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!