gonna miss these guys. four more years?
(I couldn’t bring my camera out on course for the 50 k, so this is a photo by my coworker Nat Herz/FasterSkier.)
We made it to the finish line! Sunday was the Olympic 50 k, the last race of the Games for nordic sports. They scheduled the competition for 11 a.m. which seemed a little cruel since nobody was used to getting up early, but I think the athletes appreciated it because the course was still icy and fast. We, however, were suffering when we staggered awake in the morning.
Immediately, some asshole almost ruined my day. His name is Johannes Dürr, and he is an Austrian skier. He’s had a good season, finishing third in the grueling Tour de Ski and eighth in the Olympic 30 k skiathlon. Yesterday morning, news leaked out that he had tested positive for EPO, the blood-boosting drug, and been kicked out of the Olympics.
A few days earlier, German skier/biathlete Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle had tested positive for a dubiously effective stimulant that she took accidentally in a supplement. We spent all day running around trying to figure out the story and what was going on. I was setting up for another day like that – and I was pissed. It was the last day, it was beautiful and sunny. All we wanted to do was watch the 50 k, write three easy stories (the nice thing about these long mass-start races is that the storyline is already there), and go home, be done, drink some beer, and celebrate having survived the Games. We did not want hours and hours of chasing down leads added in there.
Fuck you, Johannes Dürr. Not only are you a horrible person for cheating, but couldn’t I have a nice Sunday?
As it turned out, the story was quite straightforward. We gathered some information and quotes from other news sources. The IOC has not yet released its case files so nobody really has all of the details. After the first frantic push, trying to get something posted before the start of the 50 k, we mostly ignored young Mr. Dürr.
And luckily, someone else completely un-ruined my day. I will not name him or her for fear of getting them in trouble, but I was given a service bib for the last two days of racing. That meant that I could pretend to be team staff and actually get out to stand on the side of the course, not in the mêlée of spectators.
At the cross country venue, photographers can get on course but not journalists, and you can’t even see the trails from the mixed zone. So Alex and I had been running around in the crowds all week trying to get the best views, getting elbowed and jostled and sung at by drunk Norwegian, having crazy Russians hold up flags blocking our views just as the skiers were coming into sight, and being stuck behind tall people so we couldn’t see at all.
On Sunday, I just walked right out on course with the coaches. It was 50 degrees. I was wearing a t-shirt, short sleeves, and basking in the sun. I found a spot at the very top of the course where I would see the skiers four times in every 10 k loop, and I sat and enjoyed the race. Thank you thank you, unnamed friend, for giving me a bib!
The race was a great one, a very exciting way to finish the Games. There was a lot of drama – would Dario Cologna win his third gold medal? Answer: no, he broke a ski in the final 1500 meters, heartbreak. Would the Russians finally win their first gold in cross country skiing? Answer: better than that, they’d sweep the damn podium with a crazy and exciting and unbelievable final push up the hill and into the stadium.
We went back to the media center. I was sad to leave the sun.
We finished our stories and went home to our hotel. Nat and I went for a run. Then we all got dinner (which is another story in and of itself, maybe later), came back to our room, and drank some beer. We were so tired, so exhausted, that we got giggly and silly. The three of us worked well together all Games, although for sure there were times when we got frustrated with each other’s working styles and priorities. But to have an evening where we weren’t thinking about work at all, where it was all over, and we were just hanging out being friends – it was awesome.
We had been holding it together and pumping out stories because we had to. It wasn’t because we were even very capable of doing it. In one of my last headlines, I misspelled the word “Canada”. Nat really bungled “Sachenbacher” in another headline. We received an angry e-mail about a typo which said “skies” instead of “skis”. But more than the typos, my writing just way worse. The last report I wrote is one of the driest things I’ve ever published (luckily because of the storyline, it’s still received a ton of hits and a lot of comments).
Now that we don’t have to be holding it together, I feel crumpled and deflated, more like a corpse than a human being. You can live on willpower alone for a long time, but it does have consequences.
I can’t believe that Games are over. It’s been an exhausting, exhilirating, fun time. I want to do it all over again right now. No matter how hard it was, I don’t want to go back to normal life.
Whew, so it’s been a little while since I posted, long enough that at least one person got worried about me. Don’t worry, I’m safe! I have to admit that yesterday was a pretty overwhelming day, with two team sprints for cross country and then a mixed relay for biathlon. it was a lot of work and definitely on the border of what I’m able to handle. On top of that, Tuesday was supposed to be a day off (journalists need to sleep sometimes too, you know!) but because the men’s mass start was messed up by the fog, they ended up racing that day.
On one of the days where we only had one race – so, supposedly, an easy day – I still published four different stories. Oops. That’s not good energy management!
Anyway, here’s a couple of fun story.
Last night I was taking the gondola up to our hotel at night and climbed in with four guys in matching jackets. They had some kind of accreditation and were chatting away in a foreign language. I heard “Cologna” and perked up – they were talking about cross country skiing, my thing! But they were chatting and chatting. As I waited for a lull in the conversation to as where they were from, I noticed some characteristics about the language, which at first wasn’t easily identifiable. I know French and I can recognize German, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Russian, and many of the other languages in which you might discuss cross-country skiing. This was not any of those, but I picked up alternating hints of Italian and German.
“Where are you guys from?” I finally asked.
They all laughed and didn’t answer.
“You are asking because it is a strange language?” One finally said.
“Is it Romansh?” I asked.
They started basically cheering. “Wow! Yes! How do you know?”
Romansh is a language that is spoken by less than 1% of Swiss citizens, all of whom live in the southeast, in the region around the Engadin valley. Where I lived in Davos, they did not speak Romansh – they spoke German. But as I traipsed about hiking and running, I would find myself in valleys where Romansh was still spoken. It’s a mix of straight-up Latin that has been modified with Germanic words and some grammar. My housemate Quim said that it was close enough to Catalan that he could more or less understand the gist of things.
