After five years of waiting, planning and preparing, UKC (well, I alone) have arrived in Japan to cover Sport Climbing's postponed Olympic debut. It's hot, humid and I have to quarantine for three days as a UK traveller, but simply getting here feels like a small miracle.
Since the COVID restrictions were announced last year, we had to cut down our team from four to one. Only accredited personnel can attend the Games, and we had received just one journalist pass. Our non-accredited film crew and presenting team - who were due to work on film content outside of the arena - therefore couldn't travel and had to stay behind, but given the limited number of accreditations issued by the British Olympic Committee, we're just incredibly grateful to have the chance to be here at all.
Over the coming week, I'll be sharing daily dispatches from here in Tokyo on our social media accounts, my personal account and in written reports. I'll also be sending footage from events outside of the competition (filming is prohibited at the sports venues) to Nick Brown, who will be adding clips to pre-recorded videos including interviews, athlete profiles and explainer features about all things Tokyo 2020.
Multiple cancellations, rebookings, COVID tests, forms, questionnaires, app downloads and significant general stress later, I'm safely at the hotel recovering from jet lag after yesterday's flight. It's going to be a weird Games, that's for sure. No spectators. Masks at all times. No cheering (or high-fiving). No sightseeing. No dining out. Little of the fun and grandeur that the Olympic Games are famous for. Indeed, the very premise of the Games as a global coming-together in a shared celebration of sport continuously threatened its status over the last eighteen months.
Among athletes, there was a feeling that speaking out about the Olympics and expressing even minor frustration about being unable to train whilst people were fighting for their lives during a global health crisis would appear tone-deaf; a sense of guilt for worrying about something as 'trivial' as the Olympics. There's nothing like a global health crisis to put things into perspective, after all. The uncertainty was unsettling: will they go ahead? Is it worth putting everything else in our lives on hold for another year?
I was in two minds about attending. I could surely cover the Games remotely, as many broadcasters and journalists are doing. But given the amount of time and money we had invested in our pre-event coverage, our efforts to get an accreditation in the first place and the historic significance of this Games for Sport Climbing, we felt it was worth attending — as long as we could minimise the risks. The fact that the event is outdoors - and that I received my second vaccine before travelling - offered further reassurance. What's more, the rules seemed strict and relatively sensible.
Media are only permitted to leave their hotels for work purposes for the first 14 days of their stay and must use a dedicated transport system (no public transport for first two weeks). We can't walk between venues, even if the Main Press Centre is a short walk from the climbing venue. Testing is also regimented: my role necessitates testing for the first three days, then every fourth day, alongside my Brit-specific quarantine.
It's also worth pointing out that if I test positive for COVID or get an isolation 'ping' from the plane or elsewhere as a close contact, then my coverage will end up being carried out from the hotel room and my trip extended. It's a gamble, but I'm doing my best to avoid this situation.
The bus journey from Narita to Tokyo city was a surreal experience: signage for the Games was everywhere and the number of personnel apparently involved in all manner of roles was mind-boggling, but knowing that the Japanese public can't enjoy their home Games - to which they've contributed just over £6 billion - made it seem unfair to say the very least. And not to mention that Tokyo has also just entered its fourth state of emergency. The use of the term 'bubble' to describe the stakeholder separation from the public takes on multiple meanings here; there's no doubt that there's a surrealness to the situation and very separate realities for locals and Games participants at the moment.
Despite the obstacles they've had to overcome and the tensions that exist due to the Games going ahead, the numerous volunteers who shepherded us through the airport and onto our buses yesterday were incredibly welcoming and helpful. Full credit to them for their resilience and hospitality.
The Games are always controversial. Tokyo 2020 is no exception and perhaps the very epitome of all that is troublesome with the world's biggest sporting event. I hope, though, that somewhere amid the surrealness and pandemonium we'll be able to share some uplifting and memorable moments from our sport's historic debut.
Unfortunately I'm missing out on a pre-event press day at the wall today due to my quarantine period, but I'm hoping to chat to some athletes virtually before my release on the 3rd, when I'll be free to attend the first day of action (men's qualification).
The athletes have had three days of free practice this Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and will attend a mandatory practice today (Saturday). Some athletes spent time in holding camps (such as Team GB's Shauna Coxsey in Yokohama) while others went straight to the Olympic Village (the Australians, Italians). Some teams with multiple athletes have spent a longer period at specific climbing camps in Kurayoshi (Team France), Katsushika (Team Slovenia), Morioka (Team Canada) and Hachioji (Team USA).
It'll be interesting to see how these differing approaches play out in the event: will some be better acclimatised to the humid conditions and less jet-lagged than others? Generally, though, the teams furthest away from Japan have spent the longest period here beforehand.
In other news, two boulders in the qualification round had to be reset following the release of video footage displaying the climbs on YouTube, as Climbing.com reported. The climbs were reset and swiftly covered up.
Stay tuned for a video interview with Shauna Coxsey, Chief Boulder setter Percy Bishton and much more, filmed with the expert presentation and narration skills of BBC Sport climbing commentator Mike Langley, UKC's Rob Greenwood and a few famous faces from the GB Climbing Team.
Well done for making it there, no easy task even under normal, non-Covid circumstances. It's great that one climbing journalist is there (lucky you, what a scoop!). Looking forward to your updates!
What an experience! Stay safe.
For anyone looking to watch the coverage, without paying Discovery+ £6,99 for a month, as it's unlikely the BBC will cover much (if any) of the quali's, and highlights only from the main events...
You can get a 3-day free trial if you sign up for a year (so can cancel after 3 days), or, if you're a Vodafone customer, you can get 6-months free - same deal, sign up for a year, first 6-months free.
The Discovery coverage is the same as Eurosport and there seem to be numerous ways of watching Eurosport however I don't think anything cheaper than £6.99. Worth checking though since Eurosport is bundled with a lot of TV packages.
Just been checking the coverage in France and it seems to be scheduled for online coverage on franceTV: https://www.france.tv/sport/les-jeux-olympiques/2603489-escalade-qualifications-h-direct-du-03-08.html
Not sure whether it will be geoblocked outside France and need a vpn to view from the UK. That's relatively rare in France compared to the UK.
Worth a try tomorrow morning anyway.