first day of (real) work: triumphs and tribulations.

Yesterday (Saturday) we had our first day of work! Okay, I had been doing work before: going to a press conference, snagging Rosanna Crawford and Matthias Ahrens for some interviews, taking photos. But basically, that was just a warm-up to stretch my legs. Yesterday, the racing began! First cross country:

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Then, at night, biathlon:

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It was a big day for us. When we thought about the Olympic schedule and started planning things out, we figured that we would be able to do some triage in terms of things that needed immediate, full-scale coverage versus those that did not. Yesterday, though, every race had a couple of big, important, interesting angles, so there wasn’t much we could let go. Check out FasterSkier.com to see our handiwork, but here’s a summary:

1) In the women’s 15 k skiathlon, Norway put three women in the top four, including the gold and bronze medals. The younger brother of Astrid Jacobsen, one of their top skiers (but who was not planning to start the skiathlon anyway) died unexpectedly on Friday. This had a huge effect on the team, who dedicated their performance to him, and rippled through a close-knit women’s field including Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who earned silver. When gold medalist Marit Bjørgen of Norway and bronze medalist teammate Heidi Weng were crying on the podium, they weren’t all tears of joy.

2) American skier Jessie Diggins, in her first Olympic appearance, skied a gutsy race to finish an astonishing eighth place, tying the best Olympic performance by a U.S. woman at the Olympics. Teammate Liz Stephen, who has been in it for the long hall and sorely deserves an amazing Olympic result, finished 12th. This was far and away the best day a U.S. women’s cross country ski team has ever had at the Olympics.

3) In the men’s 10 k biathlon sprint, Ole Einar Bjørndalen of Norway, 40 years old, beat competitors half his age to earn the seventh Olympic gold medal of his career and 12th medal overall. This tied him with legendary Norwergian skier Bjørn Dæhlie as the most successful winter Olympian of all time. Bjørndalen is a super cool guy and a total beast of an athlete. It’s an incredibly story and everyone we talked to was impressed, happy for him, and proud to compete against him. Some of his own teammates said he’s been their role model since age 10.

4) In the same race, Jean Philippe Le Guellec of Canada finised fifth, just seconds away from a medal. He increased his own record for best Olympic performance by a Canadian man by one spot and set himself up for a possible medal on Monday in the pursuit, where the start order and time gaps are based on finishes in the sprint. Furthermore, Canadian rookie Nathan Smith started in bib number one, shook his nerves, shot clean, and finished 13th. Brendan Green was 23rd. An excellent day for Canada.

So there we were: four really big stories, plus the hours it takes Nat to download and go through the photos he takes, the long time it takes us to transcribe all of our interviews (even after the earlier long time it takes to wait for athletes to come through the “mixed zone”, where they are led through a maze of media by their press attachés), and the fact that we still have to put up SOMETHING about the rest of the North American athletes who did not have record-best days, because fans at home still want to read about them.

It was a long day. We went to bed around 2 a.m.

A few comments on working:

I work at a lot of World Cup races and World Championships, so I consider myself a pretty seasoned on-the-ground reporter for these sports. But the Olympics is entirely different. Two things jump out immediately. The first is that there is actually other press there to talk to the Americans and Canadians! I’ve never had to fight to get my questions heard, but all of a sudden we’re competing with the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CBC, Globe and Mail, and a host of local reporters (I met one guy from Lake Placid, and Peggy Shinn is here covering the Vermont beat). It’s fun, in a way, and I think I’ll get to know these other reporters well, which is pretty nice. But it’s frustrating, too. I’m used to having almost unlimited access, as long as the athletes have time to talk. Here, they are led away by their press attachés after just five minutes, and all of the media outlets are supposed to get everything they need in those five minutes. Hint: it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to be a jerk, but we get frustrated when reporters who aren’t familiar with these sports ask really bad questions. We want to be asking important questions about the race, like, the waxing looked really tricky today and you were slipping, how much did that affect your race and how can it be fixed?

My favorite was a reporter who asked Liz Stephen about the Norwegian dominance in the skiathlon.

“What makes the Norwegians so good at this discipline?” he asked.

She looked a little bewildered and said something like, well, it’s not this discipline, they do this well in every race….

Come on. Cross country skiing. Norway.

The second huge difference is just the way things work on the ground. There are so many more rules here. On the cross country World Cup, I can wander basically anywhere. I’m used to being the one to take the photos AND do the interviews, so I head out on course to snap some shots and watch the race, then go back to the mixed zone. As long as I don’t go to the special “priority” photo positions where access is determined by a lottery, and as long as I don’t get in the way of the racers, nobody cares. It works out well for us because we get really high-quality race coverage.

