As the world's premier athletes battle for gold, the "Today" show team is running a relay of its own, tasked with providing engaging Olympics content within the restrictions of a city fearing a surge of COVID-19 cases.
NBC morning show anchors Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Al Roker and Craig Melvin are in Tokyo, although Roker briefly feared he might be benched when two saliva tests administered upon arrival came up inconclusive.
"I was thinking, 'What happens if I turn up positive? Do I get put in a Ziploc bag and sent back?'" he jokes. The weather anchor was able to leave the airport after an additional test came back negative. "I was in the airport four hours, but it was fine. It was worth it just to get here and see" his colleagues.
In addition to testing requirements, the journalists face restrictions like being confined to an Olympic bubble. They are permitted to leave the hotel for just minutes each day. Guthrie has shared her mastery of in-room step aerobics. Melvin has become immersed in the Games in his free time.
"I went back to my room after the show, and I spent 30 minutes engrossed in this game of men's handball," he says. "I never watch handball, but all of a sudden you find yourself interested in these sports that you'd never follow."
The anchors share the protocols in place, how they're able to pull off "Today" remotely (and at 8 p.m. local time) for two weeks and how they've been received in Tokyo. (Edited for length and clarity.)
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Question: Savannah, you hosted your first Olympics opening ceremony. What was that like?
Savannah Guthrie: It was wonderful. It was exciting. It was a week of work and studying to learn about 206 delegations, and it was a geography lesson. I loved working with (NBC sports journalist) Mike Tirico, and it was an extraordinary experience.
Craig Melvin: The best part about Savannah hosting was that now, when we walk around the city with her, she's got all these nuggets – these random factoids.
Guthrie: I'm like Cliff Clavin from "Cheers," the guy who knew all the trivia.
Q: What's the mood right now in Tokyo, amid the pandemic and the Olympics?
Guthrie: Well, that's a question we'd have a better chance answering at other Olympics. That's one of the strange aspects of these games. We're not on the Tokyo street, we're not chitchatting with people. We're really separate. So you can read public opinion polls as well as we can, and it does show that leading up to these Games, they weren't popular. (Local) people were worried, and it's understandable why they would be worried about people coming in and an influx of travel for the Games. But everyone we've had interactions with – at the hotel, or the places that we are able to go – are lovely and warm and welcoming, and we have a really good feeling from them.
Q: What's it like doing "Today" now and wanting to host athletes and show viewers the city?
Melvin: We've had to get creative. That's been one of the themes over the past year. Prior to the Olympics, we did a lot of our athlete profiles via Zoom.(Here), the in-person stuff, that's exceeded my expectations because I really did think that we were going to have to be here and do everything via Zoom with athletes at the village or at venues.
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Q: What about the safety measures and restrictions in place? Are you getting tested often?
Guthrie: There's a whole list of protocols. I think you test four times before you go. You test again at the airport. You test the first three days you're here. You're testing on the 10th day that you're here. You submit your health status every single day. You have to install an app that tracks your whereabouts since there's elaborate measures for contact tracing in the event of a positive COVID test. So the Tokyo government’s being very, very careful. In our little bubble, we're permitted to follow kind of U.S. protocols and how we would conduct ourselves on our set, although our entire crew is following local protocols and wearing masks.
The whole theory of the case here for the Tokyo officials is to keep the Tokyo public separate, and the Olympic public in a bubble so that there wouldn't be cross contamination. That's why we can't go mingle around and go check out Tokyo. We can't walk into a mall. We can't go see the sights.
Kotb: We have 15 minutes to be out of the hotel and then back in it again. Al's been to how many Olympics again?
Al Roker: Thirteen.
Kotb: Thirteen Olympics, and on Day One of the show? Did it feel –
Roker: It felt like the Olympics and, look, every Olympics, there's always been some challenge – especially in the not-so-distant past. We've always had a challenge, and our group always rises to that challenge and makes it happen.
Q: How does covering this compare with Olympics in the past?
Guthrie: I think we're really trying to place ourselves in this moment. We know what's going on in the world, and we're trying to match the moment, and our show very much understands where we are in the world. We're covering the news, and we're continuing to keep our eye on all those developments, and we're also trying to give the athletes their due. They have worked so hard for this, and this is also an opportunity to have something to cheer for, and that's something that the "Today" show always tries to do in the Olympics. There's such a beautiful opportunity to give you something to cheer for and smile about.
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Q: On Monday's show, Hoda, you told a group of swimmers you were cheering as loudly for them as you could. Tell me about your interaction with the athletes in the absence of their families and fans.
Kotb: We want to be their mothers. We want to be their fathers. We want to be their cheerleaders. We want to be all over them, but of course we can't get that close. When they come here (to the show), they are done with all of their events. We do get an opportunity to be with them here on set. I feel like we need them. The country needs them, but I also think they do need us. They need people here. And we've been saying it to their parents when their parents knew that they were going to be left behind. We said, "We'll do our best to fill in." But you feel for them to not have the nearest and dearest to them.
Q: How do you think you'll remember these Games?
Kotb: I was talking to my sister about this, and (she) was saying to me, "The only things in life you really, really remember (are) when there's been some adversity." Though it'll be seared in your memory forever, because these athletes, they've done more than the others. They couldn't train the way normal athletes train. They had to use water jugs (for weights), and they had to do back flips in their backyards. That's how they trained. They had to wait. So I think there's something special about these athletes. (They're) a step above, just because of all the stuff they had to endure. I'll probably remember it for that.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Summer Olympics: 'Today' team fills in for families at pandemic Games