These guys were from a Romansh radio station. It seemed like a long way to come for just 1% of the Swiss population (I asked how many listeners the radio station had and they didn’t know). But then again, the region has been pretty darn successful. Dario Cologna has won two gold medals in skiing and Selina Gasparin a medal in biathlon. In the first week of the Olympics, the guys gleefully told me, the Romansh had more medals than Russia!
It was a really cool conversation and a huge improvement from the night before when an old and slightly overweight Russian woman was coughing black smokers’ lung all over us.
The last few days have been sort of “meh” in some ways. It was foggy at the venue, so the men’s biathlon mass start – which I had been really looking forward to – has been postponed again and again. Yesterday we spent most of the day sitting in the press center getting antsy and waiting for a race to happen. Finally, the women’s mass start went off. The race for gold was totally boring as Darya Domracheva decimated the field for the third competition in a row. But behind her things were still interesting with a good race for bronze. And, Susan Dunklee did it again with 12th place, the best finish ever for a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Go Suz!
In all of the downtime yesterday I worked on a story based on a long interview I did with the International Biathlon Union’s medical chief, Dr. Jim Carrabre. We talked doping and boy, did we ever talk doping. Only about half of the interview made it into the piece, so there’s still more to come, but I think the result (here) was pretty interesting.
However, despite all the outrage about doping, apparently nobody wants to read about the nitty-gritty of what goes on. They only want to read about the scandals that consume previously famous athletes. Because, even though my piece is covering ground that I don’t think other people have covered, nobody is reading it.
At the same time that I published that, my colleague Nat published a funny piece about how much the Norwegians have been sucking in skiing at this Olympics. In an hour, it garnered 1200 reads. My piece had 120.
To be fair, Nat’s piece was excellent. I love it. It’s delicious and gossipy but still built on the back of a lot of real reporting. Go give it a read, you won’t be disappointed.
But it does say a lot about what people want to read. Schadenfreude? Yes, please more! Substantive research on an issue they claim to care about? nah, never mind.
Anyway. There’s a fun story in here, I promise! Two mornings ago we met up with Rob Whitney at the base of our little gondola. Rob is a former excellent ski racer, now living in Anchorage and working as a firefighter. He is married to Holly Brooks, who is competing here in her second Olympics. Rob snagged a job working for NBC as the in-the-box researcher for Al Trautwig, who is announcing the cross country races. So we have someone else cool to hang out with.
Our goal for the morning was to go all the way to the top of the mountains that we can see every day. The mountains are sweet and epic and huge and snowy and white! We had heard a rumor that with our credential – which says “ALL” – we could ride the gondola to the top. Rob claimed to have done “research” about which of the dozen gondolas we would have to take. He said three. We walked up to the train station and tried to get on one.
It was not immediately obvious where it would take us, and the volunteer didn’t speak much English. Rob was trying to explain that we wanted to go to the “tippy top” of the mountain (I don’t think “tippy top” is a phrase they teach you in English 101) and that it would take three gondolas. The guy was getting more and more confused. Finally he handed Rob his smartphone and told him to type his question into google translate.
That didn’t help much. We decided to just get on the damn gondola and see where it took us. It would be up, after all. So off we went. It took us to the Sanki sliding center! huh.
Unfortunately, the gondola going up the mountain from there was closed. We could see it extending off up the hill, eventually ending at the “tippy top”, but we couldn’t get there. So instead we did a gondola traverse of the mountain to try to reach another gondola that would.
First, we had to walk and ride past some environmental yuck. Building everything on the side of these very steep mountains has been sort of a shitshow. Things will definitely slide down the mountain. The ski jumps basically already are. One problem is that they more or less raped the hillsides where they are building things, and there are no trees or vegetation left to stabilize the slopes. When it’s snow-covered you can’t really tell how bad it is. But it has been very warm (it rained this morning) and so the snow is melting and all of a sudden, some places look pretty darn ugly.
But anyway… we eventually got to the bottom of that gondola (let’s keep a tally, it’s out third of the day: down from the hotel, then up to the sliding center, then down this one). We hopped on gondola #4, which took us up to one side of the alpine and freestyle venues. From there we saw another gondola heading up to the “tippy top” of another mountain! Yes! It was turning into a beautiful sunny day and our heads were swimming with what the views must be like from 7000 feet. Yes! We were almost there!
…. except that we were told that we couldn’t go. Only athletes, team staff, or skiers with tickets could go up this gondola. We had missed the boat on buying tickets.
To be clear, this dog got to go up to the top of the mountain, and I did not.
However, some team staff have a colored “sleeve” that they slide over one arm as their accreditation. It so happens that photographers have the same sleeves, just in different colors. Nat, as a photographer, had one of these sleeves. So they let him on. I handed him my camera and Alex, Rob, and I hung out on the terrace of the ski lodge. The lodge was really nice and had a huge cafeteria, where they were not serving food. We couldn’t even get a coffee. Oh well. The terrace was nice and sunny. Photo from Alex’s instagram:
The gondola also was the one that serves the “mountain village” athletes’ village, so we got a glimpse of that. It’s definitely, definitely not as nice as the “endurance village” where I visited Susan. Still has nice views though.
We waited as Nat went up and then down gondola #5. He was definitely grinning when he came back. Later, when I downloaded my photos, I was able to take a little tour of what he had seen from 7000 feet in Russia. You can see into Georgia, which is pretty cool.
Anyway. Nat came back, and we realized that we were pretty far up a mountain on the wrong side of the valley and that sometime soon we would have to be over at the cross country race, which started at 2 p.m. So we had better get skedaddling. We headed back down gondola #4 and into a little plaza in Rosa Khutor. Still smarting from not being able to get a coffee at that semi-closed ski lodge – if there is one thing that reporters really need a lot of, it’s coffee – we stopped at McDonalds where capuccinos were really quite affordable. The place was hopping. Since he has a real job, Rob treated us. Thanks Rob!