The biathlon World Cup is a little more strict – it’s run by Germans, after all. I will definitely get yelled at if I walk onto some parts of the course where you should only be if you have a special photo bib (not even a “priority” bib, but just one showing that you are a photographer and not a journalist) or a team staff bib. But I can also often weasel my way around, climb over a fence somewhere around the corner and walk back. Once you are actually on the side of th trail, people very rarely kick you off. I also have amazing access to the athletes because the U.S. and Canadian High Performance Directors, Bernd Eisenbichler and Chris Lindsay, are super nice guys who try to help me in every way. Bernd even lets me come over to the hotel and hang out and have dinner with my old Dartmouth teammates.

Anyway. The Olympics are not like this.

For the cross country race, Alex and I walked out to the spectator area and had a great time watching the race. I was able to take pictures, albeit not great ones because we were behind the spectator fence (Nat has the photo credential for us and was stuck dealing with a million photos).

It was once we headed to the mixed zone that the trouble began. They have it divided up by broadcast (television and radio) and print, and you absolutely cannot go to the wrong area. Team staff also have to be able to move through the mixed zone. In theory, there is an area and an entrance for each group, but really the whole thing is connected and often, the fastest way to get to your assigned spot is just to enter in a different part and walk behind everything (you are NOT in the way when you do this). The volunteers were not down with this, though. And worse, they were a little confused. You would try to enter in one spot and they’d tell you no, you can’t come here, go over there; you’d go “there” and you’d get yelled at for trying to go in where you didn’t belong. This got really bad about 60 seconds before the finish of the race, where a lot of media and team staff were coming from different parts of the course trying to both get to their assigned spots and, in doing so, to be able to look at a TV monitor so they could see the finish of the race. Instead, they were getting bossed around by firm but somewhat confused volunteers. There were a few shouting matches as the seconds ticked down before the finish and people who really needed to know what was happening were being turned away from certain entrances.

It might seem simple, just go where you are supposed to go. But when it’s totally unclear where it is that you are supposed to go, and when at every other race it’s not a big deal at all and we all get along fine and are friends and there’s nobody enforcing these rules, well. People get touchy.

This got even worse at the biathlon venue. The volunteers were much more zealous in enforcing the different zones. And they were just as confused. There is a huge tunnel under the stadium that allows access to the shooting range. I was coming back from the range and trying to head to the mixed zone, and at an intersection in the tunnel system, I asked volunteers which way to go. They pointed me one way and I walked, walked, walked…. and popped up sort of in the middle of the stadium with some IBU officials who made it clear that I wasn’t supposed to be there. But they had told me to go this way!

I also made the mistake, I guess, of carrying my camera out to the spot behind the firing line. I was taking a few photos before the race started when I was approached by a volunteer. “You can’t take pictures,” she said. “You only have the E credential, not EP.” So apparently, if you don’t have a photographer credential, you aren’t even allowed to carry a camera. I tried to point out that my little Pentax was in no way going to compete with the fancy-pants cameras of actual photographers, who have zoom lenses which are bigger than my head. She didn’t care. I put my lens cap on and said that I wasn’t going to waste my time putting my camera back in the press center, but that I promised I wouldn’t take more pictures.

Later, a second volunteer approached me and reminded me that I wasn’t allowed to take photos. To reiterate, my lens cap was on.

I even saw them chastise a team coach who pulled a small point-and-shoot camera out of his pocket and started to take a photo of his athlete. Really!? You aren’t even allowing team staff to take personal photos of their own teams!?

It seemed like overkill.

Anyway, a lot of lessons learned today. Things finished off with a long trip down from the venue. One problem with situating your race courses on top of a mountain is that there is pretty limited access up and down. In this case, it’s just a gondola (and then a bus to and from the other media centers or hotel complexes). It wasn’t so bad on the way up, but on the way back, everyone who had been at the race – media, spectators, volunteers – tried to leave at once. The lines were huge to get in the gondola and we wasted a lot of time. Time that we didn’t have, due to the amount of work we had left (we published four more stories after getting back to the hotel). We have to try to time it better tonight – I think if we had waited half an hour, it would have been less busy and then we could spend those 30 minutes working instead of waiting in line.

Anyway, the first day of work is done. Here’s a sunset to send you off.

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