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Unique Tokyo Olympics offered plenty of cherished and strange moments

Masked Tokyo Olympics volunteers and staff stand spaced out.
Tokyo Olympic volunteers and staff stand for the national anthem of Japan during the closing ceremony Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The Olympics create moments and memories, some that last for a lifetime, others that fade with time. The Times sent a mix of veteran Olympic reporters, editors, photographers and newcomers to Tokyo for the Summer Games. Here are some of their impressions.

Nathan Fenno

Each humidity-drenched morning in Tokyo, I passed bored police officers stationed outside my hotel and a small park filled with screeching cicadas during the seven-minute walk to the transport hub at the Main Press Center.

This is as close as we came to experiencing life outside the Summer Olympics bubble during the first two weeks in Japan.

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Among the slew of pandemic-related restrictions journalists faced at the Games was a soft quarantine for those 14 days. We were permitted to travel between our hotel, the Main Press Center and competition venues eerily devoid of spectators, all detailed in an activity plan submitted to organizers before we arrived. No restaurants. No public transportation. No shopping. No jogs or walks for exercise. Just the same path, day after day, each step near the hotel watched by police and security guards.

With the closing ceremony set to mark the official end of the Tokyo Olympics, we look at the six greatest moments from the Games.

The exception was the 15 minutes we were allotted each day to visit a convenience store. That was key to the slog through long days, tight deadlines and an Olympics that often felt sterile and joyless. At the 7-Eleven across from our hotel, at least, you can try an astonishing variety of products — sandwiches filled with whipped cream and fruit, onigiri, beef croquets, takoyaki, pork curry, rice bowls, green tea pudding, cream puffs, coffee-flavored potato chips, canned whiskey highballs.

The trips to 7-Eleven were breaks because each day seemed like the one before. The walk to the transport hub, the quick bus to a bigger transport hub by Tokyo Bay for a 40-minute bus ride to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, have your temperature taken (this is in addition to the daily health questionnaire, including temperature, we fill out on a phone app and a second contact-tracing app we’re required to keep active at all times), scan your face, go through security, cover that morning’s finals at a building where only coaches, swimmers, officials and media are allowed inside, slam out a story in time for the print newspaper deadline in Los Angeles.

Covering the Olympics is a coveted assignment, and an opportunity I’m deeply thankful to have, but these Games were … strange. It was tough to shake that feeling as the COVID-19 case counts in Tokyo broke record after record, the region remained under a state of emergency and polls showed the population opposed to hosting the sports extravaganza with some 42,000 foreign visitors in the midst of the crisis.

And without spectators, there was little buzz, little energy, little sense this was the biggest sporting event in the world.

Aggressive testing, tracking apps and restrictions prevented a widespread COVID-19 outbreak from derailing the Olympics, but there were problems.

Though every volunteer and staffer I encountered radiated kindness, this endeavor felt like inviting yourself over to someone’s home when they’ve made it clear they don’t want you visiting. There’s a tension that’s tough to shake.

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Sure, there are moments when the strangeness vanished in the midst of a remarkable performance, like 17-year-old Lydia Jacoby’s gold medal-winning swim or Katie Ledecky cruising to victory in the first-ever women’s 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympics. But those moments were fleeting. There wasn’t a roar of celebration or loved ones in the stands to cheer them or adventures in Tokyo after the competition ended. Everyone seemed to be trying to get through this as best they can.

After 14 days, we were allowed, to some extent, to venture where we pleased. That freedom was welcome. But the strangeness from these Games remained.

These were the third Olympic Games for Nathan Fenno.

Helene Elliott

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Uganda's Oscar Chelimo runs in the men's 5,000 meters at the Tokyo Olympics.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

These Olympics were like no other. No fans, no families, and no relief from the oppressive humidity that made every journey feel like a cross-country ski race performed while a wet wool blanket was draped over your head.

The volunteers and staffers were kind and polite. I wish I could have seen their smiles, but the required masks gave everyone similarly blank expressions.

I missed the spine-tinging hush that customarily falls over a packed stadium when the men’s 100-meter dash final goes off; without fans, the hush was normal at these Games. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach insisted that based on his experiences at the Olympic village and competition sites, the atmosphere “has been more intense than ever before.” With that, he created a new Olympic sport: word spinning. He won the gold medal.

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The United States women’s volleyball team won its first Olympic gold medal in the sport, sweeping Brazil at the Tokyo Games.

When I remember these Games, I will remember Los Angeles native Allyson Felix winning a bronze medal that carried the value of gold in the women’s 400-meter race. With that medal she became the most decorated female track and field athlete in Olympic history, with 10. I feel like I watched her grow up to become a determined, principled woman whose advocacy for improved maternal care — especially for Black women — could become a legacy greater than her formidable accomplishments on the track.

Telling athletes’ stories is exhilarating, but long hours and logistics that require a journey from Point A to Point B take detours through Points J, K, Q and Z sap the body and soul. I still don’t get the point of club throwing and ribbon swirling of rhythmic gymnastics, and I may never get rock climbing. But I saw glimpses of the vitality of the Olympic spirit and ideals even if the execution of these Games was muted by the lack of fans and families.

