*This story was first published July 7, 2021*
A strong quartet of women will front Sky Sport’s coverage of the Tokyo Olympics, and Ashley Stanley discovers what they’re most, and least, looking forward to.
Athletes from all backgrounds and disciplines have been celebrating being named in the New Zealand Olympic team over the last couple of months.
There are new sporting codes and new faces in the 200-plus team, including Andrea Anacan, New Zealand’s first ever karate representative, and Ella Williams, the first Kiwi woman to fly the flag in surfing.
And there’s a slightly different team – still groundbreaking nonetheless – heading to the Tokyo Games: Sky Sport’s ‘Fab Four’. For the first time, Sky – New Zealand’s official broadcaster of the Olympics – will have four women fronting their Games coverage.
Rikki Swannell, Kirstie Stanway, Storm Purvis and Kristina Eddy will bring these Covid-19 impacted Games to New Zealand screens, with the backing of a 17-strong support crew in Tokyo.
Swannell has already been to two summer and one winter Olympics, while Eddy covered the 2018 Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires. But all four are raring to go, flying out of New Zealand in just over a week’s time to prepare for the Games starting on Friday, July 23.
“I can’t wait,” says Eddy, the youngest of the quartet. “I feel like I’ve spent five years following the athletes’ journeys and in some ways it’s like closing a chapter on all the work you’ve done. I would never have thought when I started in media five years ago that I’d be reporting at the Tokyo Games.”
Eddy joined the presenting crew after seasoned sports broadcaster Bernadine Oliver-Kerby withdrew.
“I was originally stoked to be going over in a producing role, because producing is something I’ve always cherished,” says Eddy. “But the idea of being at the venue, that’s so special; you can’t beat that.”
As we sit in Sky’s green room, I ask them how special is it to have a team of four females presenting. All are used to usually being the solo woman in most situations in their line of work, so there’s a real appreciation of having an all-woman line-up.
Stanway says she can’t believe it’s actually happening. “I still remember going to my first ever press conference when I first started in this industry,” she recalls. “It was at the Crusaders and it was all men. It was the most intimidating situation I’ve ever walked into.
“Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were up and I was just thinking ‘What am I doing? I’m so out of my depth.’ I was 22 and just freaking out. So for now, to be four females going over, it’s incredible.”
Swannell jumps in and laughs that her first press conference was also at the Crusaders about 10 years prior to Stanway’s appearance: “When it was Robbie Deans and Reuben Thorne.”
“We all get along, we’re really supportive and we all encourage each other,” says Stanway. “We’ll always help each other and no one is going to leave someone hanging out to dry.”
Eddy adds to the significance by recalling the conversations in the industry around getting more of a balance in sports reporting. “I saw really early on, we weren’t getting females interested in our part of the industry,” she says.
“I hope that by having a full-female cast on Sky, some young women who are looking to go into the media might see sports as a proper avenue for them.
“If you don’t have females wanting to go into that environment, because it’s intimidating going into a sports newsroom full of men, you have to be like a little tomboy-like. And then there’s no change.”
The excitement is not hard to see and hear in their voices when the talk about they’re feeling going to the Games. “Whether it’s your first or bloody tenth, you’d still be excited right?” says Stanway. “These are the career pinnacle for athletes and career pinnacle for sports journalists, too.”
Swannell, a journalist, commentator and broadcaster for over 15 years, agrees and couldn’t imagine herself watching these Games from New Zealand, even in the current Covid-19 climate. “Knowing that I could’ve been there…I wouldn’t have handled that very well,” she laughs.
“It’ll go down in history as a very different Olympics, and to say you were there is something else. From a purely, sports tragic journalist, that history you know you’re going to be part of is something big. And weird.”
For Purvis, the former elite athlete among them, nerves are playing a role, too. “I’m more nervous about my own performance and making the most of the opportunity I’ve been given,” says the Silver Fern who captained the New Zealand U21 team to victory at the 2013 World Youth Cup in Scotland.
“Growing up, before I got into netball, I was heavily into track running [400m and 800m] and I always thought I’d go to the Olympics one day.