From there it was up gondola #3 and down gondola #2 (we decided that though ridiculous, this was a better option than walkig back to the train station, since part of the walk has no sidewalks and you have to be on the side of the road with buses and trucks going past…). And in our biggest gamble of the day, we decided to take the giant high-speed gondola which traverses up the other side of the valley. Seriously, this thing is huge. Each car holds about 20 people, although they weren’t filling up. And it moves FAST. Scariest to me, the cable spanned some very long distances, very high in the air. It was absolutely incredible. We don’t have numbers, but we’re guessing that the longest span must be close to a kilometer. It’s insane.
Also insane? The views.
Yeah, gondola #6 was pretty sweet. Eventually, though, the ride came to an end. We were spit out at a seemingly random mid-station – it was totally weird that such a huge gondola went to somewhere there wasn’t much infrastructure.
We walked outside and around the wheelhouse, and then had a choice to take a chairlift to the cross country venue, or a gondola to the biathlon venue. Since the press center is in the biathlon venue, it was a no-brainer. Gondola #7!
It was pretty crazy to go back to work after our strange morning of traveling around Sochi by air. I’m interested to know why they built so many gondolas – there are at least three or four more that we haven’t even seen, and a few others that we have ridden to other things. It could be a good way to stay a little more environmentally clean, except that we saw firsthand what they did to the hillsides in order to put these things in. Is it still better than having a road which has to be constantly maintained? I think, maybe so. Not sure. The scary thing is that like the ski jumps, these may have been built on geologically unstable soil, so I wonder how long they will last. The idea of anything happening to that giant high-speed one gives me the willies.
After the race, we took our usual gondola down to the bottom of the venue (gondola #8 on the day) and then walked back to the village, where we took gondola #1 up to the hotel. What a day.
We thought yesterday was going to be an easy day. And I guess it was – just one race. When the women’s 4 x 5 k relay finished, we went, woohooo! Let’s drink a beer in the sun! Then quickly write our two stories, and then go into Adler and explore and get a real dinner!
Of course, none of those things happened. We went inside and began writing. And with more time to work with, we produced better, more detailed, more polished stories. We had time to be perfectionists. It was still 8 p.m. when we left the venue, no time to take the long trip down to the cities.
That morning, as Alex and I were jogging, she said, “if we go out to dinner tonight, I’m going to order just vegetables.” I agreed – a salad! That would be amazing! We have had good carbs and proteins from breakfast (and the other food we steal from breakfast to turn into lunch), but there is a distinct lack of green vegetables, or any other-colored vegetables for that matter. I was longing for vegetables like whoa.
That morning we showed up for breakfast and Nat said, “I really want a salad for dinner tonight.” It was sealed.
So when we didn’t have time to go out to dinner, we were determined to find our vegetables one way or another. I suggested we return to the grocery store near the bottom of our gondola. So we did.
First of all, you have to go through security just to get into the mall. This caused some hilarity since we were still carrying everything from our day at the races. In our bags: computers, cameras, extra clothes, cables of all kinds, leftover lunch, bottles of water, sunscreen, everything. The screener made the first two of us unpack our bags to see what was inside, but the line was getting very long behind us as most people don’t show up at the mall with a 34-liter backpack packed to the brim.
Finally, we were inside! Alex and I spent some time perusing the Adidas store. Winter Adidas products don’t really exist in the U.S., but there was some really nice stuff. The vest we both liked was almost 3000 rubles, though, or 100 dollars. Also, everything said Russia on the back. We proceeded to the grocery store.
The vegetable selection was not huge. But it was big enough. We also returned with other goodies, and a lot of beer. I found one of my favorite Munich beers, Franziskaner Weissbier, and bought a bottle even though it was ridiculously expensive. We’ll split it some day. Alex found a nice double chocolate stout as a similar treat, and we bought quite a few cheap beers to tide us over (including Löwenbräu, another Munich beer – I was like, I went to their tent at Oktoberfest!).
Then we lugged our groceries back to the room ad began our feast. Salad! Oh my gosh! We had lettuce, tomatoes, feta, and a peach we had stolen from breakfast (also olives for the other guys, but I hate olives). It was simple, but I’ve never been so excited to eat some lettuce in my life. What a treat.
In the photo, you can see our food spread – dinner ingredients, some salami-type sausage that we got to put with some cheese and crackers, and then a whole lot of snack food to get us through the days.
Awkwardly, when we arrived in our room, I couldn’t get the lights to turn on. It’s one of those rooms where you insert the room card above the light switch, and then there’s a master switch that you turn on that only works if the room card is in. I pushed that switch and nothing happened. Alex started freaking out that maybe they had checked me out of the room. But eventually, we ascertained that the other lights worked once the card was in – the bathroom and the ones by the beds and desks. Oh well, we thought. That’s enough.
Less than ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Nat had gone to scrounge up some silverware, so we thought it would be him coming back. But no. It was a tall Russian, asking, “you have some problems?”
“No,” we said, confused.
Then a few seconds later…. “oh! well actually, yeah, the lights don’t work!”
We hadn’t told anyone that the lights didn’t work or asked them to fix them. Hmmm.
Anyway, the guy began fiddling with the wiring and breakers, as we were laying out our feast and eating it. I’m not sure what he thought of all the beer glasses, plates, and silverware we had stashed away gradually in our room, or the spread of other food we had acquired – whatever, making sure that we pay to eat at the bar isn’t his job, so he probably didn’t care.
We hope that now we can avoid scurvy.
Yesterday was an easy day. With one phenomenal North American result between the two races, we didn’t have to do particularly intensive coverage. It was in fact the easiest day we’ve had so far, except for the day before when there was no races! So here’s what it looks like on an easy day:
8:30: wake up. yeah it’s not super early, you’ll see why later. First I read and respond to e-mails and correct mistakes we have made in articles we posted last night.
9:00: go for a jog. It’s not the most inspiring jogging up here, you can do a loop all the way around Gorki Village in about ten minutes. It takes you through the village plaza, which is nice, but also past a lot of ongoing construction. There’s a few building projects on such steep slopes that Alex and I are certain they won’t last five year. As I was running by one, a pile of rocks literally fell off the retaining wall and rolled down the hill. So much for that. Alex and I jog together about half the time; this day I was alone.
