I lost count of the hours after four all-nighters and 10 20-hour days. But I knew it was the last of 23 consecutive workdays and the final 30-minute double-decker bus ride from the Main Press Centre (MPC) at the London Olympic Park to my University of London dorm. Despite lingering grogginess from just four hours of sleep, I was buoyant. No more MPC. No more daily "mag and bag" security lines. Just one more stomach-churning bus ride.
The final "to-do" list was short: An interview at the BBC, two phoneinterviews with NPR affiliates, pack, and set the alarm for 5 a.m. for the long journey home.
One other journalist stood at the curb waiting for the media bus. Tall and thin with a thick Borat mustache, he had the top front of his trousers bunched in the tight grip of a fist and he pointed at the boxed printer at my feet.
"You have scotch?" he asked in a thick accent.
"Geez," I thought. "This guy is ready to party."
"Scotch?" I asked, puzzled as he continued to point at the box. "It’s just a printer."
"No, scotch," he said, as he opened his fist and made a wrapping motion around the two broken ends of his tattered leather belt. "Scotch. For my belt. Too many times I take off at security."
My final official act on the grounds of the 2012 Olympics was to pull a roll of packaging tape out of my backpack, wrap it around the torn ends of this poor fellow’s belt, and then watch him smile broadly, his pants now snug around his waist. "Thank you," he said, as he grasped both my hands and shook them, as if I’d just placed a gold medal around his neck. "I am Russian journalist. Come to Sochi (site of the 2014 Winter Games) and I will help you."
"Sochi," I thought, as my new best friend grabbed my box and carried it onto the bus for me. "Sochi is only 18 months away!"
The first rule of Olympic journalism is that no one should ever feel sorry for anyone assigned to cover the games. And no journalist with an Olympic credential should ever feel self-pity. I’ve covered eight Olympics and it was a plum assignment every time, despite the hours, the dismal MPC food, the daunting logistics, the endless demands from editors back home, and the challenge of being part of the planet’s most concentrated pack of desperate reporters.
Press credentials are doled out to more than 6,000 print and Web reporters and editors, and broadcasters from radio and TV networks who failed to pay gazillions of dollars for exclusive Olympic rights. This latter group wears Olympic credentials marked "ENR," which is Olympic-ese for "non-rights-holding broadcaster." They are the untouchables of the Olympic press corps and they are barred from high-demand events (including swimming, opening and closing ceremonies, and basketball finals).
That still leaves the bulk of competition for the scarlet-lettered ENRs but they can’t enter Olympic venues with recorders, microphones or video cameras. They can’t record in "mixed zones" where reporters encounter sweating or dripping athletes as soon as the Olympians walk off the track, the pool deck, the beach volleyball sand, or the competition arena. And they can’t record medal-winning athletes and coaches at their victory news conferences at Olympic venues.
If ENRs are lucky, Olympic officials from their home countries will drag the athletes back to the MPC—where ENRs can record—for one more news conference with the untouchables. American ENRs are very lucky because the United States Olympic Committee works very hard to do just that.
The ENR restrictions are part of the exclusivity rights-holding broadcasters, such as NBC in the United States, spend so much money to secure. The rights-holders and the host broadcast operation that serves them get another 18,000 credentials. That’s right: 18,000. These folks are based in the International Broadcast Centre (IBC) which is adjacent to the MPC but strictly off-limits to anyone who hasn’t paid big bucks to be there.
IBC Brahmins speak smugly of fabulous catered food. I have heard unconfirmed rumors for years that Olympic IBCs even have their own Starbucks.
But I’m not complaining. It’s a privilege being inside the rings, with the endless mix of amazing and disappointing athletes, unbelievable achievement and heart-wrenching failure, stoic determination and shameless cheating, persistent and lonely struggles to push the limits of human endurance and bold money-chasing hucksterism.
