Tokyo. What a Games and what an experience from start to finish. To be honest, it was only in the last few days of back to back PCR tests before departing that I dared to believe it was actually going to happen.
I’ve never been so happy to board a plane for a long haul flight as I was on July 16th. Despite doing a lot of flying over the last decade or so, I’ve never particularly enjoyed sitting six miles off the ground. But last month I couldn’t wait.
From the moment we arrived it was obvious how seriously the Japanese people were taking the health and safety element of us invading their country for this quadrennial festival of sport. And we reciprocated in kind by following the rules, irrespective of the inconvenience. I didn’t encounter a single journalist, camera operator, engineer or broadcaster who begrudged the measures in place.
The restrictions on our movements made day to day journeys across the city very tiresome, but you understood the reasons why.
For the first five days I was covering the boxing and whilst that return journey would have taken about an hour on public transport, there were days when the official bubble transport was taking four. But that’s what it took for the event to happen, so you just got on with it.
Two boxers I particularly enjoyed commentating on were Welsh middleweight Lauren Price and west midlands light heavyweight Ben Whittaker. Price has an incredible sporting pedigree, having been a junior international netball player, an international footballer and a multiple junior world champion in taekwondo. All that before she found boxing.
After seeing her in the early rounds, I thought it would take an amazing performance to beat her and so it proved to be. Her gold was richly deserved.
Whittaker’s dad insisted on teaching him footwork before the primary schoolboy was allowed to throw a single punch and he ran literal and metaphorical rings around his early opponents.
I had moved to the athletics by the time his gold medal bout came around and I read how disappointed he was with Silver. I hope in the fullness of time he reflects more on the brilliant run to the final. And bearing in mind how confident he is, I think it won’t be long before he is making serious waves as a pro.
The Kokugikan Arena was designed for major Sumo events and there was a spiritual majesty and aura around the ring. It was tailor made for combat sport and whilst it was somewhat bizarre to be the only person commentating there live, strangely there was an atmosphere. I think that was down to the context of what was at stake but also the pockets of teammates and coaches who positioned themselves around the stadium to watch their friends live out their dreams thousands of miles away from home.
It was the same at the Olympic Stadium. Honestly after the first hour or so of heats and qualifying on the track and in the field events you stopped noticing that there were no spectators. It was obvious at the start that the track was fast (which was going to make it punishing for the distance runners) and that some special performances were about to emerge.
From a personal perspective, it was the most emotional, uplifting, fulfilling two weeks I’ve ever spent in a commentary box. From the time I watched Coe and Cram race the 1,500m in LA in 1984, I had dreamt that I would one day be running in that final for Great Britain or be “the bloke in the stadium talking about it,” and having worked on four summer Games before, finally it was my turn to be the lead commentator on the world feed.
Our live comms were being taken across the Caribbean, all the English speaking countries in Africa (more of that in a moment,) and in the US, Australia, New Zealand and India. Catering for such a huge and diverse audience means you have to be neutral in your appreciation for a great performance, whichever country comes out on top.
In that regard there is no shortcut on the prep you do, to make sure you are informed on any and every potential medal, national record or PB. On average each session was taking around four hours of prep, so often I was working 18 hours a day and managing around four hours sleep a night. By the end you are running on fumes, full fat coke (which I never drink at home) and adrenalin.
And what races we had to keep us going. I’ll never forget the Italian Lamont Jacobs winning the men’s 100m and embracing GianMarco Tamberi who had just memorably soared to a shared high jump gold with Mutaz Essa barshim of Qatar minutes earlier. That Italian golden double and their hug at the end of the home straight perfectly captured the unique magic of athletics where men and women with contrasting skill sets and prowess can share their ultimate sporting achievements with each other in the heat of the moment.
On a personal level I was overjoyed to finally see Laura Muir secure a maiden global medal with that magnificent silver in the women’s 1,500m. At last she ran the race of her life under huge pressure, beating Sifan Hassan and finishing just behind defending champion Faith Kipyegon, who in my opinion must now be ranked among the greatest middle distance runners of all time. And for Muir to do it with a national record and PB is very, very special. The best you have ever produced at the very moment you needed it. Sheer class.
The icing on the cake from my perspective was being noticed in Uganda! I’ve been there many times for youth work and love the country. As such, I know a few phrases of the local language and have a passing knowledge of the geography and culture.
Uganda is sometimes regarded as the poor relation in East Africa, behind the likes of near neighbours Kenya in terms of international standing and tourism. It’s an undeserved tag usually bestowed upon them by people who have never been there.
With world record holder Joshua Cheptegei winning the men’s 5,000m and taking silver in the 10,000m (with younger team mate Jacob Kiplimo in third) and Peruth Chemutai winning the women’s 3,000m steeplechase, it was by far the most successful Games in Ugandan history. And as I happened to be the one they were listening to each evening, there was a curiosity as to the identity of this random British commentator who seemed to know a little about their country.
In the space of about three days I received hundreds and hundreds of direct messages of thanks and over 5,000 Ugandan followers on Twitter (which I use sparingly). I’ve been offered a second wife (my “first” isn’t overly keen on that idea) and herds of cattle.
And best of all, one evening when we came off air I turned round from our commentary position to find the Ugandan Chef de Mission standing with a delegation of their team ready to give me a Ugandan shirt and cap in appreciation of my words and passion.
I was blown away. It is a real honour to lead international coverage of the ultimate athletics event, but as a world feed voice you assume you are largely anonymous. You do it for the love of the sport and the honour of the opportunity, not because you expect recognition or thanks. To have received both from a place I hold very dear was an incredible end to an incredible Games.
I will never forget Tokyo 2020.
A year late? Yes. Worth the wait? Without a shadow of a doubt. It was the highlight of my 22 year broadcasting career.