Postcard from Tokyo

After her test aboard Sanceo, US dressage team silver medalist Sabine Schut-Kery seemed in awe of what she’d just accomplished

Go behind the scenes at the 2020 Olympic equestrian dressage competition

Text and photos by Diana De Rosa

The equestrian competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is the ninth I’ve covered—and it’s different from any other. By now you know all about the Games’ postponement from 2020 to 2021, the absence of cheering fans in the stands, and the severe restrictions imposed on the athletes, officials, media, and others, in an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19.

These unprecedented events have made for some unusual sights here in Tokyo, but the dressage, eventing, and jumping competitions have gone on, and they’ve produced some memorable moments, both on the “field of play” and behind the scenes. Enjoy this visual postcard with a look at some of the unique scenes that didn’t make it into the TV and streaming broadcasts.

Here I am outside my hotel in Tokyo, waiting to catch a bus to the equestrian venue. All accredited photographers are issued one of these identifying vests, which are also practical because of all the pockets to hold camera gear and other items that need to be easily accessible while we’re shooting.

At the Venue

There were so many restrictions placed on the media and others to ensure we did not spread COVID-19 that at times you had to be creative. We were told no loud clapping or shouting, as both could cause the virus to spread. The Swedish team solved the clapping issue by creating a large but soft pair of clapping hands (wielded by chef d’équipe Bo Jenå) every time they came out to support their riders.
Even though there weren’t any “spectators,” supporters were there to cheer on their teams (in a subtle way). You didn’t have the screaming and yelling with huge flags all over as in years past, but they still did have some smaller models, as shown by members of the Australian contingent in the “kiss and cry” area overlooking the main arena.
Even the judges and scribes had to maintain social distancing, but they were allowed a closer contact in pairs as they did their daily march back and forth to the judges’ booths.
There wasn’t any doubt whether a rider was happy with a performance, but they all showed it in their own way. Some mugged for the photographers (Netherlands’ Hans Peter Minderhoud on Dream Boy), while many hugged their horses as best they could (Portugal’s Rodrigo Torres on Fogoso).
Great care was taken by the staff and the volunteers to ensure that the footing was always the best it could be.

The COVID Effects

The amount of COVID testing required to attend the Olympics was overwhelming. Accredited personnel had to get two tests within 96 and 72 hours before heading to Japan. We were tested again upon arrival; then we were given test tubes that we had to submit for the next three days and then every four days after that. There was a temperature monitor in the lobby of the hotel, and each day we had to take and report our temperature.

It was sad that no spectators were allowed, but the truth was that it meant that no accredited media personnel were denied entrance to the venues because of pandemic-related occupancy limits—which is what organizers originally thought they would have to do—because we could spread out into the areas where the spectators should have been. Here’s a look at some of the other photographers and a peek at those empty seats at the main equestrian venue, Baji Koen Equestrian Park, where the dressage competition was held.

Getting Around Tokyo

In Japan, you see young and old alike riding bicycles, day and night.
The transportation central location was called the MTM, and it ran on the clock. If the shuttle bus was supposed to arrive at 6:03 and leave at 6:04, that’s exactly what happened. If you tried to wave them down, the drivers would wave back and keep going. But the good news was that we could depend on the buses and the schedule.
Police and security were everywhere. You weren’t sure whether to feel protected or that all eyes were on you so you’d better watch your step.
In my hotel, a security man sat by the front door, and if you wanted to go out you had to write it down. Since we were only allowed 15 minutes to visit a local supermarket, there really wasn’t much else we could do. And when it was time to take a media shuttle bus to the competition venue, a volunteer walked you to the pickup point and a security person was always present at the bus stop.

The Glamorous Life of Equestrian Media

Working at an Olympic Games is not a ritzy business! The media hotel rooms were smaller than a horse’s stall. And just imagine being a photographer with lots of equipment, and trying to keep the room organized enough to be able to find what you needed when you needed it.
Morning meals in Tokyo were interesting by Western standards. The photo shows a typical breakfast offering: miso and corn soup, salad, Japanese selections, custard, eggs, and bacon.

Konnichiwa, Tokyo!

Although we weren’t allowed to wander the city because of pandemic restrictions, my hotel was in the center of a very New York City-type area, with buildings and stores everywhere. So, on our march to the buses, day and night, we were able to catch some of the flavor of Japan’s biggest city.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look behind the scenes at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Congratulations to Team USA on your dressage silver medal!


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