“But I had my first knee surgery at 10 which put a stop to that. So it’s crazy to think that all these years later, after choosing a non-Olympic sport to play, I’m now fulfilling that dream and going to the Olympics.”
Purvis is most looking forward to watching as many events as possible. “Being at the track and field stadium will be a real ‘pinch-me’ moment. I come from a very horsey family so the equestrian will be amazing too.”
Like all who are attending, from athletes to support staff, the safety protocols and restrictions are heavy and have taken up most of the team’s preparation.
They’re not complaining, though, as they completely understand the restrictions are necessary. “Japan ticks every box…you couldn’t be in a safer country to go to a Covid Games,” says Stanway, who was in Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, six months before the global pandemic hit.
Eddy says it’s also about being respectful. “It’s about protecting the athletes, the public and protecting our team on the ground. You don’t want to expose the entire Sky broadcast and put them out of action,” she says.
They joke among themselves that it’s the lead-up to leaving that’s worrying them the most: The thought of having flu-like symptoms near the departure date and not being allowed to fly or being sent home on arrival into Japan.
But their load has been lightened with the help of production manager “extraordinaire”, Claire Couwenbergh. “We would just be a disaster zone without her,” says Swannell. “She is the best human in the world, and she’s worked her ass off, making sure every ‘t’ is crossed and ‘i’ is dotted.”
For the first 14 days after their arrival in Japan, the whole crew will need to stay within their hotel and designated venues. A record of their planned movements have already been submitted to organisers.
“After that, we’ll still have to be careful, but we can use public transport and we can probably go out and do things like have dinner and stuff that’s not in our hotel,” says Swannell.
Other adjustments include allowing more time to travel and then get into the venues with security and temperature checks. Equipment such as microphones will also be altered so there is distance between people, and there will be set times for interviews with athletes.
But it’ll all be worth it to witness the world’s best competitors. For Stanway the 100m final is an event she’d love to see. “That’s like a gold dream event. I saw it at the Commonwealth Games and that was crazy,” she says. “Or seeing Simone Biles doing her gymnastics would be history, really.
“But I think any event you go to at the Olympics, you’re seeing the best people in the world in their field, so no matter what you’re watching, it’s always amazing.”
Eddy has followed the women’s eights rowing programme and is keen to see what result they produce. And the same goes for Swannell with the Black Ferns Sevens team.
“That for me is a biggie. I feel like I’ve ridden the last five years with them a little bit,” says Swannell, who’s also a World Rugby commentator.
As they are all in different parts of media in their day-to-day roles, their preparation for the Games is about playing to their strengths.
“I think the Olympic is a little different, in that we can’t be experts on 22 sports,” Swannell says. “But what we can be good at, and I know that we’re good at, is conveying a scene, an emotion, and getting the best out of athletes in terms of interviews and stuff like that.”
The Sky Sport crew maybe the first people to talk with the athletes straight after competing in their events, so showing empathy and understanding is also top of mind.
“Picking up what the feeling is in that moment because you don’t want to get your tone wrong,” says Eddy. “I don’t think the Kiwi public should be surprised to see a lot more emotion in these Games because of what every athlete has been through to get to this point.”
As a member of the Crowd Goes Wild team, Purvis has been to many Olympic announcements so has already met and interviewed a lot of the New Zealand athletes.
“That’s been the best thing for my prep I think – trying to create any sort of relationship with the athletes before we get over there,” she says.
“I think as an ex-athlete, I know what kind of questions I would give the best answers to immediately after competing. So I’ve written down a list of topics and possible questions to have in my back pocket just in case I get caught up in the moment.”
* As NZ’s official Olympic broadcaster, Sky will have 12 channels with live Games content between NZT noon and 2 am, a 24-hour Olympic news channel, plus coverage on its streaming platforms. Sky is also partnering with TVNZ who will offer 12 hours of free-to-air coverage each day on 1, focusing on live events featuring Kiwi athletes, with delayed coverage of other Olympic moments.