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Time for Some Olympic Whining

The "cough drops" I was given by the desk clerk at my hotel.

The “cough drops” I was given by the desk clerk at my hotel.

SOCHI, Russia – There seems to be an unwritten rule among coaches and athletes here that you’re not supposed to say anything bad about the Olympics, lest you be criticized for being ungrateful, culturally insensitive, or making some kind of excuse for a poor performance.

I’ve generally tried to operate by the same principles since arriving in Sochi. I’m on a trip that cost thousands of dollars (not mine), to an exotic land, where my only job is to watch sports and write about them. It would be myopic and self-centered to focus on any minor inconveniences I’m suffering, like a problem with my hotel, or the moderately complicated logistics of traveling between my hotel and the competition venues.

Well, two weeks into the games, my moratorium is coming to an end, and I’m about to do something sacrilegious: I’m going to complain about the Olympics. Because if I don’t do it, who else will? And while my complaints may be self-serving and ungrateful, I do think that a little bit of whining can offer some insights into what it’s actually like to be here.

On the gondola up to the biathlon venue this morning, I took it upon myself to fill two notebook pages with things that I consider to be an Olympic-sized pain in the you-know-what. So, without further ado, here’s the list:

–Laundry. If I were writing this post for a general audience, and not just my family and friends, I’d lie and say that I was wearing a clean shirt and underwear today, and that there was a good chance that I’d be able to do laundry before the end of the Olympics. Wait, this post is just for my family and friends, right?

–Food. Contrary to popular belief, journalism is not exactly a cushy industry, and hence I did not arrive in Sochi with a four-figure expense account for meals and drinks. On the plus side, my hotel offers an awesome free breakfast, with pancakes, eggs, fresh fruit, and coffee every morning, plus the occasional bizarre addition like baked beans, and crepes stuffed with cottage cheese. (At least they translated it as “cottage cheese”; I decidedly have not bothered to check.) This means that every morning I eat a breakfast that’s large enough to sustain me through an Olympic competition—except that I’m not actually participating in any Olympic competitions here and probably shouldn’t be eating that large of a breakfast.

On the minus side, the food at the competition venues is extremely expensive, meaning that lunch every day is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I’ve spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. It also means that most days, dinner is peanut butter and jelly on bread that I’ve spirited out of the hotel in a napkin. Except when we forget to eat dinner altogether.

To be fully transparent, there was a positive development yesterday, when we discovered that the media center sells bowls of borscht for 150 rubles, or about $4. Things may be improving.

–Working. You’d think that the best place to watch an Olympic competition is at the Olympics. In fact, this is not true in the slightest, at least for the events I’m reporting on. At the cross-country and biathlon venues, the areas where members of the media are supposed to interview athletes are tucked away behind the stands, where many reporters stand and watch the races on TV. Again, let me repeat that: reporters whose employers have paid thousands of dollars for them to travel to the Olympics and report on them watch the events here on a TV.

I’m in a slightly different situation as a credentialed photographer, which gives me access to the side of the trail. Again, you’d think that this would be really cool. And it is. But it’s not actually very good for reporting on a race. First of all, I generally watch skiers and biathletes go by through the viewfinder of my camera, which offers a fairly limited perspective on the race. And second, I’m standing at a single point on the trail, which means that I get to watch about 2 percent of the racing in person, and have to reconstruct the rest of it through split times and interviews afterwards.

Then, my colleagues and I have to contend with the other English-speaking reporters, who all descend on the same athletes we want to talk to as they are funneled through a gauntlet of plastic fencing that’s called the mixed zone. Each of the reporters has a different agenda—one might want to talk to an athlete about their own race; another might want to ask them about the weather, or about another competitor, or regrettably, about what they had for breakfast, what their favorite color is, or whether the lunar eclipse that happened 73 weeks ago might have had an impact on their performance. (These are just a few examples.)

