CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo knows pandemic adds new hurdles to challenge of broadcasting an Olympics

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CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo, pictured here interviewing swimmer Sandrine Mainville and her parents at the 2016 Rio Olympics, says she'll miss the emotional aspect of meeting face-to-face with Canada's medal hopefuls and their families in Tokyo this summer as the network will host from Toronto amid a global pandemic. (CBC Sports - image credit)
CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo, pictured here interviewing swimmer Sandrine Mainville and her parents at the 2016 Rio Olympics, says she'll miss the emotional aspect of meeting face-to-face with Canada's medal hopefuls and their families in Tokyo this summer as the network will host from Toronto amid a global pandemic. (CBC Sports - image credit)

Andi Petrillo was in on the surprise.

The CBC Sports host was interviewing Canada's Sandrine Mainville shortly after she earned a relay bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, with the swimmer unaware of two people standing barely out of camera range.

"I'm interviewing Sandrine and her parents pop up from behind and surprised her," Petrillo recalled recently. "It was this great moment, the tears and connection between child and parent. She didn't know her parents [were in Rio] and watched the race. We captured it and were able to bring that to the viewers."

Those moments will be tougher to recreate at this summer's Tokyo Olympics as CBC Sports will have Petrillo, Scott Russell and other Olympic hosts work at its Toronto studios for health and safety reasons during a global pandemic.

Chris Irwin, working his second Summer Games as executive producer for CBC Olympics, has reduced the number of staff in Tokyo by about 50 per cent to focus all resources on covering athletes' stories and manage the safety of people.

"We have moved a lot of people home to Canada across CBC, Radio-Canada and all platforms," Irwin said. "The only people we left on site are those gathering with athletes, talking to athletes — camera people, reporters, field producers and the co-ordinating and technical teams at the IBC [International Broadcast Centre] that make sure all the content gets to Canada," Irwin said.

Petrillo will miss the emotional aspect of meeting face-to-face with Canada's medal hopefuls and their families, along with the camaraderie of athletes from different countries converging in one area.

"Athletes and families let us in," said Petrillo, gearing up for her fourth Olympics as CBC host. "When you're able to be with them in person and at the Games, certain stories and emotions are felt. They let you into their world, they let you into their bubble, and that will be greatly missed."

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Petrillo said it will be up to her, the production crew and fellow hosts Alex Despatie, Heather Hiscox, Andrew Chang, Perdita Felicien and Russell to remain in constant communication with athletes and their representatives to make sure the audience is aware of Canadian stories during CBC Sports' 23 hours of daily coverage throughout the 16-day competition.

"That viewer experience is not going to change because we're still going to bring them the actual sport," said Petrillo, who will host Olympic Games Morning from 6 a.m. ET to noon. "We just have to make sure we also do our due diligence in sharing the athlete's story to make sure the entertainment factor isn't lost."

Chris Wilson, who will oversee his first Olympics at the network as executive director, believes CBC Sports was among the first rights-holding broadcasters to preemptively make decisions on its production model.

"We knew there would be uncertainty until the last moment and it turned out to be an excellent decision," said Wilson, who served as manager of events for part of his tenure at Swimming Canada before joining the CBC in January 2019. "It gives some certainty to our planning, staff, employees and allowed us some level of cost certainty, although there are lots of things to be determined."

A 100 days out, we've seen baseball, football, soccer and professional sport look, feel and be enjoyed like sport. — CBC Olympics executive producer Chris Irwin

Unlike previous Olympics, Irwin is unsure if CBC Sports will be able to count on its employees being able to travel to Tokyo, move around the city and speak with athletes at venues.

But a one-year delay following the Olympic postponement in March 2020 has allowed the CBC team time to witness the impact of the pandemic and how it can be managed so it can create the type of program familiar to viewers.

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The crew has learned from CBC News and other CBC productions how to function safely in the building to respect and maintain all COVID-19 counter measures — physical distancing, cleanliness and safety to employees.

"A 100 days out we've seen baseball, football, soccer and professional sport look, feel and be enjoyed like sport," Irwin said. "[What] is different and hard to understand or count on, is what if all those major events taking place, from the Super Bowl to [golf's] Masters to the Australian Open [tennis], were taking place in the same city?

"The Olympics takes one of the best tournaments that every federation can convene and puts them in the same city with the media and fans free-flowing between them, and that will be the real test, and possibly the biggest gamble."

Irwin and Wilson are awaiting an update to a playbook the International Olympic Committee unveiled in February outlining various restrictions put in place to run the event safely from a broadcast perspective.

"The government of Japan and city of Tokyo can say, 'We're sorry, what's happening here isn't safe and we're going to shut some or all of it down or change the procedures to make it safer' and that makes you hold your breath as a production planner and broadcast producer," Irwin said.

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Adding to the challenge is the need to prepare for the Beijing Winter Olympics, scheduled for February. Two Games within a year hasn't happened since 1992 when the Albertville and Barcelona Olympics were held. Since then, the Summer and Winter Games alternate two years apart.

"The biggest thing we've had to overcome is the fact we're literally planning two Games at one time," Wilson said. "Running two Olympics in a pandemic is kind of unheard of.

"I really do believe the Games are going to happen but what we don't know is under what conditions. Hopefully this is going to end up being a party of epic proportions as we see a light at the end of the tunnel [in a pandemic] and a great way for us to unite as a country around our athletes."