LONDON — People ask all the time, “What’s it really like to cover the Olympics?” I’ve determined through all the lucky years of being a sportswriter that very few people want an especially thorough answer to questions like this. Something like, “It’s awesome” will suffice.
And that’s my answer. It’s awesome. Years ago, I was at a Super Bowl — in Phoenix, I’m pretty sure — and an editor friend of mine called. He had just read a column (not mine) from a writer complaining about the misery of covering the Super Bowl, the solitary confinement accommodations, the twisted logistics, the players and coaches who in interviews ranged from bored to hostile.
My friend, a big sports fan, was outraged by that column and that writer, and he told me something I have never forgotten. He told me: “I don’t care what it’s REALLY like for the writer. If you don’t want to go to the Super Bowl, don’t go. I want to believe that covering the Super Bowl is the greatest thing in the world. I want to live vicariously through you.”
I think that’s probably right. I don’t think anyone cares — or should care — about the various inconveniences of being a sportswriter. It is a dream job, and when you are sitting in the stadium watching Usain Bolt run, or you are at the beach volleyball gold-medal match and can check the time by turning to Big Ben, or you are interviewing athletes after a team handball match and suddenly find yourself talking to the irrepressibly cool Ólafur Stefánsson, well, who really cares about any of that other stuff anyway?
But people do keep asking, and they insist that they want to know … so I will share a little behind-the-scenes story. Like with everything I write, I will not think ill of you if you skip it.
One of the themes of covering the Olympics is that it is all-consuming. It’s just so big, so impossible to get your arms around it all. You wake up and begin the chase. Hey, I hear there is a cool story at wrestling. Oh, man, I need to get out to the velodrome. Oh, wait, the U.S. boxing team just lost again, it’s not going to medal. Hey, Liu Xiang just fell on his first hurdle. Man, can I get out to Old Trafford to see the women’s soccer team? Shoot, I just heard a rumor that there’s an unbelievable story at archery. Hey, I just got an offer to interview Gabby Douglas. Oh, hey, is that Janet Evans?
And, of course, in the middle of it all, you’re trying to figure out how to get from one place to another, you’re looking at the crumpled London Underground map you’re carrying, you’re waiting for a bus, you’re looking for a bathroom, you’re trying to find a Band-Aid or an aspirin, you’re walking along streets and staring at the map on your phone and wondering why the little red dot that signifies you is moving AWAY from the target.
Huge chunks of time evaporate without you even noticing. In fact, time kind of loses its definition. You sleep when you’re near a bed, you eat in the empty spaces.* It’s like you’re living in a casino and it doesn’t really matter if it’s 1 p.m. or 4 a.m., if it’s light outside or dark, if it’s Tuesday or Friday; you just keep going to the next Olympic thing, always keeping your ear to the ground for the big story that you might be missing at gymnastics or water polo.
*There’s a thing among sportswriters that I’ve started to call the “McDonald’s Vow.” At every Olympics, there’s a McDonald’s at the Main Press Center. Well, just about every sportswriter I know comes to the Olympics vowing not to eat at that McDonald’s. One of the ideas of the Olympics is to embrace the culture, to try the local food, to eat healthier. This McDonald’s Vow is often kept as long as 25 minutes, depending on jet lag. By Day 10 of the Olympics, sportswriters begin to look like Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me.”
Believe me, this is not a complaint. The Olympics experience is an absolute blast. Many of my favorite memories and favorite stories are from the Olympics. But it leaves you depleted. Calls home tend to come to a standstill when my wife asks, “So, what did you do today?” What did I do? Wait, what DID I do? I did everything. I did nothing. I feel a connection to athletes who say after winning gold medals, “It hasn’t sunk in yet.” Nothing sinks in here. The Olympics is a carnival, it’s a thrill ride, and you get so caught up in the spirit and the striving and the scandal and the joy and the hypocrisy and the drama that you don’t really have any room for anything else. It’s easy to lose grips with the notion that other people are only casually watching the Olympics … or might not care about them at all. Here, they are the sun and the moon. It’s a bit of a shock when you pick up a newspaper and find out that there’s stuff happening elsewhere in the world, too.