Finally, consider how challenging and uncomfortable it can be to get the athletes to say something that fits into your story—especially if they’ve been struggling, as has been the case for many of the athletes I’ve been talking to. Essentially, my questions have been boiling down to: “So, you just had the worst day of your life out there. Tell me about it, in excruciating detail!”

–Illness. About a week ago, I got sick, which turns out to probably be a semi-natural consequence of traveling 8,000 miles across the globe, then sleeping about six hours a night.

Being sick in Russia actually turned into a pretty amusing caper, except for the part where I felt totally miserable. The first part was when the hotel desk clerk gave me something that she said was cough drops, but which was wrapped in dubious-looking gold foil covered only with Cyrillic characters. I took it anyways—it didn’t seem to make much of a difference either way. Hopefully I don’t test positive for a banned substance when I race in the Tour of Anchorage early next month.

The second part was when I went to the conveniently located medical desk at the biathlon media center, which is ostensibly for athletes but where the staff was kind enough to offer me assistance. All I wanted was aspirin for a headache; what I got was aspirin, a blood-pressure check, some weird test that involved sticking my finger into a device that looked like a stapler and recorded my heartbeat, and a proclamation that I was suffering from the altitude, and should take some aspirin.

Finally: Just imagine what it’s like trying to hydrate in a place where you can’t drink the tap water. (Honestly, it’s harder than you’d think, given that I take at least four gondola rides every day and can’t just haul a gigantic jug of water around with me.)

Okay, well, anyway: Sochi really is a fantastic place, and I’m generally having a good time. I could probably put together a list this long of my problems in Anchorage, as could just about any other Alaska resident. Most everything is great here, especially the borscht—and I look forward to eating more.

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What up Alaska?

So, a couple of months ago, I posted here about how I was looking for a job…ideally in a place that had cold and snowy winters, skiing, friendly people, and a large enough population so that there would be at least a few crooked politicians to report on.

Yesterday, I got an email from a reader in Alaska who suggested I look for jobs there, as the Anchorage Daily News was hiring. It was a pretty awesome email to get, because I then got to tell him that I already had a job with the Anchorage Daily News, was flying out there the next day, and would be starting the gig the following week. Boom.

So, yes: I am currently sitting in JFK Airport, having just checked my deconstructed bicycle, eight pairs of skis, and god knows what else I shoved in my duffel. (Oh yeah: a couple of large kitchen knives—hope you’re cool with that, TSA.) And I am in the middle of demolishing a gigantic amazing plate of nachos. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually bought airport food, but I left my breakfast in the kitchen in all the hubbub of trying to catch a ride from my apartment to JFK with all the aforementioned items, plus a 50-pound carry-on LL Bean backpack, a shoulder bag, and a sport coat. [Gotta keep it classy in Alaska—I heard polar bears can detect mismatched clothing at 300 yards away.])

For anybody wondering, moving to Alaska is a pain in the ass. It’s also very expensive. I’ll send a FasterSkier sticker to the first commenter who can guess within $10 the cost of sending these two 50-pound boxes from 10026 to 99508. (I’ll give you a hint—it’s slightly fewer dollars than there are acres in Alaska.)

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

I fit half the Empire State Building in here.

I’ll be covering city government for the ADN, which I’m really, really excited about. If you’re confused about why someone would think covering city government is fun, just remember the way your friends look at you when you tell them that your idea of fun is dressing up in spandex and skiing UP hills in sub-zero temperatures. Government reporting is kind of the same way. After two years of doing it in New York City, I’d like to think I’m kind of at the Junior Nationals level of journalism, but I’m hoping by moving to Alaska and training with Erik Flora and Kikkan Randall, I can make it to the Olympics. (That metaphor works, right?)

I’m thrilled to be moving to Alaska, but it’s definitely a bummer to leave behind all my friends in New York who, it should be noted, almost convinced me to stay. When they didn’t, they then made me this wicked sweet poster, which is probably the most awesome thing anyone’s ever done for me.

