— Published 30 March 2021

For the Tokyo Games, the dilemma of foreign media

What will the Tokyo Games look like? For the media, the question remains unanswered. The organising committee unveiled last February a series of four practical guides detailing the menu of health measures considered during the Olympic and Paralympic event. One of them concerns representatives of the media.

The “playbook” explains that the mixed zones and the press conferences will take place in virtual mode, without direct contact with the athletes. It mentioned journalists will have to book their seats in the press stands several days in advance, where the number of available seats will be halved. Improvisation will no longer be possible.

Moreover, the announced ban on using public transport, and more broadly on deviating from the Olympic system, will significantly reduce the prospects for reporting. Finally, the absence of foreign spectators, including representatives of partners, institutions and families of athletes, will drastically reduce the choice of potential interlocutors.

With such a “field of constraints“, to use the expression of Christophe Dubi, the director of the Olympic Games at the IOC, is the trip to Japan still justified? Are working conditions in Tokyo prompting the media to downgrade their plans? FrancsJeux has surveyed a handful of them, in Europe and the United States. The answers reveal sometimes very different approaches.

At AFP, the Olympic apparatus has not been revised downwards. The French agency is still planning a massive presence at the Tokyo Games, i.e. 150 to 160 people, all departments combined. But the head of the sports department, Emmanuel Pionnier, explains: “The constraints linked to the health crisis will change our coverage of the event. We will have to adapt and be more creative. For example, we used to have 8 journalists on athletics, all languages ​​combined. We may not have as many seats in the stadium in the press box. Suddenly, we will go elsewhere, on sports that are usually less covered“.

No question, however, of cutting the workforce. The Tokyo 2020 plan will be maintained in its initial version, developed before the decision to postpone. The only uncertainty is the video. In the absence of mixed face-to-face zones, the AFP may have to reduce its system, not being the holder of audiovisual rights. Emmanuel Pionnier insists: “The Games remain the most important event. We need to do our agency work, being where others are not“.

The same goes for l’Equipe. The French group remains faithful to its initial battle plan, identical with a few details to that of the Rio 2016 Games. “For now, and subject to constraints imposed by the IOC or the organising committee, we are leaving with the contingent initially planned: 34/35 people, i.e. 25 reporters, 3 chefs, 4/5 photographers, 1 logistics manager and 1 IT technician”, explains Jean-Denis Coquard, the head of the omnisport service.

In Ouest-France, on the other hand, the decision is still pending. It could be taken at the last moment by general management. The daily was considering sending two journalists to the Tokyo Games. The option of exclusively remote coverage, without a presence in Japan, is not ruled out.

Uncertainty, also, in Temps. The Swiss daily has not yet made its decision. They are waiting to learn more about the health situation and the protocol imposed on foreign media. But Laurent Favre, the head of sports, explains: “The fact that journalists could be the only foreigners admitted almost “obliges” us to take advantage of this privilege, even though working conditions on site may be very limited and frustrating. At the same time, we fear that this crisis organisation will survive COVID and will help keep journalists even further away from athletes in the future“.

In Belgium, the daily Le Soir remains on its initial plan, with a contingent of three special envoys. Hotel rooms have been reconfirmed and airline tickets reserved. But Philippe Vande Weyer, the specialist in Olympic issues, says he is very “circumspect” about how the media will be able to work. “It is almost impossible to plan your schedule for the two-week competition when you arrive in Japan“, he admits. “At the Games, we often react spontaneously, by going at the last minute to a site where an athlete from the country is behaving well during the qualifying heats, for example. And then, having to communicate with all our athletes in a virtual way will take away all humanity and emotion“.

Conversely, the American site AroundtheRings has changed its system. To date, they no longer plan to send journalists there. They will trust their correspondents in Japan for the reports. The rest of the coverage of the event will be from Atlanta, at the company’s headquarters.

Ed Hula, the site’s founder, explains, “For a small business like ours, the risks of sending reporters overseas are too great. The possibility of quarantine, for example, but also the cost of medical insurance and repatriation coverage. Another difficult Tokyo 2020 requirement is the need to provide a program for 14 days. In addition, restrictions on the use of public transport, restaurants and other places outside the Olympic bubble could prove to be a real challenge for a journalist my age, but also for other special envoys“.

AroundtheRings has planned to shake up its working hours to ensure, from the United States, full and real-time coverage of the Tokyo Games despite the time difference.