Late in the first week or early in the second, sportswriters snap. From what I can tell from covering seven Olympics, this rule has no exceptions. It’s by this point that you start running out of clean clothes, that the indignities of being away from home start to kick in, that the consequences of sleep deprivation and horrible eating habits make themselves known, that the oppressive nature of covering something too big to be covered takes its toll. It hits the writers differently. Some turn mean, and you see them taking out their fury on volunteers or security officials. Some turn the complaining level up to Def-Con 4. Some bear their misery quietly and privately.
Me? Every Olympics, at some point — and usually more than one point — I go into a hysterical and uncontrollable laughing fit. I’m not talking about a typical laugh, but an extended maniacal laugh that sucks out my breath and pushes rolling tears down my face. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the fit will come when only friends are around — I had one at about 4 a.m. in Beijing when we left the Bird’s Nest after a particularly long track and field night (I believe the fit was brought on by us missing the bus).
Sometimes, though, the laughing fit will be misunderstood and will create some tension. I was in a McDonald’s (of course) at about 1 a.m. in Torino, having my laughing fit with writer friends after we all had gone to a curling match. The match had proven to be a less-than-ideal writing event — the U.S. team had lost convincingly and did not particularly want to talk about it afterward — and this led to the uncontrollable laughter of writers with nothing to write… with the word “curling” popping out in the short breaths between the choking laughs.
Well, it turned out that there was someone else in the McDonald’s, and it seemed to him that we were laughing at curling — a perfectly reasonable conclusion — and he did not seem too happy about it. He came over with his bag and said that he could not help overhearing. It seemed to me that he was really focusing on me, which would have been the right choice, since I was by far the most ridiculous of the bunch, and he rather violently reached into his bag and pulled out the silver medal he had won in curling for Canada and held it out for me so I would understand. I guess he was kind of offended. It took a good while to settle him down.
Anyway, I wanted to avoid a laughing fit at these Olympics … but, of course, it was inevitable. It happened at track on the night Usain Bolt won the 100-meter sprint. Bolt’s performance that night was remarkable, just as it had been four years before in Beijing. But, in some ways, it was even bigger. Unlike Beijing, there were a billion people all around the world waiting to see what Bolt could do, and when he delivered, well, it was staggering.
So, what you do as a reporter after events is go to an area called the mixed zone, allegedly because this is the zone where reporters and athletes can mix. To be honest, there isn’t a lot of mixing between athletes and reporters there. There is a LOT of mixing, though, between reporters and reporters, as everyone jockeys for position to be the one who asks the athlete, “What does it feel like to win a gold medal?” or, more provocatively, “What does it feel like to not win a gold medal?” It is here, not under the water at water polo, where the unobserved violence of the Olympics happens.
Well, it takes only a little bit of Olympic experience to know that going to the mixed zone for a megastar like Bolt is a complete waste of time … it’s like going to a Springsteen concert in the hopes of asking him about his childhood. So, the next step is the press conference: The medalists go into a relatively large room with many chairs, sit behind microphones and answer a few questions.
But even here, the sheer power of Usain Bolt’s stardom overwhelms the logistics. There are not nearly enough seats, and the room is not nearly big enough. To get a seat in the Bolt press conference, you have to camp out. A writer friend and I went into the room about a half hour before the scheduled time … and press conferences never start on time. The room was already jammed. We found two empty seats in the back corner and, to my eye, they were the last seats left.
We sat through an entertaining press conference featuring the 3,000-meter steeplechase medalists, and then we prepared for the big one: the Bolt press conference. There were hundreds of reporters and cameramen stuffed in — some were sitting on the floor, some were standing in an open spot — it was thoroughly absurd. And I was beginning to get that laughing thing. I figured I could stifle it.
