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The Covid games

Gisborne’s Diana Dobson is back home after a second Olympic Games as a press attache for the New Zealand team. She spoke to The Herald’s Jack Malcolm about her Tokyo experience — the crowd-less highs and lows she witnessed first-hand as the country’s athletes achieved their most successful Olympic Games medal haul amid a global pandemic.

Diana “Dobbie” Dobson was at the centre of an unfolding global story as the press attache for transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

As the first port of call for journalists from around the world, Dobson and New Zealand Olympic Committee communications manager Ashley Abbott were at the forefront for media outlets trying to get the big story in the lead-up to and during the Games.

International media interest in Hubbard was huge as one of the first openly transgender athletes to compete at an Olympic Games — in the women’s over-87 kilogram weightlifting class.

Dobson says it was a privilege and an honour being a part of Hubbard’s experience.

Hubbard’s selection was questioned by some while others welcomed it as a giant leap forward for the Rainbow community.

“It was a real eye-opener into human nature — everyone has an opinion,” Dobson said.

“I am so proud of Laurel for her efforts. Getting to an Olympic Games calls for an Everest effort in itself. She generated a conversation that made people think about things, and that is amazing.”

Hubbard failed to complete her opening lifts and was subsequently eliminated from the competition.

But while Hubbard fell short after going into the event as a bronze medal potential, Dobson said her involvement hopefully paved the way for more inclusion in sports.

Dobson said the wider Olympic community showed an overwhelming amount of positive support for Hubbard, which was echoed by the New Zealand team culture of manaaki — respect, generosity and care for others while embracing the values of respect and inclusion.

As a press attache, Dobson also worked with Kiwi athletes in showjumping, eventing, swimming, men’s golf, diving, canoe slalom, rowing, athletics and gymnastics.

The Covid-19-enforced crowdless format took a little bit of getting used to but the athletes she spoke to said it made no difference to them.

The athletics stadium, traditionally a cacophony of noise with events running simultaneously, was where Dobson noticed the lack of spectators the most.

“It was funny at the rowing, watching coaches run along in front of the grandstand, screaming their lungs out at their athletes.”

The “small and very agile” New Zealand comms team constantly juggled tasks to assist the media while protecting athlete wellbeing and ensuring they could focus on their events.

“It is amazing to be part of a team with an ethos like this.

“Nothing is left to chance. Each athlete is given the support needed to be able to focus on what they do best. It is about the 1 percent differential — that is what makes the difference.”

As a press attache, she got so close to the action that she had an enhanced experience of the emotional highs and lows elite competitors go through.

Front-row seat to Olympic Games highs and lows

“Our job means we get to see those very raw moments. When they come off the field of play and may or may not have achieved their goals, when they call their parents, or just have that nano-second to reflect on what just happened — good or bad.”

Dobson said one of her highlights was sharing in the elation of New Zealand’s second medal of the Games — a silver to double sculls rowing pair Hannah Osborne and Brooke Donoghue.

“We had to do an Instagram livestream in the car on the way back to the village, which was entertaining for sure. None of us could figure how to turn it off so there were some very funny bits at the end of that.”

The Japanese people were incredibly gracious and she didn’t see any negativity towards the Games at all.

Dobson, who also attended the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in a similar role, said it was a fortunate turn of events that saw her land the job.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee was advertising for press attaches and with her background as a sports journalist, she was “lucky enough to make the cut”.

“My mum is just as proud and excited as any athlete’s mum.”

Being welcomed as part of the New Zealand team made the journey even more special.

From the haka — written by Gisborne’s Sir Derek Lardelli — performed for athletes on arrival at the village and when they returned with a medal to the one-of-a-kind pounamu necklace carved from the same rock and given to each team member, it was very moving for everyone who participated, she said.

“I feel incredibly blessed to have been at the Games. It is rare air, that is for sure. It is humbling to play a small part in the cog that ensures our athletes can compete to their best at this pinnacle event, and particularly during a global pandemic, which added a lot more pressure for everyone.

“For some, it will be their only shot at an Olympic Games. For others, it will be their first shot or their last shot. Whatever it may be, it is amazing to be a part of.”

GOLDEN GIRLS: Diana Dobson and New Zealand Olympic Comittee public affairs and communications director Ashley Abbott got to hold sprint kayaking superstar Lisa Carrington’s three gold medals. Picture supplied
TEAM NZ: The small but agile new zealand media communications team who travelled to Tokyo. From left are Lewis Hampton, Gisborne’s Diana Dobson, Ian Hepenstall, Zoe Cronin, Tim Marshall, Ashley Abbott and Tom Fox. Picture supplied
PART OF HISTORY: Diana Dobson, as press attache for New Zealand’s weightlifting team, said it was a privilege to share in transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard’s history-making journey. The pair are pictured at the weightlifting arena in the Tokyo Olympic Forum. Picture supplied