9:30: take a shower and pack for the day. when I go to bed at night my stuff is usually exploded all over one side of the room because I’m too tired to organize it, so packing means picking all the pieces back out.
10:00: go down to breakfast. Nat arrived shortly after me so we ate together. It is an amazing buffet! Everything you could imagine, even maple syrup. The scrambled eggs are amazing and they often have smoked salmon. I want to eat everything, every day. This is the only square meal we get each day so it is not something to rush through – it’s something to savor. The buffet is included in our hotel fee but we aren’t getting reimbursed for other expenses and of course, food at the venues is incredibly overpriced and not all that good. You can’t even get free water in the media center – a far cry from what I’m used to on the biathlon World Cup where they serve amazing food for free to all media workers. So, we take our time and stuff ourselves at breakfast, then sneak apples into our bags as well as little sandwiches we have made with the bread and other goodies from breakfast. So far nobody at the hotel has yelled at us.
10:30: Nat and I leave the hotel.
10:33: we arrive at the top of the gondola in Gorki Village and start heading down.
10:41: we get off the gondola and start walking up towards the mountain.
10:58: arrive at the base of the gondola to the Laura biathlon and cross-country ski venues. Go through security.
11:01: get on the gondola heading up.
11:07: the gondola stops…. we are all nervous.
11:09: the gondola restarts! thank God!
11:16: get off the gondola
11:18: get on a bus to the biathlon venue.
11:20: the bus stops at a weird place where I guess some volunteers sometimes get on or off, but there is absolutely nothing around there so we don’t understand where these people are coming from.
11:24: arrive at Laura biathlon venue! Phew!
11:26: sit down in the media center
11:35: walk out to the shooting range to try to snag Susan for a hug during training – it’s her birthday! Unfortunately she did a short training so I missed her. She had invited me over to the athletes’ village but I didn’t have time to go on this particular day and I felt terrible for abandoning her on her birthday. Happy birthday to my favorite biathlete! Anyway, since I’m out there, I have some useful off-the-record conversations with Matthias Ahrens, head coach of the Canadian team, and Max Cobb, an American who is the TD (basically, head organizer) of the biathlon races at the Olympics. The course conditions are very difficult to prepare for and Max really has his work cut out for him. We talk off the record about twice a day and it’s great to have an American in this job so that they are available to us – for the ski races it’s a Czech guy, and obviously it’s not anywhere near as easy for us to get constant updates about what is going on from the officials’ side of things!
11:57: go back to the media center. work a little.
12:15: start walking up to the cross country venue.
12:21: arrive at the shuttle departure for athletes and staff next to the venue. I met up with Pepa Miloucheva, my old coach from my days on the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. Pepa is here coaching Tucker Murphy, a fellow Dartmouth grad (much older than me) and ecologist (much better than me) who is originally from Bermuda. Tucker trained with us in Craftsbury off and on before the Vancouver Olympics, where he was the first skier ever to represent Bermuda. He’s at it again this year and Pepa is here as his coach – she walked with Tucker in the opening ceremonies as he carried his flag, and they all wore great Bermuda shorts. Anyway, it was SO FUN to see Pepa! We got to catch up a little bit over a coffee before we both had to scramble back to work. It’s amazing the different ways people find to get to the Olympics.
12:45: leave the coffee place
12:52: arrive back in media center. Get to work on publishing an article. Pretty much every day, we all publish something before racing begins. Often it’s dealing with the leftovers from previous races – Alex was working on something using all the quotes we had from the sprint day, since we were so busy covering Kikkan and Sophie and the actual race winners that we never wrote much about the other Americans and Canadians. Other times, it’s things that aren’t directly connected to the racing, just other fun Olympic stories. Nat was working on a “reporters’ notebook” piece about making the trip down to the Black Sea on our off-day, and I wrote something about the flagbearer nomination process, since Susan was the voting representative for biathlon and told me how it worked. It was pretty cool actually. But it was a hurry to….
1:46…. publish it before…
2:02: walking up to the cross country venue.
2:08: The race actually started at 2 p.m., but the first loop was off in the woods on the other side of the venue so we went up a few minutes late and stopped lower down on the course. We watched people go by, tried to keep the best track we could of splits for the racers we cared about, and I took some photos. We ended up standing next to these two guys from North Dakota who came to watch hockey but were taking an off day to come up to the mountain. They had just randomly decided to come to cross country skiing – one of them was a recreational skier but the other had never been skiing in his life! They asked lots of questions and it was sort of fun to explain cross country skiing to them. Credit to these two guys for checking out an entirely new sport!
2:55: Ida Sargent skis by, the last American bib in the race and after the top-seeded skiers. After taking a few more pictures, run up to the mixed zone.
2:57: Arrive in mixed zone. Alex is already there and Nat arrives soon. Talk to Sadie, Ida, and Holly. Stick around while we look for U.S. and Canadian coaches – eventually Alex runs off to look for them. Nat runs off to look for Vidar Lofshus, the Norwegian coach. I stick around even longer as I wait for Marit Bjørgen to finally leave the extensive broadcast area – seriously she had to give so many interviews – and make it to the written press section. Then wait longer while she talks to the Norwegian press. Finally, she makes it to the English-speaking press section. Get a few quotes.
4:00, roughly: head back to the media center. On the way down I run into Nat and Alex who are talking to Reto Burgermeister, the Swiss guy who coaches Alexander Legkov and Ilia Chernousov. Have an off-the-record chat.
4:15, roughly: arrive back in the media center. I download the photos I have taken and quickly upload a dozen photos to our facebook account. Nat says he will go to the press conference but it turns out we’ve missed it already… whooops!
4:35: start transcribing the interviews from the American girls.
4:45: realize that it’s way way way too hoot in the media center. we move outside and are working on our laptops sitting on the terrace of the biathlon building, with the beautiful mountains in the background.
5:20: go back inside to finish writing the article on the American girls.
