LONDON – Steve Wilson knows a thing or two about the Olympics, having covered more than a dozen of them during his 37-year career with The Associated Press, and says he expects the 2020 Tokyo Games to be “fantastic.”
Known in journalism circles as “Mr. Olympics,” Wilson, 59, shared his insights in an interview with Kyodo News before leaving AP to take the post of director of communications with the International Tennis Federation in January.
He noted that some of the setbacks Tokyo has been experiencing were unexpected, likely alluding to ballooning cost estimates and considerations of possible venue changes that took place over the past few months to try to cut expenditures.
“We know about the various issues, concerns and problems that Tokyo has had and is having now. There’s no secret about it. Maybe we thought it was going to be smoother than it has been so there’s been a little bit of surprise, I think, among myself and others that there has been all these bumps,” he said.
But the Washington native said, “We think it’s going to be a fantastic games, and these games are not ones to worry about too much when it comes down to the reality of ‘will it be ready’ and ‘will things work?'”
Wilson, who was behind some of the biggest headlines about the Olympic movement, said atmosphere, venues and transportation are key factors for a games to be successful and expressed optimism that Tokyo will offer the best.
He believes the Olympics are at an important crossroads and that reforms under Olympic Agenda 2020, a set of recommendations agreed on in late 2014 to make the games more accessible and affordable, will take time before they can be judged.
“The big reforms facing the host cities involve the costs, and we’re seeing that now being played out in Tokyo,” he said.
“There seems to still be some differences about how much is being spent, who’s spending it, what’s it being spent on, which budget is for what, and this is an important issue because there is this public perception, rightly or wrongly, in the world that the games are way too expensive, and this is the crisis the Olympic movement faces.”
In all this, the media play a big role. “I think the publication of all these stories, about how much things are costing, has alerted or worried people around the world, be they politicians or normal residents,” Wilson said.
“There’s been a lot of negative coverage. There are so many negative things happening like doping, corruption and the issue over the costs. All of them are kind of a perfect storm of bad news, bad image. That’s not easy to overcome,” he added.
Having covered 15 summer and winter Olympics from the 1984 Los Angeles Games to the Rio de Janeiro Games in August, Wilson said the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, for him, stands out as the story that had the biggest impact.
“When the scandal broke, it was clear to me right away that things will never be the same. This was going to be a defining moment for the Olympic movement and the International Olympic Committee,” he said.
The bribery scandal surrounding the U.S. city’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Games first came to light in 1998, resulting in a review of the bidding process by the IOC as well as the expulsion of several IOC members.
While Wilson noted that “the money involved was quite small” compared with more recent scandals in sports, he said it became “a big deal” because the Olympics “represents certain values” and the public saw the actions as “betraying the Olympic ideal.”
Through his career, Wilson said he has witnessed “most, if not all” of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s victories and noted that “no one will forget” American boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s lighting the cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
He also said the first joint march at an opening ceremony by North and South Korea at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was a “historic” and “powerful moment.”
Wilson, who had followed in the footsteps of his father, who worked for AP during and after World War II, said the Olympics are fascinating to him because they cross different boundaries.
“It’s not only sports, it’s news, politics, entertainment — there’s so many different things. So I really enjoy that because I came from a news background,” he said. “I like that broad brush of all these different issues that people could be interested in.”