on the nature of excitement…

Note: a version of this piece was published in the Valley News on Saturday. I had been discussing with the sports editor there the possibility of us doing two editorials that went hand-in-hand (I’m still not sure if he has published an editorial of his own or not). I have worked with Don a lot in the past and was in the process of submitting some profiles of Olympic-bound Dartmouth graduates. I rarely receive confirmation from the newspaper when my pieces are published, and they also often make edits after I turn a piece in – which is understandable, in particular because I am terrible at sticking to word limits! In this case, though, Don or someone else made considerable changes to this piece and never consulted me before publishing. This is a very different situation than cutting out some statistics or a block of quotes in a race report. Since this was an editorial, I was really shocked – not only were some important details cut out, but the conclusion of the piece changed quite a lot and did not really represent my opinion. How can you publish an “opinion” piece where you have changed the author’s opinion without their authorization? I’m frustrated and feel like this crossed the line.

I don’t plan to work with Don again in a commentary capacity, but I will continue to file reports and profiles with the paper. Although this experience left a bitter taste in my mouth, I still feel strongly that the Valley News is one of the best small regional papers out there, period. It is a much better newspaper than many which serve actual cities, with readerships double or triple or ten time or more the population! The Upper Valley is very lucky to have the Valley News and I hope the paper continues to do its usual good work. I respect everyone I have worked with there and have lasting friendships with a few guys in the sports department. I’m so thankful that they gave me my start in journalism, way back in 2008 when I had no idea what I was doing and was a terrible writer.

I also wanted to post the original text of the piece here, to represent my true outlook. It is not a perfect piece and I wish I had time to make it more eloquent, concise, and well-written, but hey, this is just, like, the third of my many jobs! Even imperfect, I think it conveys my message.

There’s only a few days days left until the opening ceremonies of the XVI Winter Olympiad in Sochi, Russia, and even fewer until I hop on a plane in Stockholm and fly to that subtropical city to work as a journalist.

The first question I always get once people figure out where I’m headed is, “are you excited?”

I always say yes, although the fact that I am traveling to a city where it is currently 60 degrees Fahrenheit to write about skiing should trigger some warning bells.

On one hand, of course I’m excited. It will be my first Olympics as a grown-up. I love my job, and the excitement and exposure of the Olympics will make every aspect of it even bigger. This is what many sports journalists live for.

But “yes” hides the real way I feel about this upcoming Games. Sochi will show us both the best and the worst of the Olympic movement, and I’m conflicted about how to handle it. What is my responsibility as a journalist? As a human being? As someone who respects the athletes, and wants them to be able to do their best?

In theory, the Olympics are about sports and athletes. But unfortunately this year, those athletes will have a lot of added distractions. We’ve all heard the stories.

There’s Russia’s new ban on public displays of homosexuality, or even support for homosexual rights. President Vladimir Putin is aggressively promoting the law in the press, often by putting his foot in his mouth and equating homosexuality with pedophilia. During the Olympic torch relay, officials detained a protester who unfurled a rainbow flag.

There’s the two bombings in other parts of the country, which brought a security crackdown in the region. Despite all of his, a female would-be suicide bomber has reportedly made it into Sochi – although I never know whether to trust the news out of Russia, as fearmongering would certainly justify bolstering the police force. The New York Times wrote that the teeming military presence “threatens to temper the spirit of the Games.”

There’s the millions and millions of dollars of money lost to corruption during the leadup to the Games. The venues are built on the back of alleged human rights abuses. Likewise, there are documented environmental violations, and the fact that construction has encroached on a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with little to no consequences.

There’s also more specific concerns, divided up by profession. For me, personally, there’s a looming presence in my daily life: Russia has made it clear that all data going in and out of the Olympic area, whether it’s e-mails or downloads or calls or texts messages, is being collected and monitored. Officials even stated that they were particularly focusing on journalists. Lucky me!

For athletes, one of the big questions is whether the competition will be fair. In November, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) voiced concerns about the laboratory where all of the blood and urine samples from the Olympics were supposed to be tested.

There has been no further information about whether the lab has made the changes necessary to now meet WADA’s guidelines, but there has been something even more troubling: positive tests. Three biathletes failed anti-doping tests in November and December. Two of them were Russian, including their team’s top-ranked woman, who has now resigned. That takes a hit on any athlete’s confidence in an even playing field.

