editorial decisions, and difficulty making them.

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.

tough work.

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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!

inside the village.

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.

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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on brand new venues.

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Yesterday we checked out the biathlon and ski venues for the first time. We wanted to sort out the logistics before race day, and I’m glad we did. To get to the Laura endurance sports center, we need to take the gondola down from our hotel to Gorki City, then walk the ten minutes to the Gorki Media Center, go through security there, get on a bus up to the Laura base station, get on another, bigger gondola to the main station at the top, and finally take a van ride to one of the two venues themselves. The whole thing takes between an hour and an hour and a half – each way! It’s good to know that we need to build this time into our schedules.

(Additionally, here’s an amazing security story: we were waiting for the bus, and when it arrived it had a sticker sealing the door shut. We kind of laughed that once the bus driver was in there, they sealed him in. But it’s not a joke. A security officer inspected then broke the seal. As we boarded the bus, they scanned each of our credentials – then as I looked out the window I saw them put a fresh sticker over the door. When we arrived at the Laura base station, another security officer inspected and broke the seal, and then they scanned each of us off. It’s not like this on every bus ride, which is a little strange – but it does make you feel like they sure are keeping track of where everyone is, at least for bus TM18….)

Anyway, the biathlon venue is amazing. We were awestruck. The views of the mountains! The sheer size of the thing! Alex had never been to a World Cup biathlon race and Nat only to the ones in Fort Kent in 2011, so they were perhaps even more amazed. Even your standard World Cup biathlon venue is pretty darn impressive. But this was a whole new animal in terms of scale, and I was pretty amazed too. It helped that it was a bright, bright sunny day and everything was gleaming and sparkling. Here’s Nat’s reaction, and some more shots:

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We did a quick interview with Canada’s Rosanna Crawford and chatted with her coach, Matthias Ahrens, too. More on that later. We checked out the press room – palatial! – and then walked over to the cross country venue. It’s a five-minute walk and we also caught a ride on an awesome snowmobile coach.

By comparison, the cross country stadium is pretty tame. If I hadn’t seen the biathlon stadium first, I would have thought it was beautiful. But it lacks a lot of the grandeur that we had just seen – it looked more like any old World Cup venue.

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Biathlon is, after all, a signature Russian sport. It’s not surprising that the Sochi organizers really put their best into this particular venue. As I’ve written on FasterSkier before, for a long time the biathlon relay was considered the most important winter Olympic event for the Russians to get a gold medal in. Even today, even globally, cross country skiing is not as popular to watch and is definitely not as big of a television phenomenon. Hence the smaller, less grandiose stadium.

Another amazing thing about the venues is that just a few years ago, they didn’t exist at all. You can sort of tell: they are draped on top of this amazing mountain. It’s not exactly a logical or easy place to build cross country ski trails. The terrain is pretty intense – big downhills where the U.S. women clocked themselves hitting 45 miles per hour, a speed I never wish to attain on cross country skis; grinding uphills that last a long, painful time. The whole thing is at 6,000 feet.

That makes for good panorama views of the Caucasus and amazing spectating.

But we chatted a little bit with the USOC’s Luke Bodensteiner yesterday, a former Olympic skier himself who has been doing site visits here since 2008 in preparation for the Games. He said that the first time he visited, there were no cross country ski trails. There was a stadium, but it was kind of on an awkward slant and didn’t have any of those characteristics we require for a high-performance venue: flat stadium, straight lines, etc.

Famed course designer Hermod Bjørkestol designed the courses, looking at GIS maps and imagery and using site visits to try to finagle the best way to cross country ski on the side of an exceptionally steep mountain. The results are beautiful courses that are very difficult. After all, that side of a steep mountain thing. Nevertheless, Luke reported that some of the looks ski very well, flowing with the uphills and downhills such that skiers can carry a lot of momentum. He said they were fun. That’s pretty much the best praise you can get for a race course. The Laura area has been completely transformed since Luke came here the first time. It’s unrecognizable.

But it’s a little crazy to build courses here. First of all, they are so difficult that it’s hard to picture people coming here to ski when they are on vacation. The downhills are a bit scary even for the best skiers in the world. The uphills, especially at altitude, are tough even for expert athletes. Your recreational joe schmoe probably wouldn’t have much fun here, and someone trying to learn to ski for the first time? Forget about it. So what are these venues going to be used for?

“Come back in five years, and tell me what’s here,” Nat said as we rode the gondola down. “I bet nothing.”