If you don't get the reference, google "Ford to City."

If you don’t get the reference, google “Ford to City.”

I’m looking forward to a whole lot of skiing and outdoor adventures over the next couple of years. Not totally sure how this blog and my role with FasterSkier will change, since the ADN is one of the few American newspapers that actually does a good job covering cross-country skiing, but I’ll definitely continue to stay involved in the sport at some level. Stay tuned.

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I drove home yesterday morning from Fort Kent. The last time I was here was December 21, and that was for one night. All I have done since getting home is read, eat, sleep, and watch an episode of 24.

It has been an awesome winter—one that went far, far beyond my expectations. And there are literally dozens of people that I need to thank for helping me along. If you’re not interested, at least take a glance down this list and make a note of just how many people in the ski world pitched in, because I think it reflects the warmth and generosity of this community.

In reverse order:

The Hussain family welcomed me into their house and gave me my own room and hot meals in Fort Kent. That was much appreciated at the tail end of a long winter. The Shepard family also took me along for a couple of dinners in town, as well.

On my way to Fort Kent, I was lucky enough to have a place to crash every single night between Salt Lake City and Northern Maine. I stayed with Steven Kolberg in Ithaca, Dave Falkof in Chicago (we had a hot dog at the renowned Wiener’s Circle [this is where people who get fourth at the Olympics get their

dinner], where the women at the counter swear at the customers. the woman who gave dave his change told him to tip, or she would “smack the motherfu—ing color out of his eyes.” he tipped.), Kendall in Kansas (sorry Kendall, but I never found out your last name [no, that’s not as bad as it sounds), and Lily Morse in Aspen.

My friends in Seattle, Erin York and Hannah Wadsworth, probably win the award for the most awesome friends ever. They picked me up from and dropped me off at the airport at preposterous hours, let me sleep on their couch for multiple nights, leave my car outside their house while I was in Alaska and Germany, and took me out for a really fun night that included some amazing chocolate and good beer.

At the Olympics, Topher and I went out for one of the most amazing dinners I have ever had, courtesy of John Borstelmann. Neither of us had ever met Mr. Borstelmann before, but he got in touch with us saying that we should go out for a delicious meal, on him. If anyone knows me or Topher, you know that a delicious meal is one thing that you do not have to offer us twice. And at the tail end of a ridiculous amount of work and PB+J lunches, it was double appreciated. We started with fresh oysters (and each of us had like eight rolls with this amazing olive spread that they kept replenishing—I think the waiter probably thought that we’d just returned from the Arctic or something), and then I had roasted beets with goat cheese, risotto with something delicious (I don’t remember exactly what, although sage was somehow involved), and a baller cappuccino to finish. Dessert was not necessary.

On the way to Canmore, we stayed with Mark Waechter, owner of Nordic Ultratune, who took us on a wicked fun ski and let me use a blazing fast pair of his test skis. As is consistent with the rest of the winter, we had a delicious dinner and some really good beer, and I think I ate about seven cookies before that night was over—which for me was like seven o’clock, since I was still jet-lagged from Europe.

Sue Faulkner and Darren Rorabaugh invited me to stay with them in Germany to cover World Juniors and U-23’s, and there is no way that that trip could have happened without them.

In Fairbanks, John Estle let me jump into the local race free of charge, and also had me over for some delicious nachos and beers (this post makes it sound like I had a lot of beer over the course of the winter, but I swear, it actually was a pretty rare occurrence—I only had about four throughout the entire Olympics), some excellent stories, and a shower (if you use Nick’s shower [where I was staying in Fairbanks], you have to bail it out into the toilet afterwards because the drain is frozen, so this was a nice respite). Oh yeah, and Nick, despite the frozen shower, thanks for letting me stay at your house. And also in Fairbanks, Nick and I had a pair of delicious dinners with the Buetow family and with Dave Offer. Reese Hanneman and David Norris drove me all the way up there from Anchorage in their sweet Suburban—we had a fun time watching the thermometer on the rearview drop a grand total of like 50 degrees, from like 20 in Anchorage to -30 (no joke) by the time we finally got to Fairbanks.