5:48: publish the story about the American girls. Nat is still working on the international race report and Alex has the challenging task of putting something together about the Canadians, none of whom did well. They keep working.
5:55: grab a start list and run out to the shooting range.
6:00: arrive on the range just as the first starter of the men’s biathlon 20 k, Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia, leaves the starting box. Watch some of them start, take a few illicit photos while trying to hide my point-and-shoot camera. Move over to the range as Garanichev comes through, and begin the tough task of trying to track how many shots each racer misses over four stages in an interval-start race. I quickly jettison the stats for people I don’t think have a good chance of ending up on the podium, but I’m still trying to keep track of about 25-30 racers, who are scattered throughout the field. Sometimes I will have two on their second prone shooting and three on their first standing all at the same time.
6:15: am approached by Dr. Jim Carrabe, the head medical guy from the International Biathlon Union. I interviewed him a few days ago so we watch the results scrolling through and we have an off-the-record chat. I really appreciate it and it’s great to have these connections. He’s also a nice guy. However, during this time I lose track of shooting for quite a few racers! Tough to multitask!
7:10: Tim Burke has finished up his final shooting and is out on course. I leave the shooting range and head in so that I can catch him in the mixed zone.
7:14: pit stop in the media center to grab my puffy coat, because I am freezing cold. Alex is still in there working (Nat had long ago headed out on course with his photographer credential to take photos) and says she’ll join me soon.
7:20: arrive in the mixed zone. It’s a while before anyone comes through. Eventually, Nat comes and he talks to Tim and Lowell. Alex talks to Russell Currier. I talk to to JP Le Guellec and Brendan Green. In between, we chat with the other reporters and watch the results trickle in on the jumbotron in the stadium. From the mixed zone, I had to stand on my tippy toes to see anything other than the top two lines of the results as they scroll by. But you want to know – for the later starters, I had already left the range so I don’t know how they shot, which is good information to have before you start talking to them!
7:55: take a few minutes to enjoy the sunset.
807: back in the media center.
8:15: head down to the press conference. we are determined not to miss it so I decide to go. Lowell had a great race and Nat has a lot of material from him, so he will head up that effort, and Alex will try to put something together with the material from all the guys who did not do as well.
8:34: press conference is over so I head back upstairs and start working.
9:25: Max Cobb wanders through the workroom and stops to chat. More off-the-record conversations. Nat asks what this weather situation is doing to his job and he says something like “it is making my life a living hell.” we talk a lot about what else can be done to fix the course situation, but the answer is not much. Max says that the last resort is to change the times of the races, since the snow is still cold and fast and nice to ski on in the morning. But at the Olympics, with all the tickets and broadcast arrangements, you can’t really just change the time of a competition unless you have a darn good reason. It seems that the powers that be don’t consider a huge percentage of the field crashing horribly to be a sufficiently good reason. As I said before, poor Max.
10:10: publish my story after I have gone through Nat’s hundreds of photos and pulled out a few of the best ones. It’s a pretty interesting one – my favorite part is that Erik Lesser, the German biathlete who took silver, was doing it in part for his grandfather, who raced for East Germany in the 1976 Olympics. Axel Lesser was the second leg of the relay and was skiing in second place when he somehow crashed into a spectator and either due to injury or equipment breaking had to withdraw. Anyway, the silver medal came back to the family after all thanks to the grandson. Erik Lesser also talked about his 93-year-old great grandfather. It was a fun story.
10:15: relax a little bit and post some photos on facebook.
10:30: put up a short blog post about the biathlon mass start start list, which has just been published. The mass start is limited to 30 men and remarkably, three Canadians and two Americans have made the cut. Their spots came at the expense of Tarjei Bø, the Norwegian who is the reigning World Champion in the discipline but has had an abysmal Olympics so far, and Germany’s usual top-ranked biathlete, Andreas Birnbacher. Lots of interesting stuff in there.
11:01: we begin packing to go home as Nat and Alex have also finished their stories. Yay!
11:07: actually walk out of the press workroom. we have made a mess and our brains are mush so it takes us a while to get our shit together.
11:10: we are about to get on a bus to the gondola when Nat realizes that he has left the camera on the workroom table… he runs back inside.
11:10 and 10 seconds: the bus leaves. we aren’t on it.
11:12: we get on another bus.
11:15: the bus actually leaves, with us on it.
11:17: bus arrives at the gondola station.
11:18: get on the gondola. we ride down with some Russian volunteers who speak basically no English. They are very friendly though so we have a fun and strange conversation on a variety of topics, using a lot of hand gestures, simple words, and basically we all end up laughing at each other. It’s fun to talk to them.
11:30: get off the gondola and begin walking back towards Gorki.
11:49: reach the bottom of the Gorki gondola!
11:59: get off the gondola at the top.
12:00: we are walking down the steps from the gondola when a guy lounging beside a golf cart insists on driving us to the hotel. This has never been an option before. Frankly it’s nice to stretch our legs but he seems pretty insistent so we get in. The guy proceeds to tear through Gorki village taking the corners at top speed like a rally car driver! Alex is sitting in the last row of seats facing backwards and I’m a little worried we are going to lose her. It’s pretty fun and we are laughing like maniacs. I wonder if the driver is drunk.
12:01: arrive at the hotel. Nat is tired and goes to bed, but Alex and I are way too jazzed up from the day to fall asleep. We’re also starving as all we have eaten is snack food since breakfast. So we make ourselves a little supper: crackers and cheese, apples and nutella. And we drink a beer. There’s nothing on television so we look up a few videos on YouTube and respond to a few more e-mails. I read a couple of pages of my book, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. It’s a great book! You should read it. Anyway, we slowly decompress from the day.
1:15: go to bed. We continue to chat about things with the lights off as we’re falling asleep.
This is the earliest we’ve gone to bed in days – on the sprint/women’s pursuit day, when we arrived back in the hotel we couldn’t relax and instead had to keep working (although we did pop open a few beers as we continued to transcribe, write, and sort through photos). That day I think we didn’t go to bed until almost 3 a.m. That’s more the normal situation, which explains why I sleep until 8:30, which is far later than normal for me, and then struggle to pry myself out of bed.
