Tokyo Olympics coverage shines a light on politics, mental health: BBC reporter

News presenter Mariko Oi speaks to us about reporting in Tokyo during the Games and news themes that have emerged on the fringe of the sporting action.

US gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics (Getty Images)
US gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics (Getty Images)

As the 2021 Tokyo Olympics nears its end, coverage of the Games has been quite different from years past. For example, news of top US gymnast Simone Biles pulling out of most events in the final round due to poor mental health became a talking point across all media—as well as a divisive one informed by political leaning.

The Games also shone a spotlight on geopolitical tensions. These include news about Belarusian sprinter Krystina Timanovskaya, who fled to Vienna after being forced to leave the Games; Taiwanese personalities being attacked by Chinese nationalists for supporting their national athletes; and frustration from some parties about Russian athletes participating in the Games despite a doping ban.

And then, of course, there were uplifting stories. British diver Tom Daley warmed everyone’s hearts by knitting while watching his peers compete; longtime friends and competitors Mutaz Essa Barshim from Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi from Italy opted to share their gold medal rather than participate in a jump-off, what many have called "the best moment of the Olympics"; and Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz had an emotional reaction to winning her country’s first-ever gold medal.

We speak to Mariko Oi (pictured below), Singapore-based reporter and presenter for the BBC, about reporting from Tokyo during this unusual time.

What has been your experience reporting in Tokyo during the Olympics?

It's been unique, to say the least. It's my first Olympics to cover. I came here as a roving reporter because I’m a Japanese national, unlike my colleagues from Singapore and London, who are here within the IOC bubble. So when the Japanese skateboarder won the first-ever gold medal, [me and another colleague] are the only ones who can actually go out and get reactions from the Japanese public.

Eight years ago, when it was announced that Tokyo would host the Olympics, I was so excited. I made it a career goal to be a senior-enough reporter to get sent to cover the Olympics. And so this has been a dream come true. But at the same time, it's obviously far from the Olympic dream that I had, because of the pandemic – and it has become really controversial.

I can really understand why a lot of my friends and some of my family members felt really strongly against the Games going ahead – because of the pandemic. So it’s been bittersweet.

Can you describe the on-ground sentiment among the Japanese public?

It's interesting that the sentiment was very much negative before the Games started. And I noticed about a month before [that], people reluctantly accepted that the Games was going to go ahead no matter how strong the public opposition may have been.

And then we saw a bit of a gold rush by Japanese athletes at the very beginning. And they continue to do really well, sporting-wise. It's been interesting to see that shift in opinion. But now that we're seeing this spike in COVID-19 cases once again… I don't think people blame the athletes or organisers for spreading the virus, but the very fact that the Games are taking place means that people have been feeling more relaxed, they don't really feel a sense of urgency to stay at home like the first state of emergency last April. So it's really concerning to see the numbers going up again, and I can really sense that among the people.

What have been the challenges reporting in Tokyo at this time?

The chain of rules. There are rules by the IOC, rules by the Japanese government, rules set by the BBC. Some of those rules kept changing, especially for press inside the Olympic bubble. So that must have been quite difficult for them. For me, because I’m not in the Olympic bubble, it hasn’t been that different.

But in a way, it's not exactly like a sporting event; I don't feel like I'm covering a sporting event. It’s really become a story about the pandemic as well as politics, because the government has forged ahead with the Games despite the strong public opposition. And they have to hold an election by autumn. So it's really not just about the sports, but also everything else.

For example, the Belarusian athlete seeking asylum – these stories just keep happening. It’s no longer just about covering the scores, I have to be across pretty much everything instead of just focusing on the athletes’ performances.

One thing that’s come out of the Olympics is a larger discussion about mental health, especially following Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of the final rounds.

Absolutely. Someone told me that this is the most inclusive Olympics yet. We also had a transgender athlete competing for the first time, as well as openly gay athletes. Overall, I've definitely noticed that athletes’ wellbeing is under the spotlight a lot more.

For Japanese viewers, Naomi Osaka pulling out of press interviews [at the French Open a couple of months ago] resonated with many, and we saw a parallel with Simone and all these elite athletes who are under enormous pressure. It's definitely being talked about beyond just how well they have done or how many medals each country has won.

We get a sense that people also want to read more uplifting stories surrounding the Games, especially amid a tough period for everyone and a hiatus of physical human connections.

We've done stories on the [IOC] scandals and the strong public opposition, both of which aren't exactly positive or uplifting stories.

But I also went to Miyagi, which was hit by the tsunami of 2011. The government's pitch was to show the world that the region and the country had recovered from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and it felt like the news headlines got dominated by the pandemic.

And we did an interview with a gentleman who was growing the grass that was used inside the stadium, in a town which was pretty much wiped out by the tsunami 10 years ago. I've been doing stories like that as well, because I think it's our job to not just talk about the scandals and the public opposition. There is a sense that people want to hear some of those encouraging, inspirational stories.

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