympics is a sport in and of itself – one where teamwork makes all the difference.

This year, covering the Olympics has itself been a sport. I am no athlete, but for two weeks I have been competing, at times, against thousands of journalists, a nonstop schedule, and a slew of safety protocols. 

A mask and lanyard is my uniform. Reporters’ rules come in a so-called playbook. My editors are my coaches. Winning is enduring the abundance of red tape on the path to each event, where I get to watch some of the world’s best athletes (the real ones) perform feats physically impossible for the viewing public. It’s a worthy prize, but a challenging one for this first-time Olympics reporter.

A growing history geek, I entered Tokyo on a red-eye flight from Chicago, with Howard Zinn’s 700-page “People’s History of the United States” and a manila folder nearly as thick, containing documents required by the Japanese government. Immediately, a seemingly endless series of volunteers ushered me through a series of seemingly endless checkpoints. 

Each one required a different combination of my papers. COVID-19 test, passport, activity plan. Activity plan, health card, press credentials. QR code, customs form, passport. ... It was a game of Twister for the fingers.

Having fumbled my documents – and lived up to my high-school nickname of “No Hands Noah” – I made it through the labyrinthine airport and, after many mishaps, to my new home: a shoebox-sized hotel room.

“Is there a closet?” my mother asked when I told her I arrived.

“It is a closet,” I responded.   

Andrew Boyers/Reuters
General view of the Tokyo Big Sight convention center, the Main Press Centre at the Tokyo Games, where the Monitor's reporter began to learn "the rules of the game" for journalists.

When I emerged from the required three-day quarantine, a vampiric stranger to the sun, I spent breakfast deciphering the bus schedule. Media aren’t allowed to take public transportation for the first 14 days in Tokyo. In its place, we must either travel via taxi or an elaborate bus system, with ever-changing schedules that are written in a foreign language – not Japanese but bureaucracy. 

Boarding a bus, I crossed my fingers. In an hour, after one connection, it deposited me at the Main Press Centre, a building as impressive as it is confusing: four pyramids arranged in a square, upside down. 

Fittingly, it’s where my Tokyo experience turned around. There I learned that covering the Olympics may be a competition, but it’s a team sport.

It started as I entered the building, a multistep process at every venue in Tokyo.

  1. Sanitize hands.
  2. Pull down your mask while scanning your card on a machine that immediately takes the least-flattering photo of your life.
  3. Empty your pockets and pass through a metal detector. 
  4. Show proof that you registered and received approval to enter the venue.
  5. Say arigato. 

Somewhere around step two I abandoned the act that I knew what I was doing, and asked the USA gear-wearing folks beside me for help. They turned out to be the United States Olympic Committee press delegation, a merciful group of veterans who recognized a rookie when they saw one. After repeated trips to their office, I’m still a neophyte. But I know the rules of the game. 

Not everyone has operated with such kindness, but I’m grateful to the many journalists who have. On the bus and in media seating, I’ve met feature writers and regional reporters – some of whom were covering Olympic Games before I was born – who answered basic questions about speaking to athletes and relayed stories from past Games. 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune writer helped me through my first day at gymnastics, showing me where to sit and giving me quick bios on the athletes. An Australian cameraman helped me find the buses amid a frantic exit from the opening ceremony. When I found out the press center’s convenience store wouldn’t take my credit card, an Associated Press producer behind me in line bought me a pack of floss. 

At the U.S. men’s basketball opening game against France July 25, I arrived about an hour early to grab a good seat. I’d spent the day watching women’s gymnastics and was exhausted from little sleep and long bus rides. A basketball superfan, I was here to watch, not report. This was my reward. 

While quickly walking through the arena to grab a pass to the mixed zone – where athletes and media interact – I saw a face down the hallway I instantly recognized: Brian Windhorst, a senior basketball writer for ESPN, who’s covered LeBron James’ entire career. Passing by, I quickly blurted out that he didn’t know who I was but I loved his work. 

Turning around, he looked over and asked me, “What’s your name?”

“Noah Robertson with the CS Monitor,” I said back.

“Hello, Noah!” he kindly returned, as we walked out of earshot.

I was part of the team.

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