And then the process starts all over again.. usually by realizing that one of those stories that we published at midnight has some major typo or mistake in it. A great way to start the day!
Here’s a fun, light, and quick story – after yesterday I wrote so much that my brain is broken and I can’t say anything thoughtful anymore – about what it’s like to go to the grocery store in Russia.
The carrots are as big as your hands:
I think this might be mayonaisse in strange packaging, but I’m not sure – also does it have speckled eggs in it!?
And this, I have no idea. maybe olive oil? suggestions welcome:
I bought one of these chocolate bars which has a creepy baby as a mascot:
bags of smoked fish:
and this is also apparently fish-related, although I have no idea what it is:
caviar, of course:
and just whole fish:
everything Sochi-branded, including these little hard bagel-shaped things which we eat like candy (they aren’t sweet though):
finally, I have no clue what this is, but nice packaging:
We have been trying to buy snacks and lunch for ourselves (well actually we plunder the hotel breakfast buffet), but after trips to the grocery store more than once we have been surprised when the things that we buy are completely different than what we thought they were! The adventure continues….
Sometimes I write things that accidentally turn out to be incredibly relevant. This happened twice in the last 48 hours. First, I wrote a story about course conditions in the men’s biathlon pursuit, where there were several high-profile crashes. I had asked a couple different athletes and coaches whether they thought the course was safe, and talked to the race TD about what was being done to improve the course. I mentioned in passing that maybe the same issues would crop up on the cross country course.
Ha!! I have never seen so many crashes in a single day of racing as I did yesterday. Heck, Dario Cologna, who had won the skiathlon a few days before, crashed twice in the same heat. (“Dario Cologna what is wrong with you?” the stadium announcer asked after the second crash – one of my favorite things a stadium announcer has ever said.) The men’s final was marred by a major crash that allowed a Swede who had completely given up on the race due to back pain, to overtake several athletes (including a Russian whose ski broke and had to double-pole around the course until Canada’s head coach Justin Wadsworth handed him a new ski), and earn bronze. That’s not the way a Olympics should be decided. (Nat wrote a great article about the men’s race.)
Secondly, I wrote a blog post which you’ll see below, a large part of which is about how difficult it is for me to interview athletes who have had a bad or disappointing day. I wrote:
“I think this makes me a bad journalist. I have a bit too much compassion, I’m a bit too connected to the athletes, and I’m a bit too emotionally invested in both their performance and their feelings. People scoff when I start to back off out of sympathy – what are you, Chelsea, a wuss?”
To say that this turned out to be relevant would be an understatement. Kikkan Randall failed to advance out of the quarterfinals, and I think every American in the stadium, no matter what their interest or profession, was left speechless for a few minutes. This wasn’t even in the realm of scenarios we had imagined or planned for.
Randall was obviously incredibly disappointed, and it was tough to watch. As I wrote about the more general case, her sadness was out there for everyone to gawk at. Kikkan was gracious, and her incredible responses to questions from the media even garnered their own headlines (including this great story in the Christian Science Monitor, co-authored by Christa Case Bryant, who I raced against in a ski marathon once).
And, of course, it was a story that we had to cover, even if I wish everybody would have just let poor Kikkan alone. Alex was the one doing the interview, and she did a great job. I’m proud to work with someone who shows compassion and respect for the athletes, and it proves that you don’t have to be a former elite skier yourself to understand basic human emotion and treat these guys well. (why would you?)
The other half of that blog post had been about media coaching and how it sometimes makes interviews bland. And I gotta say – all the U.S. athletes yesterday were great. They were very on-message, but they were also speaking from their hearts and saying great things. In that sense, it was an easy day to be a reporter – just not in a lot of other senses.
I could write more – in fact I just wrote a long bit about our schedule yesterday, the on-the-fly editorial decisions and priorities we had to set, and how external factors ended up maybe giving an impression about our coverage that was different than the one we, or at least I, intended to convey – but it seemed very self-interested and like I was trying to justify something that was probably not a big deal. So I deleted it.
The short version is, Sophie Caldwell had an amazing race. Sadly, Sophie was overshadowed by what happened to Kikkan, both in mainstream news and, somewhat unintentionally, in the timing of our coverage. She didn’t deserve that. Sophie was a star yesterday and it’s amazing that she can do this just two years out of the college racing scene. Go Sophie, you kick ass, and you’re a lovely person too!
To some extent we have to make editorial decisions based on what our readers want to see. Disappointingly for me, many more people have read our story about Kikkan missing the semifinals than have read our story about Sophie setting a new American record.
But at other times, we have to stand up and say, you know what? I don’t care what you want, we’re the editors and this is what you’re getting, and you’ll like it, damn it. This is what we’re writing about today. If I could do that, I would, and I would focus on Sophie rather than rehash Kikkan’s tears over and over again. But it’s a complex situation and it’s not always my decision to make. (It’s also a reason why I would be a terrible businesswoman.) It has been a good reminder to try to just maintain that compassion as much as I possibly can, do good work, and hope that some people appreciate it.
We’ve been working hard and today will be our biggest day yet: the cross country ski sprint, an event where Kikkan Randall is favored to win the first gold medal by a female American ever, and the first medal at all in two decades. If she wins, we’ll be busy. If she loses, we’ll be busy. Almost immediately after the sprint final, a women’s biathlon pursuit starts next door. I’ll probably be the only person we send over to that race – where an American, Susan Dunklee, sits in 14th at the start. It’s possible she’d win a medal, too. We are going to be working very, very late tonight.
But it’s not the hard work that gets me. I’m a worker, it’s in my genes. I will work myself to the bone. What is hardest for me is the emotionally difficult work.
