“Beijing is a journey into the unknown”

At 27, ZDF's Lena Kesting is already experiencing her second Olympic Games as a reporter. After Tokyo 2021, it's now off to Beijing. She will still be working there under pandemic conditions, but this time the coverage is likely to be even more problematic than at the last Summer Games

Lena Kesting is the rising star in the ZDF sports editorial team. The journalist, who was born in 1994, is already experiencing her second Olympic Games in Beijing. The Morgenmagazin presenter has a queasy feeling nevertheless. In a candid interview, she explains her most bizarre mission yet.

From 4. until 20. February, the most controversial Winter Games in Olympic history will take place in Beijing and in two ski resorts in the vicinity of the Chinese metropolis of 21 million people. The major sporting event is in the spotlight because of the still rampant Corona pandemic, but also because of an authoritarian regime that wants to use the Games as a demonstration of power – including a rigid course of isolation and isolation of infectious cases. Lena Kesting, born in 1994 in the Lower Rhine region and since fall 2020 the sports face of the ZDF morning show, accompanies the alpine ski competitions on site as a reporter. In an interview, the former competitive swimmer explains how strange daily life will be for journalists in Beijing and the pitfalls of her three-week mission.

teleshow: How special are preparations for Winter Olympics under corona conditions in Beijing?

Lena Kesting: Quite elaborate and special, I would say. Even if you compare the effort with Tokyo last year, where corona also prevailed. In China, add the political situation and you’re asking yourself questions like: Do I take my own cell phone with me? For example, there is a Chinese app that you have to download two or three weeks before the Games to "track" your health status. In general, the question is: How intensively will I be monitored there?? And of course also: What happens if I get infected??

teleschau: What do you have to "track" with the Chinese app??

Lena Kesting: For example, whether one has fever or other complaints. I would not like to have something like that running on my private cell phone.


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"A tournament without sightseeing, shopping or walking"

teleschau: As usual at major sporting events since the start of the pandemic, a much smaller TV team will travel to the event. How many ZDF employees are on location in China and what will their daily routine be like there??

Lena Kesting: I think there will be about 50 to 60 people from ZDF in China, including technicians. I will spend the whole time outside Beijing at the competition site of the Alpine skiing disciplines. In addition, the ice channels for luge and bobsled are still located there. My daily routine will be to be only in the hotel, in the competition venues and in the official shuttle vehicle between these places. Walking or other activities outside the hotel are forbidden.

teleschau: As a journalist, did they prepare you for this situation?

Lena Kesting: We received the so-called "playbook" from ZDF at an early stage get to the tournament. There are all the rules which are very special and strict in China. It’s also meant to be used as a decision-making tool, so you know what you’re up against and if you can think of doing something like this. You have to be prepared for a tournament without sightseeing, shopping or walking around. Three weeks with very limited social contacts. You will only be able to talk to the athletes in the mixed zone – at a distance.

teleschau: Away from the political situation – to what extent is the Olympics in Beijing tougher than the Olympics in Tokyo??

Lena Kesting: In Tokyo there was a two-week quarantine. After that you were allowed to move freely outside. Even within the two-week quarantine, one was allowed outside for 15 minutes per day. For example, to buy food or a beer at the supermarket. In Beijing, this quarantine does not end for the entire time. You are only allowed to stay in official places and you will be tested every day.

"Whoever has a positive test result is'taken away"

teleschau: How limited will your contacts be?

Lena Kesting: That is still quite a mystery. It is said that we journalists will have free Internet, but it remains to be seen. What is definitely missing are background interviews or simply personal exchanges with athletes or other journalists. If anything goes, it goes digitally. So let’s hope that the Internet is really "free" because there’s a lot of activity on the social networks today from the athletes themselves.

teleschau: What happens if you contract corona while traveling or on site?

Lena Kesting: That is the great unknown factor in this game. You will be isolated, first in a hotel and then in a quarantine station if you test positive a second time. If you have symptoms, you have to go to a Chinese hospital – even if they are only mild symptoms. Allegedly we have also been promised English-speaking staff and free Internet for the isolation in the hotel. However, there were test competitions in Beijing, where for example the German lugers complained massively about the conditions. Also about how to deal with them. This point is supposed to have been improved .

teleschau: Can you say again what happened there?

