What's it like covering a tournament and how does it differ if you're working remotely? Well, if you're me... (answering the questions that literally no one asked)
Shut it down, shut it all down
Having covered the European Championships in 2017 and World Cup in 2019, I was mentally gearing up to travel out to Japan and do my best to survive the Olympic women’s football tournament at Tokyo 2020 when the Coronavirus pandemic forced the planet to grinding halt. The Olympic Games would not go ahead as planned in 2020 but rather the following summer, with my accreditation still good, I once again started planning out how I was going to attack the most brutal tournament in women’s football.
As the pandemic continued to rage, both the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo Organising Committee were steadfast in their resolve: the Olympics would go ahead in 2021. Japanese citizens overwhelmingly opposed the Games taking place and with more and more states of emergency declared across Japan, actually going seemed like one hell of an ask. Over the course of this year, members of the accredited media were kept abreast of the ever-changing protocols for the Games, of the restrictions in place over basic moments and increasing and decreasing quarantine periods.
As someone who has become better known for the sometimes bonkers situations I’ve found myself in whilst covering women’s football, rather than my actual coverage, a knot formed in my stomach at the idea of traveling to Japan. Even though I was set to be double vaccinated by the start of the Games, I was another variable in a country struggling under the relentless pandemic. Although I would have to submit a clear activity plan for the Games, detailing my every move, accounting for taking the specially put on busses for members of the foreign (re:bubbled) media, I knew something, somewhere would go awry. It always did with me.
With the majority of media sessions still limited to Zoom calls, there was only a finite amount I could actually accomplish if I was at the Olympics in person. Deciding not to go, although a personal disappointment, was the only sensible option and it meant that all my coverage would come from my bedroom in London.
To understand just how different my days become, I’ll explain what a typical day at the Euros was like for me:
Wake up around 7 or 8am, shower and head out for the day. First on the agenda was usually running for and missing a train at Arnhem Centraal station but managing to get to a training or media session in time. From then I’d usually head off to a match, any time in between would be spent on transcribing or just general writing – I can’t remember being on a train for more than 20 minutes in the Netherlands and not getting my laptop out to work. The match would be the best chance for me to get some food thanks to the free sandwiches most venues put out and I certainly helped myself to more than my fair share of bottled water. Whoever was playing, I’d get an on the whistle report written during the game before jogging down to the mixed zone to try and conduct at least two interviews.
Mixed zones can be strange places, everyone wants to get the big players and as such you see massive huddles around some, that is very not my style and whenever I get a chance, I try and grab a player no one else is interviewing. Putting it very simply, if I get the same quotes as Suzy Wrack at the Guardian or Molly Hudson at the Times, who’s going to read my offering? Most nights I managed to get back to my Airbnb, so after the mixed zone, I’d find the nearest station, get train back to Arnhem and transcribe/write until about 3 or 4am. Rinse, lather and repeat.
The World Cup, thanks to the size of France and having to stay in a basement meant things were a little different, but you get the gist.
The larger tournament with group games spread out and not just all played on one day also meant that for both the Euros and the World Cup, I had a match to attend every day for the first 12/14 days of the tournament. Even when you ran into a rest day after the group stage, there would still be matchday -1 or matchday +1 for more media bits to do, so, for me, my first real day off at the World Cup (having started doing media bits on the 6 June) was the 30th. Even then, my day started running for the coach back to Paris and ended with packing up to leave for Lyon the next day.
Had I been in Japan, I would have had huge amounts of time to kill and with all the media confined to their hotels when not at/travelling to matches or doing designated media activities, I’m sure I would have found things challenging.
As someone with an unconventional body clock, my first job in getting ready to cover the Olympics was to stay awake for about 40 hours in an effort to adjust it to Japan-ish time. Allotting myself a slot from 8pm to midnight (4am-8am JST) to sleep, this meant I could get up at a comfortable pace, do any necessary prep before the day’s kick offs and generally ease into each matchday.
The biggest difference: simply the sheer amount of football I can watch. Obviously, if you’re at a match in person, that is all you can watch but you can watch it in better detail, you can focus on the players you want to and aren’t restricted by whatever camera angles you’re given. This is the simple issue many football writers have grappled with in the last year and a half, even though reporting off of matches on tv isn’t a new occurrence, there is a lot of freedom lost by doing so. And for anyone who’s had more than one match on at any one time, they know all too well how hard it can be to concentrate – not least with the chaos of Group F to deal with.
So, unlike my matchdays at the Euros or World Cup, this summer, I have started the day out with the Olympic buffet of sport before settling into the football, cramming more screens onto my desk to stream each match live. If I was at a tournament in person, I would write one report or analysis followed by one or two post-match reaction pieces and maybe a feature if inspiration struck. As I ditched the idea of doing Zoom post-matches a long time ago, I’m freer to focus on ~content and have been managing two analysis/features and two round-ups per matchday.
There are plenty of upsides to being at home, certainly less panic over missing the last train, the happy ability to gorge on Olympic sport and--when I remember--I can eat every day. However, there is also a feeling of disconnect. I’m not at the matches, I’m not feeling the action as it unfolds in front of me, nor am I getting to talk to players afterwards, getting extra info in their body language or tone of voice. So too, you lose the camaraderie that comes with covering tournaments, those who focus on one nation will be in each others pockets all summer but for others, like myself or Charles, there is a larger milling and connecting with the wider woso community going on.
Be it as journalists, bloggers or fans, I'm sure after the last 16 months or so, this is something that resonates with most. Those connections at tournaments can help get you through but they can also help inspire you, conversations with those around you can spark features or lines of thought that wouldn't have otherwise occurred.
Very much an all or nothing person who is happy to endure the sheer brutality of covering everyone at a tournament, with so many rest days, it’s hard to focus on the football and the continuity, my mind easily distracted by archery or volleyball or the Simpsons. Far more days without football than with, Japan and the clamour of the Games have felt more than 6,000 miles away.
Tl;dr: there is a bittersweetness to remotely covering the Olympics.