It’s also interesting that the biathlon venue was designed a little differently than any other I’ve seen (it’s not like I’ve seen them all, but still). Alex remarked on how far away the stadium seemed to be from the shooting range, and I agree, it seems a little more removed than most venues. I chalked it up to the fact that most venues have been in use for years, sometimes even decades, so they are from a time when biathlon was a more intimate sport. In Sochi, building from scratch, there was plenty of room to make a huge, expansive stadium. But I think it will be harder here for spectators to really see what’s happening on the range, which is the whole point of watching biathlon from a stadium in the first place. It’s exciting! It will be interesting to see if this extra space diffuses the usual biathlon atmosphere at all.

All the seats will be full today, but here’s Alex checking out a funny ground-level seat in the now-empty stadium – seriously, you wouldn’t be able to see anything, not even over the fence!

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Then there’s the range itself. As we discussed with Rosanna and Matthias (article here), it is carved into a hill. Now, I’ve seen ranges build into hills before – it’s kind of a common strategy, so that any stray shots go into a hillside instead of flying out into the distance. But this is different. There is a huge retaining wall, many stories high, which rises behind the range. (Athletes have to leave the range and then climb a long sweeping turn to ski up along the top of this wall as they leave the range and head out on their loops – it is a monster climb and one of the hardest on the course.) The retaining walls also extend along the sides of the range, with the effect that the range is protected from the wind on three sides. That makes it an exceptionally calm and “easy” shooting experience.

I am sure we will see plenty of high-pressure mistakes, but in my mind, blocking the wind on the range kind of defeats the point of biathlon! And as I discussed with Matthias, some athletes have a special ability to read and adjust to the wind. Famously, earlier this year when a World Cup race was canceled midway through in Ostersund, Sweden, due to gale-force winds that were knocking down trees, Norway’s Ann Kristin Flatland – swaying in the wind herself as she stood on her shooting mat – somehow managed to muscle her way through hitting her targets. It was one of the most amazing feats of shooting that I have ever seen. Megan Imrie of Canada is also an expert at reading changes in the wind. Biathletes who rely on this ability to get onto the podium are at a distinct disadvantage here in Sochi, since wind won’t come into play so much. That doesn’t seem fair. Everywhere else, this is an established and important part of the sport.

Amusingly, Rosanna also discussed how the shots also sound different because of the echo created by those huge retaining walls. She called missed targets “more heartbreaking” because they make a big “thunk” sound.

(There have also been some issues with the Organizing Committee laying out the courses wrong. At one point they put the starting line in the wrong place. Max Cobb is the technical delegate at the Games biathlon races and in charge of ironing out these problems when people notice and complain. Poor Max.)

The venues were also built in a pretty ecologically special area. After all, it is the summit of a mountain in a protected mountain range. We cracked up (but also cried inside) when we saw these signs on the cross country course:

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Umm, what does that even mean? Spectators aren’t supposed to… walk their? Drop their trash? Sorry, you already built the stadium and the trails here. Putting up a sign isn’t going to fix the fact that you ruined this area. In fact, it’s almost a sort of embarrassing advertisement: look! An environmentally sensitive area! Let’s show off how we wrecked it!

Anyway.

The biathlon and ski venues were beautiful. I think they will be excellent for the competition, something that hasn’t always been true in the past for these sports (people complained about the trails in Vancouver, for instance). In that sense, I really salute the organizers for getting it right. Who can argue with this?

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But it just brought up a lot of interesting issues that people have been mumbling about in the run-up to the Games. The venues were built so specifically for the Olympics – none of them existed before. That doesn’t seem like the best way to organize an Olympics. Can’t we use existing venues, instead of making a mess somewhere and then, as is true here and at the endurance venues from Vancouver, likely never returning again?

I was reminded of this again at the Opening Ceremonies. The Fisht stadium is being used pretty much just for the ceremony. Supposedly it will turn into a training and competition venue for the Russian soccer team, but Sochi is a pretty far-flung place and the city itself is quite small. I can’t really picture it getting a lot of use – it’s not like the national team is going to move its base to Sochi, no way! The design of the stadium, too, seemed specifically suited to the ceremony choreography. The huge set pieces were pulled across the stadium on cables, through the middle. So the stadium had roofs on two halves, and then a weird different section running through the middle like a racing stripe. This was where all the cables and machinery was to move these set pieces. I wondered if the stadium came first and then the ceremony, but I suspect that they were designed hand in hand. Who makes a $779 million stadium just to match your opening ceremony design? Russia, that’s who.