Even with more than 24,000 credentialed and competing journalists and technicians, the stories flow. Even in the sweaty and smelly crush of the pack, great moments emerge, and it doesn’t take much waving of a notebook or microphone to find exclusive angles and details. And don’t tell the editors, but collegial reporters at the front of the pack in a mixed zone freely share quotes with those at the back who are too far away from the athletes to hear what was said. We’re all in this together, after all.
The crush is very real. Beneath Wembley Stadium the night the women of the U.S. Olympic soccer team dramatically defeated Japan for the gold medal, the knot of reporters was so deep and tight, the barrier protecting the athletes began to crack and collapse. A volunteer rushed over to brace it with his body as American star Abby Wambach faced dozens of outstretched arms pointing palm-sized recorders.
More than 24,000 press credentials were handed out for the 2012 London Olympics so coverage was almost always a team effort. Britain’s Jessica Ennis, top, celebrates her gold medal victory. Kobe Bryant, bottom, of the U.S. men’s basketball team, comments during a practice. Photo by Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters (top); Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press (bottom).
Conflicts Of Interest
A relatively small group of reporters regularly cover the Olympics, Olympic politics, and Olympic sports in the years between the games. Some are invited to carry the Olympic flame during the torch relays that precede the Olympics, dumping the detachment journalists are supposed to maintain for one of the most emotional Olympic experiences available to selected non-Olympians. And some become part of the Olympic establishment, serving on the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Press Commission, which helps set policy for Olympic news coverage and press logistics.
The IOC Press Commission serves a useful advisory purpose and the journalists among its members advocate for the needs of Olympic reporters. The group includes at least one representative from a rights-holding broadcaster (even though there’s another IOC commission for rights-holders) but does not include any lowly ENRs.
There are many conflicts of interest that are part of the Olympic world. The most blatant among journalists may be the one that involves American broadcast rights-holder NBC. The network has its own sitting member on the IOC—Alex Gilady, the IOC delegate from Israel. Gilady is a longtime vice president of NBC and has been part of the Radio and Television Commission that has oversight over broadcasters covering the games.
In June of last year, NBC was again awarded exclusive American rights to Olympic broadcast coverage. The $4.38 billion deal that extends through the 2020 games assures the network of an unbroken string of 11 winter and summer Olympics.
CBS, Fox and ABC/ESPN also bid but none had their own IOC vice president. IOC spokesman Mark Adams told NPR that Gilady played no role in the decision to stick with NBC. "He has had no part whatsoever in the negotiations, either formal or informal," Adams said.
But Gilady’s biography at the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame is unblinking about his role in getting and retaining NBC’s Olympic rights in the past. "In 1984, Gilady was promoted to network Vice-President for Liaison to the IOC Radio-Television Commission; and later, senior Vice-President of Global Operations," the Hall of Fame bio reads. "He played a major role in the network’s acquisition of broadcast rights to the summer and winter Olympic Games of 1988, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008."
The Journalist Cheerleaders
There’s more worth scrutinizing at the Olympics than the athletes and the competition. Many Olympic regulars are tough reporters who don’t hesitate to question, challenge and expose. Some have written about Olympic ticketing, which enriches the few lucky agencies who get exclusive distribution deals, but leaves desperate fans spending hours on the Web or in line trying to buy and retrieve expensive tickets. Many in London complained they couldn’t get tickets despite hundreds of empty seats at some Olympic events.
A ticketing scandal attracted some attention before the London games and complaints about empty seats and a frustrating ticketing system were reported during the Olympics. But at the IOC’s closing news conference, some reporters felt the need to praise IOC president Jacques Rogge and chief London Olympics organizer Sebastian Coe before asking their questions.
"Many congratulations to both of you," one gushed. "I think it’s really been amazing here."
The very next questioner joined in. "I would like to congratulate you both for the big contributions you made and it was a successful event," he said.
There were tough questions, as well, about doping, the excessive costs of staging the games, and the ticketing mess.
"We are definitely going to review the ticketing policy of the games," Rogge said in response to my question. "And we are going to see whether this system will continue to work and how we can improve it."
