My Olympics gone by, I miss it so. And 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.
In some ways it felt like being present at a vast and implausible heist – 16 months of delays, doubts and dangling uncertainties, being spirited away by 16 days of astonishing sport and extraordinary stories.
Some questioned whether journalists should have been at these Games, especially in the teeth of a pandemic, with spectators banned and swathes of the Japanese public apathetic. I always disagreed. The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world. It always required boots on the ground to report on the good, the bad, the ugly. Without fear or prejudice. How else would our readers know what was really going on?
For me, though, these Games were also personal. In 1939 my grandfather, Jimmy Ingle, became the first Irishman to win a European amateur boxing title. In normal times, the Olympics would have been a logical next step. And where were the 1940 Games initially due to be staged? Tokyo.
But when the second world war broke out, the possibility of fighting in the Olympics – as well as offers to turn professional in London or the US – went up in smoke. As my grandfather later wrote in his autobiography: “The outbreak of World War II shattered my dreams … Looking back now, it is possible to put things in perspective. They were but the shattered dreams of a teenager at a time when millions of other young men across Europe were destined for a far worse fate.”
During my time in Japan, I often thought about how his life – and mine – might have turned out if the cards had been shuffled slightly differently. The moments he never got to experience. The memories he was never able to have. My grandfather, the eldest of 15 kids born into a working-class Dublin family, could have been at a Tokyo Games more than 80 years before me. Instead he lifted and sawed wet logs for eight and a half hours a day in a Dublin sawmill before training two hours every evening.
Mostly, though, there was no time to think. I am often asked what it is like to cover an Olympics. It is both an intense privilege, and incredibly intense. You get to sit in great seats writing about the greatest sports stars of our age. And then you do it again. And again. Often in a different venue on the same day. It is a hell of a buzz, although the lack of sleep can lead to an almighty crash … until the next wave of adrenaline scoops you up and makes you ready to go again.
My busiest day in Tokyo started just after 4am with an email to check if the women’s triathlon would start at 6.30am after a heavy storm. It ended at 2.30am the following day. In between I wrote about Flora Duffy winning Bermuda’s first gold medal, Team GB’s best start at an Olympics and helped Greg Rutherford with his Guardian column on Magic Monday. Then, to top it off, I reported on the US gymnast Simone Biles pulling out of the all-around women’s competition that evening, which made for a very late night. Nessun Dorma really could have been written about the Olympics.
However, being in Japan also allowed me to break the news that Tokyo 2020 had banned pictures of athletes taking the knee on its social media channels, something that led to a rapid U-turn after the Guardian published its story. It also meant I could ask Biles whether she felt speaking out about her mental issues might ultimately have a bigger impact than winning yet more medals, and the 400m hurdler Karsten Warholm what he made of Nike’s super spikes (“Bullshit,” he replied, before explaining why he felt they were unethical).
More importantly, it enabled our team of nine to produce the broadest and most diverse coverage of any English-language publication – with in-depth coverage that went far beyond Team GB’s many successes. They included Andy Bull’s piece on Dallas Oberholzer, the 46-year-old Olympic skateboarder who fended off a jaguar. Barney Ronay’s powerful reporting on the Refugee Team’s Kimia Alizadeh nearly winning a brilliant taekwondo bronze, and Tumaini Carayol documenting the woes and wonderful comeback of Biles with deep understanding and skill.
Being there also allowed the Guardian to better probe and interrogate the rights and wrongs of Tokyo 2020. As it has done since Owen Gibson first revealed that Tokyo had won the right to stage the Games following a secret €1.3m “payment” to buy votes.
The best sports journalism isn’t just dazzled by performances from the world’s finest athletes. It also gets its hands dirty. To do that takes contacts, time, and trust from people who know that their story will be handled carefully and considerately if they come to you. Such journalism is vital – but it also takes significant resources.
Meanwhile the wheels of Big Sport never stop turning. The Paralympics will be upon us soon, and there’s the Ryder Cup, the Ashes and the World Cup in Qatar. And once again the Guardian will need people on the ground to cover them properly. So if you’d like to support our journalism, from as little as £1, you can do so here. Thanks for reading – and thanks for making a difference.