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Five lessons: working on Australia’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games coverage

Sports journalist Marnie Vinall jumped in feet first when working on Australia’s official Tokyo 2020 broadcast, and shares some things she learned in the process.

Marnie Vinall worked as a researcher on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games coverage. Image: supplied
Marnie Vinall worked as a researcher on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games coverage. Image: supplied

When I got the call from Nick Barrow, Executive Producer of Sport at Channel Seven, asking if I wanted to join the Olympic coverage team for the Tokyo 2020 Games, I said “yes please!!!!” as professionally as I could whilst the excitement in me felt like it was about to burst out of my skin. 

I didn’t really know what to expect but I was ready to research, write, collaborate, fact-check, laugh, cry and, most importantly, learn. 

Now, as a few months have passed since the Summer Games and with the Winter Games glistening on the snowy horizon, I thought I would reflect on some of the lessons from my time in Tokyo (Docklands). And, as a fan of lists, I thought I would put one together of them for you. 

The importance of good research

I mean, of course I would say this–I was on the research team! 

For context, my role was as a researcher and writer. I would work late into that night, getting information, statistics and stories ready for the following day. This was so producers, hosts and other team members had a good rundown of the day ahead waiting for them in their inbox when they woke up. It would include the events/competition of the day, what Aussies were in action, any big stories or key narratives and fun facts, titbits and any athletes’ birthdays.

I’ve always been a big fan of research and working on one of the biggest global events reaffirmed why. To present informative, engaging and educational information through storytelling, you need to know your facts (or have a researcher nearby who can help fact-check on the fly!).

It’s also incredibly important and respectful of your story subject(s). Athletes arrive at world stages with histories and stories within larger histories and stories. We need to tell it all, and correctly. 

Glory is made through the grind

There is something incredibly special about working behind the scenes, where the wheels churn to make the magic shine. So much of the glory in the storytelling of the Games happened under bright lights but it was made possible through the hard work away from them.

Of course, this refers to the actual athletes but also to the coverage team. Those on the TV screens, who guided audiences through the Games with grace, humour and knowledge, did so because they showed up prepared. 

Marnie Vinall worked alongside some of Australia's greatest athletes, including Anna Meares. Image: supplied
Marnie worked alongside some of Australia’s greatest athletes, including Anna Meares. Image: supplied

Not only did I have the good fortune to share an office with the likes of Leisel Jones, Anna Meares, Ian Thorpe, Alister Nicholson and Georgie Parker, but I got to witness how they worked firsthand. And I can tell you, the seamless wonder they present on screen is backed by hours of note-taking, researching, practising pronunciation of players names and getting facts and figures down pat. 

I would often come in before my shift started to just sit and watch—this sounds creepy but it wasn’t, I promise!—plonking myself in the corner of commentary boxes to soak in as much second-hand experience as possible.

When it comes to telling Olympic stories, we need to be reflecting on how we do it

Olympic stories get written into the history books. Moments of glory, passion and pain get frozen forever in the telling of humanity’s story. Sometimes, they’re used as a testament to the human spirit and other times as trivia questions down at the local pub. Equally as important depending on the mood of the day.

But in this storytelling, there also needs to be reflection. How we choose to tell stories, what bias we bring to them, what stereotypes get embedded, is all important and it requires us to stop, listen and learn as we churn, churn, churn.

For example, as The Guardian reported, Peter Bol (800m men’s final) has acknowledged his sporting story is an incredibly powerful one but there are stereotypes entrenched in his narrative. “I don’t think people should be seen as a refugee or a migrant or something like that,” he was quoted from an interview in 2020. “…I think it’s better if we have a better conversation, to get to know the person, instead of the assumptions.”

Also, thank god we seem to be retiring the “Golden Girls” headline. 

Related—Our Favourite Sporting Moment: Tokyo 2020 Olympics

The grind is important but so is switching off

Early on, one of the other researchers from the Sydney team told me to make sure I was still finding time for ‘me’ in the whirlwind. He said to do something that I found rewarding outside of the Games. 

I took his advice and made sure to turn my brain away from Tokyo every now and again. I had already resigned to the fact I wouldn’t be seeing, or really even speaking to, any friends and family for the three weeks, but I made sure to sleep, enjoy a cup of tea and exercise when I could. Also, I ate plenty of fruit and drank loads of water (#fitspo).

Working full steam ahead isn’t sustainable (even for a few weeks) if you don’t take care of yourself foo. A big lesson learned that I often find needs repeating.

Marnie Vinall in the coverage home base in Docklands. Image: supplied
Marnie in the coverage home base in Docklands. Image: supplied

There’s is nothing greater than being part of a team

As Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, once said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part”.

Despite Andy Maher telling me after starting in the role, “Congrats! Now, no sleep for the next three weeks”, I never slept more deeply. Each night as I lay my head on my pillow around 3am I thought, ‘I’m a part of this’ and then replayed Sam Kerr’s headers in my brain to send me off to sleep. 

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