It’s just a shame to imagine so much money spent, land wrecked, and work put into something that will never get used to this extent again. Even if it’s a great Games, which I have a feeling this will be, we have to ask whether it’s worth it. That gets into questions of the IOC and the Olympic bidding process, which as I mentioned I will expound upon sometime soon.

Even as the Games begin, there is last-minute building and touch-up at the stadiums. We saw a guy in a climbing harness washing all the windows on the biathlon stadium building (it’s a lot of windows). I’ll leave you with a few pictures of behind-the-scenes at the ski venue, which I snapped as we waited for a shuttle down to the gondola. It’s from an area restricted to press, volunteers, and teams, so spectators will never see it. There’s a certain amount of this at any World Cup, as each race definitely needs a staging area. Here’s what it looks like in Sochi.

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Okay, now I’m heading off to the first races of the Olympics! I’m so excited for everything to get started! At World Cups sometimes I get this overwhelming rush of adrenaline as I watch. I guess that’s why we watch sports – but sometimes it’s so exciting, I’m so nervous to see what happens when an athlete I know or like is in the lead, I swear it’s more of a rush than I almost ever got when I was racing myself. I expect the Olympics might be like this several times a day for two weeks. It’s going to be incredible and it all starts NOW!

first days.

This blog post is going to be cut short precipitously at some point, as we’re sitting in the Main Media Center waiting for Nat to download some photos before we head off to the Opening Ceremonies. First of all: the Main Media Center is ridiculous. Ridiculously big. I can’t believe someone designed this, and then built it. On the other hand, it is completely packed with journalists – we couldn’t even find a place to sit until a nice guy from the Boston Globe told me that his colleague had left for the day so I could take his spot. That turned into maybe a collaboration about environmental issues – stay tuned!

Here’s the Main Media Center from the outside:

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hard at work inside (well not really, since I’m writing this blog post):

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But, let’s see. I arrived! The worst part at the airport is that they were putting our bags onto the luggage conveyor belt at a truly glacial pace. They would put ten bags on – slowllllly – and then the conveyor would whir around for a while, with no further bags being loaded, and then it would stop. “They’re on a tea break,” a British reporter commented. Then it would start back up again and ten more lucky people would finally get to leave.

Outside, palm trees.

I took the bus up to the Gorki complex, where we are staying. It’s almost an hour ride on the much-discussed extremely expensive highway. There were perimeter fences with rolls of barbed wire at the top, and armed soldiers in many places, just standing there watching.

The Gorki complex itself is a pretty strange place. They built it with some lofty goals of luxury, and the buildings are huge. The place has a pretty nice feel to it for a pedestrian – big open walkways between the buildings, nice views of the mountains. But the scale of the buildings are totally weird to me. It’s like if you took a normal design, and stretched it by a factor of two. All of the stories are actually two stories tall. All the windows and doors are twice as wide as normal. It’s like it’s built for a giant. I guess that is one kind of luxury!

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The buildings definitely aren’t finished. Our room is nice – big bed, nice sheets, the bathroom is okay, they even gave me hangers for the closet when I asked. After what we had been warned about this is, like, amazing. We’re really happy in our room. Our hotel has a big lobby, too. A nice bar. A restaurant with delicious food. It’s one of the fancier places that I’ve stayed.

But there’s digging going on outside. Just because our room is done doesn’t mean that all of them are. And one of the hotels in our little cluster isn’t even open at all. Even though the room functions well enough, the details aren’t finished: baseboards awkwardly slapped on, heaters that need to be fixed, a refrigerator that hasn’t been hooked up yet. It’s a shame that the hotels aren’t finished, because this is their big day! With this workmanship they might fall apart soon, and what’s the point of finishing in a shoddy manner now if you just have to rebuild later?

We live in a cluster that is a gondola ride up from the Gorki “city”. I can see it being bustling in the future, but right now there are no shops or anything in town. So it’s deserted. People go to work during the day, and the only people in the streets are the workmen rushing to finish things up.

Anyway, consensus is that although things are not finished, they’re pretty nice. Nicer than I had expected. No complaints.

Okay this was a messy and disorganized and inarticulate post. Sorry! more later on the venues and other fun stuff.

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off to the races.

In half an hour I get on a bus for the airport to Sochi!