Yesterday’s men’s biathlon pursuits was a day like that. JP Le Guellec of Canada was in the lead about halfway through the race, on an absolute tear with clean shooting and the fastest shooting times. He is a great guy and one of my favorite interviews. We were so, so excited. Then he crashed and lost the lead. Next, he realized he had broken a ski, and had to stop and get another one. Needless to say, concentration was broken and he started to make mistakes on the shooting range (though he had lost so much time that it was not like he would have been able to get a medal at that point anyway). All in all, it was a disaster.
When JP came through the mixed zone, I was nervous about having to ask him about his race. But then I remembered all those things that make JP great. Was he frustrated? Yeah, definitely. He said he wanted to punch a wall. But he actually talked to us, was honest about what happened and how he was feeling, and wasn’t either surly or resentful that we were bugging him when all he wanted to do was go find that wall to destroy. He was also honest about the fact that he had maybe made a mistake (people have said that skiers need to respect the downhills and take them with less speed), and that being in first place at the halfway point didn’t guarantee him a gold medal by any means. He wasn’t overly dramatic, and he didn’t make himself out as a victim as many people would probably have been tempted to do.
The way that JP deals with bad situations is partly with his sense of humor, and he lets that show through in his interviews. I didn’t include this in my article, but JP is retiring at the end of this year and he joked, “well, I’ve never broken a ski before, so I guess that’s something I had to do at least once in my career.”
It’s refreshing. I remember one time I asked him about a pretty bad race, and tried to pick something positive out to start off my questioning with. He immediately called me out by saying something like, well, I totally raced like shit. But he didn’t leave it at that: we had a personable conversation about what had gone wrong and what was to come next.
Working with someone like JP makes me think a lot about a two different things.
1: The effect of media coaching. I know a lot of the other athletes we talk to pretty well at this point. I know that almost all of them also have great senses of humor. They are nice people, professional, interesting. Some of them, however, have had extensive media coaching about what to say and what not to say. They act quite differently in interviews than they do in friendly conversation. Their humor might not come through. Their personality might not be apparent. You might not realize how interested they are in a wide variety of issues inside and outside of their sport.
And that’s to be expected. It’s a part of being professional. It’s a way to not offend people, to seem humble when you’re actually confident, to seem positive when you’re actually heartbroken, to project an image that people can look up to when you’re actually reacting with the emotions of a five-year-old. Part of being a role model is to be a gracious competitor, but I doubt that anyone is actually gracious all the time. Your first reaction, especially when you are exhausted and have used up all of your physical and emotional energy in a race, might not be a mature one. I’m not an Olympic athlete, but I’ve had plenty of races where I acted like a total jerk afterwards (this one time at Rumford for nationals where they screwed up my bib number comes to mind). I’m glad there was nobody sticking a microphone in my face. I probably wouldn’t have handled it as well as these athletes do.
Other athletes just aren’t that psyched to be speaking publicly. It’s not something they like or are interested in. And that’s totally fine, too. They got to the Olympics by being really ridiculously good at their sport. An interest in public speaking is neither a natural accompaniment of natural athletic talent, nor a necessary prerequisite for success. Some athletes are naturally chatty, charismatic people. Others aren’t. Who cares?
But all of this does affect their brand. Part of the reason people love reading about American skier Kikkan Randall is that while she’s diplomatic, polite, and gracious, she’s also honest. She’ll let on if there’s problems. She’ll make a stand. She has worked really hard as the athlete representative to the International Ski Federation, and so she both knows and understands the problems in skiing and is willing to talk about them. She’s a great, fun, interview, which makes for good reading. The same is true of JP with his honesty and sense of humor.
Did both of these athletes start off this way? I’m not sure, as I wasn’t even ski racing yet when they began their careers. I have no idea how their personalities and personas have changed over the years.
(I can imagine that if at some point along the way, some media guy told JP he had to tone it down and stop lacing his comments with profanity, he would have mostly ignored them anyway. He’s one of the few people I have seen who can say “it was just fucking downhill from there” and not seem even remotely like an asshole.)
But I think about some of my friends and the acquaintances in the ski world, and I wish that they’d be just a little more open and honest when people interview them (I’m not even talking about me: I’m not frustrated with our working relationship or anything, not in the least. I ‘m talking in general). That’s their decision, of course. But they are great, fun people, and I’m not sure that always comes across. By sterilizing things a little less, they might gain some more fans.
(If they want them, that is. Maybe it’s all part of a sophisticated strategy to avoid having to waste too much time dealing with the media, which of course takes time and energy away from other parts of their jobs as professional athletes.)
2: My least favorite part of my job. When someone has a bad race, I feel conflicted and nervous when I approach them to talk. Sometimes, they are literally overcome. Yesterday Lowell Bailey, who had simply a mediocre race, nothing disastrous but certainly not what he was hoping for, looked at us, looked down, and walked away. He couldn’t talk about it. I really felt for him, and I don’t want to push it.
I’ve had even worse reactions from at least two other athletes over the years, who didn’t even stop and sometimes swore under their breath at me when I tried to snag them for a comment.
Plus, talking to a sad athlete just isn’t that fun. All of their disappointment is right out there for you to gawk at, and at least for me, some of it even transfers to my own emotional state.
I think this makes me a bad journalist. I have a bit too much compassion, I’m a bit too connected to the athletes, and I’m a bit too emotionally invested in both their performance and their feelings. People scoff when I start to back off out of sympathy – what are you, Chelsea, a wuss?
Or maybe it’s because I have no formal journalism training. I don’t know how to handle these situations! I’m a professional by experience, but nobody has really ever taught me much of anything.
I was really happy yesterday when I was able to take the JP story, and my colleague Nat did a roundup of the American performance. He did a great job calling up the coaches and just talking and talking to them until they said some interesting things about what might have gone wrong for the guys. And it wasn’t an antagonistic conversation – it was friendly, it just required a lot of banter to break through and get to the point, which turned out to be an interesting one. You can read Nat’s excellent story here. I really admire Nat for his ability to go get it in situations like this.
Anyway, though, a story is a story, and if the story is that something bad happened, then we need comments on whatever the bad thing was just as much as we would need comments about a gold medal performance. I know that just as much as the next guy. We aren’t PR workers, thank goodness. I never, ever want to do PR! Writing positive stories all the time and doing damage control would be super boring. Yuck.