In Anchorage, Rob Whitney found me an awesome place to stay, at Rachel Goldberger’s house while she was in South America. I only met Rachel when she got back from her trip earlier than anticipated to find my stuff all over her sofa and a Jenga tower standing in the middle of her carpet, but it was awesome to have a free place to stay and a car to drive around.

On the way to Seattle (where I caught the flight to Anchorage), I stayed with Forrest Horton in western Montana (the elk lasagna was awesome) and in Caroline Silver’s house in eastern Montana. That was pretty clutch, because there really isn’t very much in eastern Montana aside from Caroline Silver’s house.

In Minnesota, I stayed with Jeff Bush and his family. Due to the epic snowstorm that decided to coincide with my visit to Minneapolis, I ended up spending like three or four nights at his house, including Christmas. There are very few places I can think of where a Jew would have been more comfortable on December 25th—and the skiing at Wirth Park was awesome.

Some thank you’s that are less obvious: skiers and coaches who had the patience to modify their routines to take the time to talk with me and answer my questions this winter (there are some 350 interviews stored on my iPhone now), and all the people who gave us positive feedback and constructive criticism. Readers who suggest story ideas and who voraciously devour anything we have to offer. My mom for being an incredibly patient editor and advisor (mom, feel free to say something about this, but please don’t express yourself in the form of an embarrassing comment). I’m sure there’s more, and I’m really, really sorry if I forgot anyone.

Really guys. I am trying to think of another metaphor. This is like if we wrote a story about nordic combined and called it biathlon.

The one person/persons I am not thanking? The staff of the 2009 Bowdoin Bugle (our joke of a yearbook), which I found three copies of when I got home. On the page where there should have been a photo of the 2008-2009 Bowdoin Nordic Ski Team, there is a picture of the 2005-2006 crew. WTF? It’s egregious enough to be one year off (that’s 365 days!), but four? That would be like if we wrote a story about Giorgio di Centa winning this year’s Olympic 50 k, when in fact that happened in Torino. Wow.

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Thank God I’m Not a Curling Journalist

If you had asked me one year ago where I would be on February 26th, 2010, it probably would have taken me a long, long time before I guessed correctly: the gold medal game in women’s curling at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

After a couple of weeks of hard work (and watching awesome ski races—I’m not complaining), Topher and I took a single day off to head down to Vancouver and collect as many different Olympic sports as we could. It played out that we got to watch the curling match, sandwiched between the semifinal men’s hockey game of USA vs. Finland, and the short track frenzy that occurred later that evening.

I will get straight to the point: this post is about how I have woken up every single morning since that day and thanked God that I am not a curling journalist.

One would think that at least the gold-medal curling match would be enough to sustain my interest. Not so. And yes, Topher took this picture because he thought it was hilarious how bored I was.

I have complained a few times, if not on my blog, about how writing about certain types of ski races can sometimes be difficult—namely individual-start races, but also, for example, 50 k mass-start races in which nothing happens until 49.2 k.

Any complaints I have made about this sport I now retract. I would write ten stories about the Colby Ski Team winning NCAA’s before I’d agree to follow curling, otherwise known as the most mind-numbingly boring sport in the universe. If you know how much I detest Colby, you know how serious I am about this.

