more sports commentary.

I spent a lot of the weekend working on a story about the International Olympic Committee bidding process that led to Beijing being awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics. I think it might be the best thing I’ve written! But I think that’s the exhaustion and euphoria speaking. (Update: I also published a different version at the Valley News, which greatly benefitted from some editorial help by Greg Fennell. Thanks Greg, I definitely need editing, and gives me a glimpse of how much better my stuff could be!)

You always feel that way after you deliver a big piece: unsure if it’s correct, terrified of small mistakes, but sure it’s awesome. That feeling fades. But right now I have the journalism hangover. I even wrote multiple drafts of this, which I am ashamed to admit I don’t usually do.

Please go read the piece, “IOC Membership and Regulations Combined to Reliably Hand Beijing 2022 Games,” here.

Here are some fun infographics I made to promote it.

Beijing infographic 2

Beijing vote infographic 1

daily diary

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.

10:57: publish.

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!

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.

rings

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!

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.

the curious case of the credential in the snowbank.

Just before I left home last week, I was given something important. Realllllly, reallllllly important. My credential for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which also serve as my visa to get into the country. Sort of a big deal. I’m trying to think of anything else I’ve been given where it’s been so important that I not lose it for over a month, despite the fact that it’s a sort of flimsy piece of paper. Nothing is coming to mind.

But, oh well, I thought. No problem. I’m responsible!

Then I went to Ruhpolding.

In Ruhpolding, I was given a different credential for the weekend of World Cup racing, as I am at each venue. I am 9ABC, which basically means that as media I can access the media center, start/finish, and a certain area behind the range at a biathlon race. If I had D, I’d be a photographer, and then I’d have more special privileges like getting to nice spots on the course to take excellent photos. Usually, I just go to those spots anyway and hope that nobody notices that I have neither a “PHOTO” bib nor a “TEAM” bib. Usually, nobody cares, but every once in a while a grumpy old German course official yells at me.

The credential is also important because it lets me into the venue without having a ticket.

I went about my work the first day, reporting on the men’s relay, and then caught a ride to town with the U.S. wax techs and went for a jog with my friend Susan, who was racing, and then we had dinner together with the team and chatted in her room afterwards. She gave me a ride back to the Pichlers’ house, where I was staying, in the wax techs’ van. Bye Susan! Good luck tomorrow!

I woke up and went for a run the next morning, then started to get ready to go up to the venue for another day of reporting. I unpacked my backpack and repacked it with better clothes (the first day, my luggage still hadn’t arrived, so I didn’t have many choices). One last thing… where was my credential?

Hmm. I tore apart my little room, which is Pam’s office but she kindly put a mattress on the floor for me. I asked her and Walter if they had seen it. They were split: Pam swore I was wearing it when I came home the night before, Walter swore I wasn’t. Personally, I remembered carrying it in my hand as I left the U.S. team’s hotel and went to the van. I assumed I had left it in the van, but the wax techs had gone up to the venue long ago so I wouldn’t be able to get it until I got there. That was a problem, since I couldn’t get in without it, and how else would I get to the wax cabin to ask them about it?

Head hung low in shame, I walked down to the accreditation office, which is also where I would catch a shuttle up to the venue. I walked in and stood in front of the same woman who had given me the credential in the first place.

“This is very embarrassing, but, I think I lost my credential,” I stuttered. “Is there any way I can get a temporary one? I think I know where it is.”

“Are you Chelsea?” she asked.

Yes. Yup. That’s me.

From her desk she picked up two credentials, each with my face on them. One had clearly seen some water seep underneath its plastic lamination, because the text was turning all green and my face was sort of rainbow-colored. The other was brand new and shiny.

“Wow! Where did they find it?” I asked, wondering if the wax techs had for some reason dropped it off for me.

“In the stadium,” she said with a glare. “In a snowbank.”

She was clearly being reproachful that I didn’t value this credential, wantonly dropping it into the snow without a care in the world.

Me? I was confused. I’m still certain I had it at the hotel, so how the heck did it end up back in the stadium in the snow? When? Who?

All of this doesn’t bode well for my Sochi credential. Please, little piece of paper, stay in my notebook.

It’s funny though – besides just this credential mess, I’ve been really out of it this season when it comes to professionalism and organization. I should be a pro by now. My first World Championships was in 2011; I’ve been to two more, plus a handful of World Cup competitions, since then. I know my way around, particularly in Ruhpolding, which is the first venue I’ve visited more than once. I know where to get a shuttle and when I need to hitchhike; I’ve calculated the shortest way to run between different parts of the course; I’ve calibrated how long it takes for the winners to get to the press conference, so that I can squeeze in an extra interview in between. I can produce a story, with its feature photo, in less than an hour. I’m sort of a machine.

