Personnel will be restricted in Tokyo, but the forthcoming Olympics and Paralympics will still take place in the usual glare of the media spotlight, with athletes required to conduct interviews with broadcasters and print journalists from across the world, sometimes just minutes after competing.
For many, this can be a daunting prospect, with the ‘mixed zone’ or press conference environment taking some athletes completely out of their comfort zone.
Our Athlete Engagement Manager, Kristian Thomas, spoke to the BBC’s Olympic and Paralympic correspondent, Nick Hope, to get the perspective from behind the microphone, and some valuable advice for any athletes heading to Tokyo, or wanting to build their confidence with the media.
Kristian: Nick, you’ve covered countless major events, so what are you expecting from Tokyo?
Nick: Despite all those experiences, this will be a Games like no other. We know that we’ve had to wait an extra year because of the pandemic, and I think ‘expect the unexpected’ is the brief that we’ve been given ahead of going out there. But I do think, from a sporting perspective, that athletes have been so desperate to get to an Olympic and Paralympic Games, and it’s been so long since we’ve seen major tournaments, that we’re going to see some incredible performances when the athletes do finally get in the competition venue. We’re going to see world records all over the place, and the hope is that it’s going to be this amazing celebration of sport after all the struggles we’ve had over the last 18 months or so.
Kristian: In your opinion, what makes a good interview?
Nick: The most important thing is that it comes from the heart. A lot of athletes will want to – rightly – come across as best they can, and some people might think ‘these are the answers that I want to give’, so they’ll rehearse them. The difficulty with that is sometimes they’ll sound a bit scripted, and you don’t come across as natural as you possibly could, and your authentic self doesn’t come out. The best thing I can say is to advise athletes to really try to enjoy the experience.
You can practice beforehand – the great thing with social media, particularly Instagram stories, TikTok etc., is that they will give you opportunities to express yourself, and then to watch it back to see what you look like and what you sound like. That’s one of the best things for athletes now, compared to previous generations. That little bit of practice will definitely help; and watch back anything that you do on TV, or listen back to anything on radio, just to see how you come across.
Kristian: What advice would you give to an athlete on getting in the right mindset before going into the mixed zone, particularly after a disappointing performance?
Nick: It’s so difficult, moments after delivering a performance – whether it’s good or bad – because your head is going to be all over the place. You’re trying to process things in the 30 seconds, one minute or so before you get to the people who are going to be asking you the questions.
The biggest thing I can say is to just take a big, deep breath, and don’t try to rush anything out. If you need an extra few moments to compose yourself, the vast majority of time, that’s fine. Even if it’s a live interview, they don’t usually throw over to the interview straight away, they’ll usually hold for a few moments, so if you need a few moments to compose yourself and think through what’s happened – even to wipe away tears – nine times out of ten, the interviewer will totally understand, and will give you that moment. Try to take as much time as you possibly can to get yourself in that mindset, but also be wary that you’re not going to have time to rehearse any answers, so in many ways during that interview you’re going to be reflecting on what’s happened for the first time, and that’s where your experience comes from.
But from our point of view, that’s why those interviews are always so powerful, because they’re from the heart. It’s your immediate reaction, and that is something that athletes really don’t need to worry about. Granted, if a result hasn’t gone your way, you might be angry and there might be things that you want to say in the heat of the moment that you need to rein in a little bit, but at the same time emotion really draws people in.
One of the most powerful interviews that I’ve ever been involved in was nothing to do with what I said or did. It was with Lutalo Muhammad, who was beaten in the last half second of his taekwondo final out in Rio. I could see as he was walking towards me that he was emotional, and I asked him if he wanted a moment and he said ‘no, got for it’. Basically he kind of took over, and you saw that outpouring of emotion. He admits now that he’s been turned into a meme – he gets sent it all the time, because he was so emotional, but that drew people into him. In that moment, you understood what it meant to win or lose in an Olympic or Paralympic final, more than from someone who walks through having just won gold, because you saw the desperation.
What I’d get across from that is to not be frightened of being your authentic self.
Kristian: Why is it important for athletes to build positive relationships with members of the media?
Nick: I’m obviously quite biased about this, because it really helps me to have a close relationship with an athlete. But for athletes themselves, it’s really important as well – there can be so many benefits.
It gives you someone to reach out to with stories, if there are things that you want to get out there. We can also advise, particularly with athletes who are early on in their careers, and one thing that people overlook is that if you get on with a journalist, they are more likely to put the hours in for you. I have done so much unpaid work for athletes! Giving advice, writing articles, being on call, making sure their results are covered – that’s because I want to see their achievements really highlighted. So that can be really important, and people in the media can be really useful in terms of getting hold of footage of you competing, which is always handy for an athlete’s social media outlets!