Last night we had a lovely dinner party to see me off to Sochi – thanks to all of my friends who came and ate soup, drank wine, and generally were merry. It was fun to have some biology people – from Uppsala! from my Switzerland project! – and some ski people, and even one other ski person who was a biologist. I’m leaving for Russia with a warm fuzzy feeling.

(we meant to take pictures of the party, but we forgot. Johanna and Carla, we fit 12 people around the table in the kitchen! it was rocking!)

Marta and I were discussing how everyone is telling me “good luck”. Good luck is something you expect to hear if you are an athlete, not so much if you’re just there to work. I shouldn’t need luck, but it sort of feels like the default expectation is that something bad will happen in Sochi. I might need luck to avoid it. Yikes!

This is spurred, in part, by the reports coming out of Sochi now that media has arrived. The skiers I’ve talked to seem generally happy about the athlete accomodations, although I did see a tweet from Tim Burke about how the transport that is supposed to come every five minutes comes twice a day, or something. The media is another story. Some of the media hotels are not even finished being built; more and more media outlets are reporting on it, with accounts from journalists and photographers like “so, my hotel doesn’t have a lobby yet” or about watching a stray dog wander out of the hotel room he was being shown to. Apparently, rooms are lacking doorknobs, light bulbs, you name it.

What concerns me more are the photos of the water from the tap, which is yellow and looks, um, unpalatable. One widely-circulated account from a female journalist details how her hotel doesn’t actually have running water yet. Management told her that if the water got started up, not to use it on her face, because it contained something very dangerous. Cue the memes about “dangerous Russian face water.”

I don’t have high standards for luxury, so I’d be happy with a Spartan hotel room. I’m not asking for a lot. I’d rather the water not light me on fire or anything though. Safe drinking water seems like a pretty basic thing to ask for, but it sounds like it’s going to be bottled water for me. Egads! I really detest buying bottled water as it’s so wasteful, but in this instance, I guess it’s a no-brainer. My grandfather warned me to bring iodine tablets, but I think I’ll even try to go one step safer than that.

Anyway, I wanted to post some final thoughts before I leave. Originally there was a section of my op-ed about the International Olympic Committee, but I seem to have deleted it and never saved it another location… and now I’m running out of time. I’ll leave my criticism of the IOC for another time after I have a chance to re-write it in a fashion I won’t be ashamed of, but I did want to comment on one thing.

When President Obama named his Olympic delegation, I remember thinking, “this guy is the only one in the whole situation who actually has some balls. Way to go!”

Therefore I was surprised when Alan Abrahamson, a journalist whom I highly respect, came out strongly against the move. He has cautioned that this, as well as State Department warnings to Americans traveling to the Games, will hurt the U.S. relationship with the Olympic movement. He went so far as to suggest that we might be punished in our bids for future Olympics. Why would the U.S. jeopardize all of these things?

To me, this is a signal of how out of hand the Olympics have gotten. If something truly is rotten, then we should not pander to the movement just so that sometime we can have another home Games. In fact, several very respected countries, like Germany and Switzerland, have put the idea of bidding on a Games out to the voters, and the voters have rejected it. If there are big problems – then do we want to host them? How will we ever change things without taking some sort of stance? If we host with the goal of righting past wrongs, of doing a better job on things that have been a problem in the past, then we have to at least acknowledge what the problems are.

Abrahamson was at it again today, writing for NBC about the delegation: ”

“That announcement has proven politically charged for the U.S. Olympic Committee in the run-up to these Games. It may yet remain problematic for American athletes at these Games.  And, finally, it may yet linger, an ongoing controversy, if there is to be an American bid for the 2024 Summer Games. The USOC is due to say later this year whether it is in the 2024 race or not. The IOC will pick the 2024 city in 2017.”
There is an IOC session going on at the moment, and from all accounts, it has been very productive and IOC members are more involved than they have been in years. This is positive and I hope that the IOC begins to change and take more firm control over the Games which they create.
And, yeah, I get it: we are about to have an Olympics in Russia, and Putin was right there in the room when President Thomas Bach was giving his speech about how the Olympics are not about scoring political points. We can be polite and nice and let Russia host their Games.
But no accountability? Shaming those who try to make a statement about equality? Though others might say something to the contrary, I don’t think this is what the Olympic spirit is all about.
Maybe someone else in the Olympic movement will eventually grow a pair, too. Let’s hope.