I was on BBC World Service Weekend yesterday, (one can find it with great difficulty at the new look IPlayer for the rest of this week) and one of the topics we discussed was the Winter Olympics--the focus was on the language of snowboarding and freestyle skiing, and I was able to describe my experience working with a barely articulate snowboarder as my analyst at the 2005 Winter University Games (this is the only Olympic sport where a competitor has been banned for testing positive for marijuana as a performance enchancing drug) and I also mentioned how many changes to the programme there have been since I first covered the games, shooting on 16mm film, at Lake Placid. To prepare for the show, I'd also made sure to watch Britain's Lizzy Yarnold win the skeleton bob.
Then I managed to get home, despite the best efforts of South West Trains, in time to watch the last period, overtime, and shootout of the Russia-USA hockey game, which was the kind of brilliance that reminded me why I've loved hockey, which my dad played, for most of my life. A friend who was watching her first-ever game was texting me with questions (and score updates) on the train, and the sport picked up at least one more fan.
So for the next few days I'll post a few thoughts on the Winter Olympics,starting with an overview now....
THE WINTER OLYMPICS:
The ten Olympics I've covered include three winter games (Placid, Sarajevo, and Calgary). I also did hockey commentary on a fourth Olympics from a studio in Paris, as well as virtually all the sports at those University Games in Austria. I worked on the 1980s full spectrum of winter sports for ABC, everything from the downhill at Kitzbuehl to ice speedway to a Brian Boitano/Katarina Witt version of Ice Capades (ah, the stories I could tell...)
Before every Olympics the media's stories are always the same, especially because the huge press corps descending (or ascending, in the case of skiing) on the games is made up of people who aren't necessarily used to covering such events. Hence the usual pre-Olympic make-news stories, like accommodation (none for the public, substandard for the press), weather (too hot in summer, either too hot or too cold but never just right in winter), snow (too much/not enough/artificial), security (the increase in Sochi reminds me of the steps 'forward' in Sarajevo, and ties in nicely with the NSA/GCHQ trend of modern life) and of course transport (traffic nightmares that didn't happen in LA and Seoul, malfunctioning press buses most memorably in Placid and Atlanta) are intensified. That a giant bus system has teething problems its first day, especially in winter conditions, is never an excuse. Dick Young of the New York Daily News was so incensed by having to wait half an hour in frozen Lake Placid the day before the games opened he was still writing about it when the Miracle On Ice happened!
Winter sports have a limited universe, and winter games often took place in small ski resort areas used to providing skiers with a good time (cf Lillehammer). But when I covered Lake Placid, there were 35 medal events; in Sochi there are 98. This proliferation demands more facilities and more infrastructure, and insures more journalists venturing into territory like biathalon or luge for the very first time. There are sports like speed skating or bobsled where competitors in bondage costumes race against the clock, there are others where awards for best make-up, choreography, or costumes, if not congeniality, ought to be worth separate medals.
Sometimes, before a games, there is political coverage of the host nation--though it has to be said that historically the IOC has always welcomed what Jeanne Kirkpatrick would call 'authoritarian governments' to host games--allocation of resources is so much easier, specially when they're being allocated to various IOC dignitaries with their hands out and pockets open. Although Russia's repressive anti-gay laws have been a focus of coverage, though rarely with reference to figure skating, the actual presentation of Putinesque politics has been very lean, and in America they've been heavily tinged with Cold War overtones. Maybe they were trying to make the Russia-USA hockey match seem more interesting.
But the odd thing is how quickly that coverage disappears once the sport actually begins. Horrible hotels, bumbling buses, civil rights for gays, Chechen terrorists, all get buried under an avalanche of frenzy as each nation's athletes compete (or 'go for gold' as you are required to say in Britain), and everyone falls in love briefly with slope style, or in the case of Britain, skeleton, which, if Seoul Hockey Syndrome is any guideline, will now slide into BBC TV schedules for the next four years, until disappointment at the next winter games drives it out. After the usual stories about transport, weather, hotels and so on repeat themselves.