Rogge seemed to be finished with his response and the audience microphone was already headed to another reporter when the IOC president suddenly added, "The venues were full and that’s the most important thing."
"Not all of them," I shouted, but either Rogge didn’t hear my unamplified voice or he chose to ignore me. None of the other reporters addressed the subject.
Some reporters from Asia actually clapped at news conferences. "It’s a cultural thing," I was told. They clapped for athletes. They clapped for coaches. They clapped for Olympic officials.
One journalist clapped at the final Olympic news conference held by the leaders of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) at Wembley Arena, even after other reporters forced the officials to depart from their rosy description of the Olympic competition. It was an "amazing spectacle," noted BWF president Kang Young-Joong, without apparent irony. It was "badminton at its best," he added.
But I and other reporters asked about the embarrassing scandal that might be the lingering memory for most people, especially those outside badminton-crazy countries in Asia. Eight players had been ejected from the competition because they deliberately tried to lose preliminary matches so that they might have more favorable matchups later.
The BWF’s recent switch from a single-elimination tournament to round-robin play seemed to encourage the strategic match-fixing. Kang said the BWF would consider that issue in November. But when asked about scrutiny of coaches and team officials who might also have been involved, BWF chief operating officer Thomas Lund said the group wanted to look forward, not backward.
The single clapping of hands at the end of the news conference didn’t last long when no one else joined the appreciative reporter.
The truth about the Olympics is that the constant move from city to city every two years means there’s always a fresh crop of eager and grateful reporters who get all goofy and weak-kneed about being at the games. During my appearance at the BBC on my final day in London, the presenter repeatedly showered listeners with superlatives about the hometown Olympics. "Euphoric" was a favorite. It was left to the veteran Olympic killjoys on an assembled panel to add a bit of sober reality.
Even my beloved Nieman Foundation fell under the magical Olympic spell before the 2008 Beijing games. A well-intentioned initiative had Chinese Olympic handlers set to travel to Harvard for a Nieman "educational program" designed to help prepare them to work with foreign Olympic journalists from free countries.
At the 2005 Nieman reunion in Cambridge, I questioned the wisdom of the program, given the reality of media handling at the Olympics. Host countries and organizing committees are out to mine Olympic reporters for positive stories and manipulate coverage. Repressive countries do it and free countries do it. The Nieman Foundation backed out of the plan after vigorous protest from fellows attending the reunion, who questioned the effort to assist a repressive regime that had exiled and jailed journalists, including Nieman Fellows.
Three years later at the Beijing games, Chinese authorities blocked Western reporters’ access to websites for NPR, BBC, Amnesty International, and others. One official explained at a news conference that the Internet restrictions were designed to protect Chinese youngsters from harmful content, including pornography. At another news conference, a Beijing official, trying to spin the oppressive pollution that had some athletes wearing protective masks, referred to it as a "mist."
In the early morning hours after the London closing ceremonies, a packed double-decker bus pulled up to the stop in central London where media dorms and hotels were concentrated. As some of us got up to leave, we noticed one reporter hunched over, sound asleep. We tried to nudge him awake but he didn’t move. "Is he dead?" someone whispered. Finally, a cheerful Olympic volunteer climbed aboard.
"We see this all the time," he said. "We know how to handle this." The volunteer shouted and shook the poor guy until he opened his eyes, looked around, wiped the slobber from the corner of his mouth, and walked off the bus and into the darkness, grateful perhaps, that his Olympic marathon had ended.
Howard Berkes, a 1998 Nieman Fellow, covered his first Olympics for NPR in Los Angeles in 1984 and has covered seven Olympics since. His reporting helped focus attention on influence-peddling involving Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Berkes, Nieman classmate and senior editor Uri Berliner, correspondent and 2003 Nieman Fellow Frank Langfitt, and other NPR reporters shared an Edward R. Murrow Award for Sports Reporting for their coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.