Lena Kesting: There was the situation where luger Natalie Geisenberger had to be quarantined because she was said to have sat next to someone who tested positive on the plane. De facto she had only luggage there and sat herself quite somewhere else. However, it did not matter, she still had to go into quarantine. Tobias Arlt, the luger, was also in the isolation hotel, where it is said to have been very unhygienic, including cockroaches. His test was false positive, but he was taken straight from the track in a racing suit and helmet. His things were brought in later. Who has a positive test result, is "led away". Yes – I think that’s the way to put it.

"Of course, there is also belly tingling and tension"

teleschau: Are you afraid of getting infected on site?

Lena Kesting: I would love to avoid it. Although I am boostered and basically healthy, but our job is to report. Not only about the sport, but also about the conditions. I am not sure if this would still work from the quarantine hotel. If Corona were to hit me anyway, my goal would be to report on how I experience the situation on the ground.

teleschau: Let’s get to the sporting side of things. You yourself were a competitive swimmer and grew up in the Lower Rhine area. From there it is a good distance to the next ski resort .

Lena Kesting: In fact, it’s usually difficult with skiing in the Lower Rhine area. Nevertheless, I have been a fan of alpine skiing since I was a child. But it’s true, I gained my knowledge about it mainly in front of the television.

teleschau: Did you choose the alpine competitions in Beijing or were they scheduled?

Lena Kesting: "It was actually a wish of mine to do this. However, the teams are usually fixed, which means that whoever is in charge of the World Cup usually also does the Olympics. Katja Streso is usually responsible for Alpine. Of course I was very happy that I was allowed to move up.

teleschau: You’re still young and have worked with the "ZDF-Morgenmagazin" and the Olympics in Tokyo, you’ve made a remarkably fast ascent in front of the camera. Are you still nervous when you think about live Olympic broadcasts??

Lena Kesting: First and foremost, I feel anticipation, but of course there’s also a tingling in my stomach and tension. It’s my first Winter Games, and they’re taking place under special circumstances. Beijing is a journey into the unknown – and still a responsible job full of challenges. I am already aware of all that. I actually already know the city itself because I watched the 2008 competitions as a young swimmer.

"I was more of a "training world champion" type of person

teleschau: Are you still active in sports yourself?

Lena Kesting: Yes, I still swim twice a week at my club in Mainz. When I work at the Morgenmagazin in Berlin, I logically can’t train. Then I do fitness over the Internet. But swimming is still my passion.

teleschau: How good were you once?

Lena Kesting: I was more the type of training world champion. Then in real competitions things usually didn’t go so well for me. I swam NRW championships and was always quite close to qualifying for the German championships, but didn’t make it there.

teleschau: You studied sports journalism and wrote a bachelor thesis entitled "Higher, faster, sicker – An analysis of media print coverage of physical and mental illness in top-level sport" Written. How did you come up with this idea??

Lena Kesting: I’ve always been interested in this topic. There have been and still are constant reports about which athlete has suffered which injury. Psychological injuries, which are logically very common in top-class sports due to the enormous pressure, there was and is hardly anything to read about them. After the death of Robert Enke, everyone swore: This has to change. But as is usually the case when it comes to depression or other mental illnesses in sports, the topic is quickly off the table again.

"Athletes do not dare to go public with mental illnesses"

teleschau: What would you like to see from sports journalism in this regard?

Lena Kesting: That we report less pointedly about heroes or failures.

teleschau: But aren’t people looking for those very stories in sports?

Lena Kesting: There is a certain human need to read stories of great victories or of failure. But you also have to realize what it does to the people you’re talking about. I followed more intensively the coverage of Schalke 04’s relegation season. Of course, you have to be allowed to criticize a team for the way they play soccer. However, the way this team was written about was often far away from normal journalism. There it often went into the personal. If you are hit by such criticism and perhaps already have personal problems, it can end badly. I believe that little has been learned from cases such as those of Robert Enke or, most recently, the gymnast Simone Biles.

teleschau: What have you found out in your work?

Lena Kesting: I looked at the coverage of physically and mentally ill people from 2000 to 2014 in seven national newspapers and evaluated them. Physical illnesses or injuries are actually reported all the time, mental ones very rarely and really only when prominent names like Robert Enke, Sebastian Deisler or Sven Hannawald were involved.

teleschau: Physical injuries are hard to hide as an athlete, but psychological ones are. Isn’t that a big difference, which is difficult to compare??

Lena Kesting: But that is precisely where the problem lies. My theory is that athletes still don’t dare to go public with mental illnesses. That this area is still taboo, as is gay outing of male professional soccer players. I can even understand all this, but I think it would be good and important if something would change in both topics.

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