In Hochfilzen, though, I forgot everything: my computer charger, the cable to download photos from my camera, my headphones so I could listen to interviews on my voice recorder without pissing people off. All of it was in my hotel room. That day, I had to run, in my Sorel boots, the several kilometers to my hotel room and back, through a snowstorm, to fetch them.

And now this. Losing my credential. What, am I rookie? No way!

It’s troubling, to say the least. The next gig I have coming up on the reporting front is the Olympics, and let’s just hope I don’t make too many sloppy mistakes there. If I do, will you come fetch me out of the gulag?

Things Are About to Get Nerdy, or, I Was Right.

Every once in a while I read something that really gets me excited. There can be multiple reasons for this: maybe it’s really good journalism, or maybe it’s just an interesting and unusual story. Maybe it’s amazing science.

I recently read a Grist article: “Leaked document shows EPA allowed bee-toxic pesticide despite own scientists’ red flags.” I got really, really excited. It was the most exciting thing I had read in at least a week. And let me tell you, that was no small feat, considering the excellent piece of Nat Herz’s that I was asked to edit.

The article was about how, despite the fact that their own scientists believed that the pesticide clothianidin is toxic to honeybees, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pushed through approval of the pesticide, and it now being used on millions of acres of staple crops like corn throughout the U.S.

As the title suggests, someone leaked a document showing the EPA scientists’ concerns over the pesticide – and the shoddy science that had been used to justify its safety. Thanks, Grist; that is good journalism. The EPA definitely hasn’t been the watchdog that it ought to be in the last, well, long time. You should read the piece just for the muckraking.

But besides the good journalism and interesting story, I got excited about something else. The whole scientific premise of why clothianidin is bad for bees is that it is expressed in plant pollen. The bees then eat the pollen, and, well, probably die. End of story.

Why is this cool?

A long time ago – or it seems that way to me – I had an idea. I was out in Colorado the summer before my junior year of college, working at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and trying to brainstorm ideas for me senior thesis, which I’d be working on the next summer. After wandering around in the mountains a fair bit, I formulated a hypothesis and presented it to my advisor.

The Rockies are littered with old abandoned mines: silver mines, nickel mines, gold mines, molybdenum mines, copper mines, you name it. The tailing piles at some of these sites are filled with metal-rich soil, on which plants eke out a tough existence. My question was, what if the plants take up the metals into their tissue? And what if those metals are expressed in nectar and pollen? And what if bees forage on that nectar and pollen? What then? Do they have higher body metal loads? Do they die? Do they evolve tolerance?

My first vision was of running around catching bees and testing them for body metal loads. This was immediately rejected as impractical. First of all, bees have a very wide foraging range, so trapping one that happened to be flying through a mine site wouldn’t mean that it hadn’t just eaten a nice pollen snack from a pristine flower on the other side of the ridge. Secondly, bumblebees – the bees I was most interested in – are generalist foragers. So basically, you’d have to catch a lot of bees before you could be sure you had some who were actually foraging on the plants you cared about. And given the expensive nature of metals testing, that wasn’t much of an option.

I went on to do some really fun and interesting research looking at this issue from lots of different angles, but testing the metal loads in pollen and bee bodies didn’t happen. There were too many difficulties, not enough money, and after all I was only writing a thesis, not a PhD dissertation.

But. I’ve still wondered. What if those bees are carrying around a bunch of metals?

Now we’re getting back to the Grist article. The whole neonicotinoid family of pesticides works by being expressed in pollen and nectar, and then kills pests when they eat that pollen. The problem is that they also kill non-target pollinators, like bees. And we can’t afford that.

But do you see why I’m excited? Something bad is expressed in pollen! And the bees eat it! And then it’s in the bees!

Granted, metals are not pesticides, and pesticides, and their structure and expression sometimes approximate things like hormones – that’s why they are so deadly.

But there is hope for my hypothesized mechanism.

Maybe someone will investigate it.

Or give me a bunch of money to investigate it. Simultaneously with the several other jobs I am doing.

That would be cool.

If this has put you in a science-y mood, here’s some other cool stuff you could read.

– A research trip to the Antarctic via Nature magazine

– An entertaining piece on musk oxen from NYT

– Or, just read The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner. It’s a good book. It makes me want to do fieldwork again.