These were the 17th Olympic Games for Helene Elliott.

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David Wharton

Standing outside Makuhari Messe Hall during a break in the fencing competition one afternoon, I was struck by the underlying sadness of these Games. My favorite Olympic moments have always involved crowds milling around some plaza, or the buzz you feel from fans walking into a venue before a big game or match. It makes you feel like you’re someplace special.

At the Olympic flame, always a public gathering place, volunteers with signs and bullhorns did their best to keep people moving past. There were no bursts of cheering at the venues, no long, appreciative rounds of applause for the host country. For months, media reports had focused on how the lack of fans might affect competitors — did reporters ever stop to think how it might affect them? Not that it makes a difference, but the adrenaline rush of the crowd’s roar is part of our job too.

Trenten Merrill is looking forward to competing at the Tokyo Paralympics as he strives to offer a message of hope for amputees and disabled persons.

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I’ve been telling people that Tokyo has felt like the Olympics in a laboratory, sterile, lacking in surprises or spontaneity. I know the athletes really wanted the chance to compete and, under the circumstances, this was probably the only way it could have been done. There were some great performances, some world records and come-from-behind victories. Still, on a warm day outside the fencing arena, it struck me that these Games felt a bit empty.

These were the seventh Olympics for David Wharton.

Kevin Baxter

Tokyo was my fourth Olympics. I’ve also been fortunate enough to cover five World Cups. None of those comes close to matching these Games for the enormity of the challenge organizers faced in trying to pull off a major global event in the middle of a raging pandemic.

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“Faster, Higher, Stronger” gave way to face masks, disinfectant and social distancing. Patience became more than a virtue, it became a way of life for three weeks.

We can debate whether that was a good idea, but the fact is the Games went forward and the Japanese deserve multiple gold medals for pulling this off. There was good and bad to that. The good was the Olympics couldn’t be stopped; athletes who are trained to overcome adversity overcame the greatest adversity most of them will ever face.

With the Tokyo Olympics drawing to a close, there have been only a few, relatively mild demonstrations by athletes from the U.S. and other countries.

But there was bad, too, because these COVID Games, held in silent, empty stadiums, felt empty.

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We’ve grown used to games being played before vacant seats but it felt strange at an Olympics. There were no cheers of “USA! “USA!” No hugs between surprise medalists and their equally surprised family members. I feel sorry for the athletes who had to share their special moments over Zoom or WhatsApp. For journalists, the Games felt very businesslike. With no traffic and no spectators to navigate, it was get it, get interviews and get out, then move on to the next sport.

The next World Cup will kick off in Qatar in 15 months. Let’s hope those games don’t resemble these Games.

These were the fourth Olympic Games for Kevin Baxter.

Dan Woike

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As a reporter at my first ever Olympics, a couple of things have struck me — the top being just how helpful and patient the volunteers have been at the venues. They’re seriously the backbone of this thing and they made life a lot easier for me even if they couldn’t understand me through a mask 90% of the time.

I think the other big takeaway, honestly, is that we’re just tiny pieces of a global community, something I think I definitely lost sight of after being mostly stuck inside my home for huge chunks of time since March 2020.

I remember walking through the airport when I first arrived in Tokyo, coming here on a flight with nearly as many passengers as flight attendants. Walking through the airport toward customs, I saw athletes from all over the world pass by wearing track suits with their country’s name and their country’s colors. I know this event carries all kinds of baggage, but being in that terminal with people who dedicated their lives to competition, that’s what I’ll remember the most.

And all the ramen I ate.

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These were the first Olympic Games for Dan Woike.

John Cherwa

By now, you’re probably tired of hearing how different these Olympics were, and I can’t dispute that premise. You never truly appreciate how important a crowd is to an event until you don’t have one. And, no doubt, the underdogs that are normally spurred on by a boisterous crowd didn’t perform as well in these Games.

My job as on-site editor is that of a cat herder, with very talented cats. In a regular Games, I am pinballing reporters and photographers from event to event to make sure we are where the story is happening. But coronavirus restrictions required us to make event registrations a day in advance without the ability to change. Losing that flexibility to audible was critical. But we didn’t miss much.

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A majority of Black Americans believe having a mental health condition is a sign of weakness. Biles and other athletes are changing the narrative.

My daily calls with Chris Stone and Iliana Limón Romero, my bosses and the editors in charge stateside, contained a nightly comedy routine of questions such as, “Is that Thursday your time or my time?” Or, “What time will that end in Los Angeles?” We didn’t always figure it out.

I did learn that the best egg salad sandwiches in the world are bought in convenience stores in Japan. Luckily I can’t read Japanese so I have no idea how much sugar is being added to the product. And that Tokyo is hotter and more humid than my home near Orlando, Fla. But it was a welcome change to actually have hotel staff change your bed and clean your room every day, something U.S. hotels stopped under the guise of COVID-19 but we know it’s really about cost savings.

So, what is my overriding sentiment? Bring on Beijing. We’re ready.

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These were the 10th Olympic Games for John Cherwa.


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