But then it happened. Instead of Bolt and the other 100-meter medalists, they brought in the winners of the hammer throw: Hungary’s Krisztian Pars, Slovenia’s Primoz Kozmus, Japan’s Koji Murofushi. These are the last three Olympic gold medalists in the hammer throw — Koji in Athens, Kozmus in Beijing, Pars in London. So, let me say up front that I have the highest respect for them and the greatest admiration for their sport, even if that thing they throw does not look like a hammer. These throwers are tremendous athletes and deserve as much coverage as they can get.
However, well, there was a bit of contrast between this giant room filled with hundreds of reporters from all around the world waiting for Bolt … and the medalists in the hammer throw. I guess that’s what brought the laughter up a few inches. It seemed to me that the hammer throwers were up there, looking over this room, and thinking: “Well, yes, these are the London Olympics. This must be the sort of coverage hammer throwers get at the Olympics.”
At this point, my writer friend — who was going a bit loopy as well — and I began to wonder what exactly one of these hammer throwers would have to say to get the reporters in the room to write about him instead of Bolt. Sadly, the only thing we could think of was, “I have a laser on the moon and I am planning to destroy the Earth.”
This brought the laughter up to a slow boil.
But the killer was the Diamond League. You might know (and, admittedly, you might not) that the Diamond League is the world’s largest track and field league, made up of 14 track and field events around the world. Well, as we found out in one of the first questions, the hammer throw is not a part of the Diamond League. The reporter wanted to know how these men felt about this injustice.
Well, that did it. I feel terrible about it. These men have spent their lives developing their technique and building their strength to become the best hammer throwers in the world. And I’m sure the Diamond League snub is a very important part of our lives. But we had been sitting in that stifling room for an hour waiting for Bolt, and it was getting late, and deadlines were barking, and reporters were getting testier and here were three hammer throwers — because all three had long thoughts on this — discussing the Diamond League.
And every time one of them said “Diamond League” I started to laugh a bit harder. I was angry with myself, I was biting my lip, I was punching myself in the leg, but I couldn’t stop. Diamond League. Diamond League. Diamond League. Maybe if it had been called “Track and Field League” or “Athletics League” I could have stopped. But Diamond League … I was exhausted, I was drained, I was sweating, I was gone, and I could not stop laughing.
I think, for the most part, I kept the laughter quiet enough that only people in the immediate vicinity would have been annoyed by it. I’m glad about that. I would have hated for those athletes to think I was mocking them or the hammer throw. I wasn’t. I really wasn’t doing anything except laughing hysterically because it is the Olympics. And it always happens.
I’ll tell you something about the next day, too, since you made it this far. The next day, after spending time at team handball, I found a rare break and headed back into the heart of London. I went to the Pret A Manger — a fabulous little natural food store that they have on more or less every corner — and got a salad, which I thought might purge a little of my McDonald’s guilt.
Then, with the bag in my hand, I began walking through London, and checking out all the people and the stores and the restaurants, trying to take in the atmosphere. I was exhausted, of course, and that weird spot where you’re hungry but don’t feel like eating, and I was homesick for my wife and my two girls back home, but I was also looking for something. Emotions at the Olympics are always there, just at the surface, you see hair-trigger tempers go off, you see fits of laughter pop up when you least expect it.
Then, it started to pour. I mean it really opened up. The rain here can come at any time and with any level of force. I actually enjoyed it. I put on my hood, and I kept walking, and I noticed a family in front of me. It was a mother and two children — boy and a girl I think, though it was hard to tell through the rain, roughly the same age, and they were all under the same umbrella. And then, it happened. The two kids started singing in thick English accents:
The old man is snoring.
He went to bed,
And bumped his head,
And he couldn’t get up in the morning.”
And, without even knowing it, I realized that I was crying.