But when I dig in to tough situations, I want to have time to work on them, to digest and understand what’s going on, and to get thoughtful comments from people. If their first reaction is heartbreak, it’s hard to be the one demanding that they pull themselves together and say something. They risk either saying something they will later regret, or having to make a huge mental and emotional effort to be gracious and thoughtful.
This is the Olympics, where everyone has high hopes for everything. I think I’m going to encounter a lot more of these situations. And I’m going to make myself deal with them. But in my heart of hearts, in the back of my mind, I’m going to be apologizing to the athletes for having to do my job and not just leaving them in peace. Thanks, guys, for putting up with us media folks!
Warning: this is another on-the-run post, as in half an hour Nat and I will be interviewing IBU Presdient Anders Besseberg about a variety of issues. Exciting! So at some point I’ll dash off. Hopefully I won’t leave you hanging on too awkward an ending.
Today I went inside the athlete village. Or, one of them, to be more specific. There are a few. I visited the “Endurance Village”, which is perched up on the mountain by our venues and houses the cross country skiers and biathletes only. There’s also a mountain village which houses other skiers and sliders, and something down in the coastal cluster.
First, some background: there was a lot more exciting racing yesterday. Dario Cologna came back from a serious injury – he missed almost the whole season up until now and only started his first World Cup last weekend – to win the men’s 30 k skiathlon. The Canadians had legendarily bad wax. Then, in the women’s biathlon sprint, my friend Susan placed 14th, the best finish ever for a U.S. woman in a sprint at the Olympics! Susan has a habit of doing these things and it was very exciting to watch. The winner was also a surprise, Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia, who won the last Olympic sprint but hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot since then.
Anyway: it was a long day. We got back to the hotel around midnight, and Nat went to bed. Alex and I, though, grabbed a very overpriced beer at the hotel bar and sat and chatted and decompressed, about work and life and a million other things. I’ve never gotten to know Alex in person, and we have been having a blast together! We’ve only let Nat into our girls’-room-lair once so far, but if he’s nice we’ll keep allowing it.
Then, I went back to work and published another piece before crashing into bed at 2:30.
I was supposed to meet Susan at the entrance to the village at 10, so I got up around 7:30, took a shower, and transcribed the rest of my interviews from yesterday. Then I sat at breakfast (our hotel buffet breakfast is pretty extraordinary) and typed up yet another piece. Yuck!! Getting a little burnt out already, danger ahead Chelsea! At 9 I managed to leave the hotel, take the gondola down to the village, and catch a bus to the Krasnaya Polyana train station. There, I picked up the guest pass.
“And how do I get to the endurance village?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s easy!” said the lady behind the desk. “Walk out that door, across the plaza, over the bridge, and turn right on the path. Walk along the river and after about 15 minutes you’ll find the cable car.”
Well. This is Sochi, so of course it wasn’t that easy. I did what she said (I’m an obedient journalist), all the time wondering when I would see this cable car… and I never did. I ended up in Rosa Khutor, a completely different place, and started asking people how to get to the endurance village, and most of them didn’t speak English.
By this point I was definitely late to meet Susan, and I was despairing about the fact that I had to walk all the way back (although I had no idea where to go from there). Then, I saw a couple guys walking out of a hotel. One was carrying One Way poles and the other had a Swix backpack. I ran over.
“Excuse me!” I said. “Do you know how to get to the endurance village?”
Yes, they did, and even more miraculously they had a car. The guys, who turned out to be French and working with the nordic combined team, drove me to the bottom of the cable car – the same one I take up to the venue for work every day, if only I had known!! – and eventually I made it to the athlete village.
Sadly, I didn’t take pictures. I was too tired and lazy. Instead I treated it like a little relaxation break. Susan gave me the tour – the main building is amazing, with a beautiful cafeteria, a pool and spa, a gym, a “disco”, a cinema, a gaming arcade, everything you could imagine. Beautiful architecture too, actually, in a blocky log mountain lodge sort of way. We toured through the apartments, where their wax and coaching staff were staying, and finally to a chalet, where Susan and the rest of the team were living.
The chalet was beautiful and spacious. Susan had a room all to herself and so we just sat and chatted (and Hannah and Sara joined us for a bit too). To be able to just sit and relax with a friend felt better than good. Also, she had free bottled water as part of the Coca Cola sponsorship of the Games (you just walk outside and go to a vending machine, where you can get unlimited water, coca cola, and powerade), so I drank like four bottles. Water is not free in the media center, and you can’t drink the tap water anywhere, so this was a very exciting development.
We also went for a run, so I got the complete tour of the perimeter of the village. It’s pretty extensive. Each team had flags and banners hung outside their rooms, showing off their pride. I passed Aino Kaisa Saarinen, which you can’t say every day.
My favorite part was going around a small pond, which probably looks disgusting and is filled with wastewater in the summer, but when it’s frozen is quite picturesque. There was a path around the banks, and also a long, long row of flagpoles with flags from each of the countries participating in the Olympics. Paired with the bright blue sky and the epic-looking mountains in the background, it’s fair to say that I was feeling pretty Olympic. It was nice. I never thought that atmosphere alone could give you such a feeling.
I also saw some of the funny parts of the Olympic village: national committees have to pay for the housing, and, for instance, the apartments are cheaper than the chalets. There’s also not much furniture included, but they can purchase furniture for their rooms. I think that the biathlon team had bought a sofa, table, and television to make things more homey. Otherwise, I guess, the living room would have been empty. What!?
The fridge was filled with coca cola products, and the cupboards with food mostly from the U.S. Olympic Committee. The USOC has many corporate sponsors and so there were boxes and boxes of American products from home, more than the team will go through during the Games for sure. Susan seemed excited to have peanut butter. Apparently the extra food will be donated to a food bank here in Sochi.
This probably wasn’t all that interesting – wish I had some more dirt for you – but I have to run now! ‘Til tomorrow, bye.