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The Olympic Stadium

"Lord, I don't ask that I should win, but please, please don't let me finish behind Akabusi."

Innocent Egbunike's prayer at the 1988 Olympics

2021 Olympics

Stuart was at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021). This is his assessment of his time there:

What is your assessment of your time in Tokyo?

It was difficult and challenging in many ways but I never regretted being there. The restrictions were frustrating but one understood why the Japanese government felt that they were necessary. I had deliberately gone with low expectations – to avoid frustration – and felt that I had been able to achieve more than I might have expected. At the same time I also always felt that my decision not to go back for the Paralympics was correct.

The Olympic Village, where athletes live

How long were you in Tokyo?

14 days plus two days’ travel. That included three and a bit days of mandatory quarantine on arrival plus two days when I was only able to go out in the evening.

Made it

Explain the restrictions.

Officially I was there as accredited written press and the conditions imposed on us included: Not using public transport, not eating in any public restaurants, no shopping other than essential food. In addition, we had to submit for approval a comprehensive list of places we wanted to go in Tokyo. I was late in submitting my form and to make it as simple as possible I restricted myself to four places: my hotel, the Olympic (athletics) stadium, the main press centre (where I went for administrative purposes only) and the Olympic Village where athletes live. Once your plan had been approved it was impossible to add other destinations.

How much of the Olympics were you able to watch?

Normally a media accreditation gets one into all sports venues. However to control numbers, access at all sports was by ticket. To make it even more complicated, tickets for morning sessions were virtual and granted by Tokyo 2020, while evening tickets were physical tickets, distributed through the British Olympic Association! There was a concern in advance – for everyone – as to how many tickets we would get. In the end, I got a ticket for every session of athletics, all of which I attended. (Not the race walks or marathons which were in a different city). I would normally be asked to show my evening ticket; no one ever asked for the morning ticket!

What were the highlights?

It is a life’s highlight to be in the stadium when an athlete one knows and has prayed for regularly wins a medal – or otherwise performs well. Sharing that moment with athletes was even more special this time as athletes had no family or friends in Japan and no spectators in the stadium. I was also really encouraged by the number of conversations I was able to have with athletes. I was writing a daily devotional email, which several athletes said they found helpful. One of the Japanese chaplains received a request from an Italian athlete about whether there were services for athletes. This was referred to me and I was able to meet the athlete and inform her of what was being done.

Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce wins the 100m semi - as seen from my seat

How did you meet athletes?

This was my fourth Olympics and they have all been different. For two I had media accreditation and for the other two I was working with the Togo Olympic Committee in the village. Even in normal times with a media accreditation access to athletes is more difficult than in an athletics championship or Diamond League. It was a case of making the best of it. The main place I would have expected to meet athletes was the written press mixed zone. However that was so strictly managed and in a socially distanced manner so that it was impossible to have conversations with athletes. However, by being creative, I found two places where athletes passed through the media stand where I could position myself for a quick word. On one occasion one of the stewards told me that I could not stop athletes as they walked through. The person quickly discovered that it was more a case of athletes wanting to stop with me!

On three occasions I went into the village with an appointment to meet an athlete. This was fine except that we had to stand about three metres apart with a fence between us, which did not make for a friendly conversation.

What was most difficult thing?

Meeting the requirements of Tokyo 2020 both before arriving, on arrival and on departure. This involved having the required number of tests, and getting the results on time (something which was outside of my control). During the one hour fifty minutes that it took to get through Tokyo 2020, Japanese immigration and health checks at the arrival airport, there was always the possibility of being told that I did not have the correct documentation and that I could not enter the country.

Hotel office

What media work were you doing?

Writing for RunBlogRun and Athletics Weekly – for both of whom I was the only person in Tokyo. I also recorded three podcasts for RunBlogRun, wrote a couple of pieces for the Oxford Mail and recorded my usual weekly radio slot. The media work is what enabled me to be in Tokyo, which no chaplains or other foreign Christian workers were able to. It was therefore important to do it with integrity

You seemed to be working long hours

Greeting Wenda Nel after she ran

That is inevitable at a major championship. I was leaving the hotel at 8:00am most days and getting back at 10.30pm with writing and phone calls still to do. The only time which worked for recording the PodCast (with America) because of the time difference was 6.00am. One Guardian writer referred on social media to a 22 hour day. It was full-on but I was happy with that for 10 days.

The main press centre

Did you have any involvement with chaplaincy? How effective was it?

The Japanese chaplaincy was ineffective partly because none of the people entrusted with it had ever been to a major sports event and knew no athletes and partly because of the restrictions placed on them – including that none of them was allowed to enter the athlete village. I also contributed to the two Sunday Services which Christians in Sport offered, both of which were attended by athletes. With no international chaplains in Tokyo I was the presence at the Games in a sense.

Last word

I resonated with this comment by a sport writer I know. It seemed to sum up the situation perfectly: “Despite the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the hard quarantine, the endless spitting into test tubes and the constant fear of being pinged and forced to self-isolate for 14 days, I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere but Tokyo during these past few weeks”. Sean Ingle, Guardian

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