The Olympics is such a pageant that perhaps many of Sochi’s physical and social shames will be hidden from athletes and spectators. Maybe all of the glitz and glam and media attention – in which I’m complicit – will mean that hockey players, speedskaters, and snowboarders don’t see the consequences of what it took to build the most-expensive Olympics ever from scratch.

But my guess is that for many of them, it will be in the back of their minds – or maybe even the front of their minds. After all, many of these mismanagements will affect the athletes’ daily lives, and maybe their emotional and mental preparation.

For instance, take the anti-homosexuality laws. I recently talked to a former Olympic athlete who went on to coach at the Games. She is a lesbian. I didn’t bring it up directly, but she asked whether I was worried about security and one thing led to another.

“I was thinking about it, what if I was still coaching?” she said. “Would I be able to do my job?”

Her implication was clear. Even if Olympic organizers say that they won’t go after gay athletes, the whole situation is enough of a mess that it could prevent them from focusing 100 percent on the task at hand.

“The athletes who are going to win the medals are the ones who can just block that out completely,” she said.

So as a journalist I’m left with a bit of a quandary. There are so many stories for me to dig into, on topics that fascinate me. Corruption. Human rights. The environment. Doping. Who wins what, where, is usually a much more complicated story than it seems – and I’ve always had ambitions of covering more than just the final score of a sporting match.

I don’t plan to let the constant surveillance stop me from covering any of these angles, if I have the chance (Valley News readers, if you never hear from me again, you’ll know why). I face, instead, an emotional barrier: these stories may be interesting, but they come at the expense of athletes’ Olympic dreams.

I’m sure that if you asked each athlete on the U.S. team, they’d say they were overjoyed to be going to Sochi. But the experience might not completely match the visions they have had of the Olympics since they were kids.

Today’s Olympians grew up watching Calgary, Albertville, Lillehammer, and Nagano. They probably started taking their sport seriously around Salt Lake City or Torino. They may have competed in Vancouver, or just missed the cut – but either way, their friends and teammates likely competed there, and brought back stories of what an Olympics is like.

Will Sochi match those depictions? I don’t know exactly, but it will probably feel quite different than any other Winter Olympics in recent memory. Every Olympics has its challenges and its flaws, but I can’t help feeling that simply by the year of their birth and the timing of their athletic peaks, these athletes got a bad deal.

All of these stories and investigations come at their expense. And there’s many interesting questions about the effects the mismanagement of the Games might have on athletes.

I’d love to talk to athletes about whether they’ll use their media exposure make a statement about the anti-homosexuality law. If not, why not?

I know that many of the winter athletes who I regularly interview are passionate environmentalists, and have even built that into their “brand”. How do they feel about skiing on trails that were built by flaunting environmental regulations?

One of the biggest stars in the sport I cover comes from an Islamic background. Is it hard for him to compete in an area where the Russian military have systematically profiled Muslims and often detained them without any probably cause for suspicion of a crime?

These are all great questions, but I keep coming back to this sentence from the former coach, about how the medals are going to go to the athletes who can ignore everything except their competition.

I’m a former athlete myself, although not at the Olympic level. Did I dream of the Olympics? Sure, we all did. Even though I never got as fast as the people I’ll interview in Sochi, I spent hundreds of hours per year training. I know that the very best work even harder, and sacrifice even more other parts of their lives. I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of what it took to get them to the Olympics.

I don’t want to be an annoying dog of a journalist, yapping at their heels, forcing them to confront things they’d rather block out. In fact, it might jeopardize my future relationships with these athletes. After all, it’s not an athlete’s responsibility to use their pulpit to enact good.

Of course we hope they will, but… who are we to tell them what to do? Their dreams involve representing their country and, perhaps even more, their hometowns and communities and the legions of friends and support staff and fans who got them to the Games in the first place. They want to compete their best and go home with happy memories.

I don’t begrudge them any of that – they’ve earned it –  and I don’t want to have any responsibility in distracting them from their performances. And so I’m left unsure of how to do my job.

Do I ask athletes the tough questions, the questions that may not be directly connected to their performance that day, that might seem to come out of left field?

Or when I see an athlete in the mixed zone after a race, do I start out the same way I always do: “so, how did your race go today?”

Am I good enough at my job to handle the nuance of mixing the two? Will athletes catching their breath after the finish line of the biggest race of their lives even appreciate nuance?

I’m still not sure. But I’m hoping that once I land in Sochi, and am no longer relying just on newspaper and online reports and speculation of what it’s actually like, I’ll rise to the occasion.

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