Kristian: There are always going to be controversial questions asked of athletes; how can they best deal with that?
Nick: Before, I explained how the best answers aren’t necessarily rehearsed ones, but absolutely for controversial issues – and we are anticipating this to be quite a news-heavy sporting event – what I would suggest is to have a go-to, stock answer, reiterating that you’re here to do your job, which is to perform and secure the best result possible, and you have confidence that the authorities are doing everything they can, as an example.
With anything that you’re unsure about, talk to your team leaders, or those around you. Ask questions.
There’s also no reason that you have to answer a question that you’re being asked. If it’s something you’re uncomfortable with, you can quite easily say ‘I don’t feel it’s my place to talk about that’. When you’re going into the interview, by all means put the pressure back on the journalist – ask them before you begin what you’re going to be talking about, and that gives you the chance to flag up if you’re not comfortable talking about something.
A lot of the time, athletes forget that they have a lot more power in that situation than they realise. In my role, for example, I will dart around lots of different sports at a Games – I can only be an expert on so many things! But you are the expert on you. I’m trying to learn about you. Remember that – you know everything there is to know about yourself and your sport, so there’s no reason why you can’t take a little bit of control in that situation.
Kristian: Do you have any advice for athletes are who typically very active on social media?
Nick: My advice on this would always be to not do anything that detracts from your performance. That might sound quite draconian if you’re a big fan of social media, but if you see one or two negative comments, it can affect you. It may well be that you’ve got sponsorship endorsements, and supporters who have been on this journey with you who you want to keep informed, so what I would recommend in that situation is to nominate someone you trust – who doesn’t have those distractions – who can put out those updates about your performances in a controlled manner.
Equally, I don’t think it reflects badly on you to take a step back from social media during the Games. There’s no reason why you can’t use it during the Games, but nothing should distract from your performance.
It’s not putting posts out when you’re feeling emotional, because your judgement might be slightly off. In that intense environment, when things are bubbling up and you want to react, just think – if there’s any doubt in your mind over whether you should be doing something, don’t.
Kristian: For athletes who have been to Games previously, how will this Games be different due to COVID?
Nick: There will be fewer media on the ground. Fewer people in venues means more virtual interviews. When you come away from competing, you’re going to be faced with a row of people who are all wearing masks and doing interviews with a long pole microphone, because we have to keep that 2m distance between the interviewer and the athlete.
There are probably going to be fewer people that you have to get interviewed by. You’ll do TV first, then radio, then come to print and online, but whereas that is usually a bit of a pack, it will probably be you sat in front of a screen with them in another room somewhere in the venue. That area can usually be a bit of a free-for-all, but because of social distancing, that will be totally different in Tokyo.
The ‘Managing Victory’ process will also include fewer interviews. You’ll most likely go to one base, be in front of a screen, and will speak to one interviewer after another.
Kristian: The last few weeks have seen the conversation around athletes doing media interviews move on, with Naomi Osaka’s stance at the French Open. What are your thoughts on that?
Nick: The Naomi Osaka situation is interesting because it’s highlighted so many different areas that not everybody is aware of. Instantly when an athlete says they’re not doing media anymore, people tend to say they need to show more respect to the people who ultimately are funding the event.
But when you look into it in more detail, you start to understand why, perhaps, she has been feeling the way that she has. As a Japanese athlete there has been an awful lot of attention on her, and her comments about whether the Games should be taking place this summer were kind of taken out of context. She was thrown a question earlier in the summer about whether the Games should take place. In part of an answer she said that she wasn’t sure, and that has been blown into this huge story, and is then subsequently quoted in any questionable story there is about the Games. She has been drawn into that in a way she would never have wanted to be.
When you start to understand that, and the mental health struggles she’s spoken about, there has to be a level of understanding as to why she wanted to take that step back from doing interviews.
The important thing is to find that balance. Tennis interviews can be very odd – you get athletes thrown real curveball questions, which can be really difficult for an athlete to process.
As a journalist you want the athlete to answer the questions, but from the athlete’s perspective, if it’s causing her great stress, there needs to be understanding, and a balance found. It’s important that athletes answer difficult questions, so that everything isn’t super easy all the time, but at no point should an athlete be feeling depressed, stressed, or the way she has felt, from doing interviews. Hopefully there is a solution there.