Postcards from Tokyo

Elon faculty, staff, students and alumni reflect on their time at the long-delayed 2020 Olympic Games.

It was the largest media event in history — with more than 150 million Americans tuning in, an average of 15.6 million during the primetime slot and 5.5 billion minutes consumed through  streaming — but the privilege of actually participating in it was only granted to a select few.

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It was feared that the Tokyo Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world, would be canceled entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But after a year’s delay, more than 11,000 athletes and 80,000 officials, journalists and support staff made their way to Tokyo for the games, and thousands more made the event possible remotely.

Several Elon University faculty, staff, students and alumni were among those who spent their summer competing, supporting athletes or producing content for the billions of people watching worldwide.

The Competitor

Laura Igaune competed in the women’s hammer throw event at her first Olympics this summer as one of the 33 competitors representing Latvia in Tokyo. As the assistant women’s cross country and track and field coach at Elon, she hopes to show the student-athletes she trains what it will take to get to the next level once they are finished with college athletics. “Since this is my first Olympics, I will remember every single moment that I experienced and the magnitude of being at that event,” Igaune says. “It kind of motivates me to go further; I will go and try to qualify for the next Olympics in 2024. It’s just a huge motivator for me to continue going because I feel like I’m on the right path.”

The Therapist

Shefali Christopher, assistant professor of physical therapy education, assisted the U.S. Paralympic Triathlon team as a contract physical therapist, a role she has served in since 2018. With so many moments from her time in Tokyo to pull from, she said being around such incredible athletes was her biggest takeaway. “It was inspiring to be around such top-class athletes,” Christopher says. “It was fun to watch them flip a switch, acting like this was just another day leading up to race day and on race day, but then truly remembering where they were and celebrating this achievement after.

“Being able to support the paratriathlon team in bringing home three gold medals and two silver medals was also something I will never ever forget. I still get chills when I think about the women’s wheelchair finish where Kendall Gretsch won gold, coming back from a four-minute staggered start in the swim to overtaking her opponent on the blue carpet! It’s a must-watch if you get a chance.”

The Pro Producer

Max Negin, assistant professor of cinema and television arts, worked on his seventh Olympic Games in Tokyo, producing “Tokyo LIVE” for NBC’s Peacock streaming platform. Negin said the restrictive nature of this past Olympiad made things “odd,” but the same indispensable knowledge from such an experience remains. “For me, the greatest part of it, as someone who teaches media and TV production, is to be involved in, arguably, the largest and most extensive remote production in the world and to be able to walk around and ask questions and observe,” he says. “It’s just invaluable for my teaching and for my professional development to be able to see what’s going on, and then I can bring that back and talk to students and explain different techniques, different practices that people are doing and to make connections.”

The Spectator-Turned-Intern

Shaun Goodman ’22, a senior cinema and television arts major, spent his summer editing videos and collaborating with media industry professionals as a runner assigned to NBC’s digital team. With his father working for NBC, he had the opportunity to attend the 2008 and 2012 games as a spectator. But working the Olympics as an intern gave Goodman another perspective. “The Olympics are always a special occasion because the whole world is coming together on one stage,” he says. “Although there weren’t any fans in attendance this time, I was lucky enough to work behind the scenes with a variety of media companies and people from around the world.

“I think my leadership qualities grew because I looked around and I saw that leadership doesn’t solely rest on one person, but the collective effort of the whole and people picking each other up when they’re down, just like in the athletic events.”

The Remote Content Creator

Ellie Whittington ’18, a social media assistant for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball club, was granted the opportunity to be a part of the worldwide competition. Working remotely as a social media digital production assistant, she worked from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. Eastern Time to cover the results of the games live and worked with the Bulls in the afternoon. Fortunately, earning her undergraduate degree in journalism from Elon had prepared her for such challenges. “Elon taught me how to be a multimedia journalist,” Whittington says. “I’m just so grateful for Elon making me a well-rounded journalist to be able to handle multiple things at one time versus just being pigeonholed into a specialty.”

The Remote Production Assistant

Working on the Olympics remotely from Stamford, Connecticut, was not how Emmamnuel Tobe ’21 originally planned to spend the games. He had planned to intern in Tokyo before the pandemic forced the world’s biggest event to be postponed. He took an internship with Hearst Magazine, where he currently works. But when the opportunity arose to freelance with the ad insertion team as the digital production assistant, he didn’t hesitate to accept. “It was a great experience. I loved it,” Tobe says. “It was a big confidence booster for me as well. If I can work 12 hours a day, as a part of this crew working on something that’s going to be produced 14 hours away with 7,000 people involved from all over the country and the world, then I feel like I can do anything.”

The Magazine Editor

Lindsay Kimble Carney ’13 graduated from Elon with a degree in journalism and is now the senior news editor and sports editor with People Magazine. Tokyo was the first Olympic Games that she was able to cover. As a lifelong viewer, she was taken aback by the scale and meticulousness of it all.

“It’s such a mammoth production that a country undertakes to put these games on, the thousands of athletes from all around the world, their teams … and then you have thousands of journalists and all the volunteers,” Carney says. “It’s really impressive to watch and really neat to have a front-row seat.

“Sitting in the stands and quickly publishing a story while track athlete Allyson Felix wins the final gold medal of her Olympic career and then running down the stairs of the stadium to interview her fresh from the track with sweat beads still on her forehead … was so surreal and had me pinching myself.”