Inside scoop on covering Tokyo Olympics

Union-Tribune readers have been receiving coverage, much of it localized, of the Tokyo Olympics from veteran sports writer Mark Zeigler. His stories have been appearing on the front page as well as in Sports.

Subjects of his reports have included swimmer Michael Andrew, an Encinitas resident; track cyclist Jennifer Valente, a Cathedral Catholic alum; San Diego State University alum Xander Schauffele, who won gold in golf (that story appeared on A1); and Encinitas resident Bryce Wettstein, a 17-year-old skateboarder from Encinitas (also on A1).

Zeigler knows his stuff. He’s been covering sports at the U-T since 1985. The Tokyo Games are his 17th Olympics, including Winter Games. His first Olympics was the Summer Games in Seoul.

He’s been working 16 to 17 hours hours a day in Tokyo while writing two to three stories. (That’s 2,000-3,000 words per day.) In past Games he has written up to five a day, but the Tokyo Olympics have been a logistical nightmare, he said. The venues are spread out, and traffic is horrible, he said.

One of the most challenging aspects of coverage has been dealing with the pandemic.

“First, it compelled Tokyo organizers to demand a “soft” quarantine of 14 days for journalists and all other Olympic staff, Zeigler said. “That means no public transportation, no restaurants, no shopping, no walking on the street, even. Instead, we were required to ride their Olympic transportation network, which is great in theory but not in practice (and not just because Tokyo traffic can be brutal). You first ride a bus from your hotel to a main transport hub, then transfer to another bus to your venue, even if it means backtracking from where you just came. I’ll give you an example. Using the subway, it takes about 20 minutes for me to get to Olympic Stadium for track and field. Using their bus system, it takes 2½ hours. Roundtrip, that’s an extra four hours out of your day that are wasted.”

Also, “This isn’t as compact a Games as advertised. Many venues are two hours or more away, even using public transportation, and nothing is walking accessible from the Main Press Center, unlike every other Summer Olympics I’ve covered. That severely restricts which and how many events you can cover each day.”

And then there are the deadlines: “Tokyo is 16 hours ahead of San Diego, so our normal sports deadline of 9 p.m. falls the following day in Tokyo at 1 p.m. That means getting up most mornings and rushing to an event to cover on deadline — often really tight deadlines. The women’s park skateboarding, for example, ended at 1:10 pm in Tokyo, but we managed to cram in a story for all editions. It makes for a mad scramble.”

With so many sports, local athletes and evolving news, Zeigler works out his coverage with Sports Editor Jay Posner. “(We talk) regularly and adjust as we go. A big mistake that Olympic rookies make is trying to map out in advance a set schedule of coverage for all 17 days. The Olympics are a morphing, changing, shifting organism, and you have to be nimble and flexible. We also try to balance local coverage with national coverage, given how many athletes have ties to the county.”

Zeigler found U.S. gymnast Simone Biles one of the most compelling stories of the Games. “The saga is fascinating and represents a shift in how Americans, and their athletes, view the Olympics — no longer as a zero-sum game where fourth place is last place. She was supposed to win three, four, five gold medals and got none, yet is celebrated and maybe rightfully so. It’s an interesting change, partly from valuing mental health over physical accomplishments but probably also as a rationalization for Team USA not performing as well as expected here. It certainly flies against the win-win-win American mentality that, some will say, is responsible for making the United States into the nation that it is — and that other nations admit to coveting.”

I asked Zeigler if there was anything else he would like to share with readers. He provided insight and honesty:

“I prefer the Winter Games because they’re more compact and more manageable. That said, I might have never looked forward to an Olympics more than Tokyo when it was first announced. My wife is Japanese-American, my daughter speaks Japanese, and we’ve visited the country numerous times. I love the food, the culture, the people. Tokyo ranks among my favorite two or three cities in the world.

“Maybe it’s the difference between expectation and reality, but these are probably the least enjoyable of the nine Summer Games I’ve covered. It’s not the fault of the Japanese and, to be fair, the volunteers have been beyond polite and helpful.

“These Games were thrust on them during a pandemic, and they clearly don’t want them — doing the bare minimum to fulfill their obligation. But stadiums are empty, there’s zero buzz on the streets, it’s ungodly hot (95 degrees with shirt-soaking humidity every day), the media facilities are bare bones, the Olympic transport system is inefficient, and the COVID restrictions are nonsensical (vaccinated foreigners with five negative tests in a week can’t so much as step foot outside their hotel while the unvaccinated masses cram into subways, eat in restaurants and attend pro baseball games). You get the distinct feeling they can’t wait for everyone to go home, and it’s hard to blame them. I’m resigned that I’ll have to return to Tokyo post-pandemic to truly enjoy it.”

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