Now, I know that it’s possible to write a single story about the curling scene and venue—while even that might be difficult, it’s not impossible. Pay attention to what’s going on, observe a few amusing details (bagpipers introducing the competitors with a big fanfare, the drunk guy heckling the Swedish team leader by yelling her name [NORberg!] directly into the ears of the increasingly aggravated elderly Swedish gentleman sitting in front of him, etc.), turn it into a cutesy profile of the sport. But I’m talking about following the sport on a daily basis—basically the equivalent of what we do for skiing. I’m thinking of something like, or MoreDexterous&

I am aware that there is a certain, small amount of action in every curling match, and that as Al Trautwig says, each sporting event has its own “moment of truth.” However, in the case of curling, the amount of actual describable action contained in this so-called “moment of truth,” no matter how momentous or dramatic, is miniscule. I am pretty sure that every dramatic curling shot ever made can be summarized in this manner:

“Four years-worth of practice of chucking varnished rocks down an ice rink came down to this single shot that remained in today’s match between ____ and ____. With the hopes of a couple hundred moderately enthusiastic fans riding on his or her middle-aged shoulders, _____ pushed off down the ice, stone in hand, then released it with an unexciting twisting motion. The rock slid slowly and unspectacularly down the ice, traversing 150 feet, before coming to a stop somewhere near the target.”

Now, to be fair, there could be some variation involved. The rink actually could be anywhere between 146 and 150 feet long; in some countries, there could be as many as a thousand fans (although that’s really only in the extraordinary case); and in a few very rare cases, the athletes are not middle-aged.

However, I’ve decided that this line of exposition is not that interesting, or even funny. So I’m moving on. Instead, I’m going to write about how curling would be cooler if it were more like skiing.

First, I’d get trash talking involved. Curling needs its own Petter Northug. Listen to the lame-ness of Kevin Martin, Canada’s team captain, after leading his men to curling gold:

“Finally, it took a long time, a lot of years…The hard work’s worth it.”

Sorry Kevin, but that’s not going to cut it if you want to take your sport’s popularity to the next level. Here’s are some Northug-esque quotes that I am suggesting for you and your Canadian teammates:

“My stone curls with the fury of Pierre Trudeau and Avril Lavigne. Tell the Americans’ stones to get out of the way.”

“The Swedish stones are fat.”

“I had another degree of angular momentum that I could have imparted on that shot; I just chose not to use it.”

Another way to mix things up would be to have the players develop their own styles. That’s what makes skiing interesting—Axel Teichmann using his big, long strides to attack with 800 meters to go vs. Northug waiting until the last hundred meters to turn on his finishing speed.

For curling, you could require each player to have his or her own signature style of releasing the stone, kind of like Happy Gilmore hits golf balls (everyone should definitely have a running start). I’m thinking like windmill style release, a bellyflop/diving style release, etc.

And finally, let’s get some real technology and equipment involved, like skis, poles, and waxing. Those things are constant fodder for hungry ski journalists. Give those sweepers some high-performance carbon fiber brooms, allow service staffs to do some literal stonegrinding, that kind of thing—then you’d get some real stories. And take the roof off the darn rinks and let the weather wreak a little havoc—try hitting that target in the middle of a Vancouver downpour.

That’s all for now. In all seriousness, if anyone reading needs a ride from the west coast (San Francisco) to the east coast (Maine, or anywhere along the way) leaving next weekend, or knows anyone who does, please let me know. I’m going to need someone to keep me awake for the drive…

The only thing that won't work to keep me awake in the car is if you start talking about curling...

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Too Much Porn for Odd-Bjorn

I am currently sitting on the bus to the venue trying to eavesdrop on a conversation between a Finnish commentator and Katerina Neumanova. It is not working as I am being engaged in another conversation by the person sitting behind me

I thought I would write a few things about some of the interesting challenges that have presented themselves over the last few week, since I honestly haven’t done or witnessed too much outside of what has been written in race reports.

First, I want to bring up how much I wish that I had studied Norwegian—or Italian, or Swedish, or Russian—in college. There are about 5,000 international journalists here, each one of them wanting to engage the athletes and coaches in their own individual conversation in their mother tongue. This makes it very hard to ever engage in a conversation of your own, in English.

A corollary to this is the fact that when you actually go back and listen to the answers in English from a lot of these folks, it sounds like you just interviewed Yoda. For example, here’s a quote from Martin Koukal, who anchored the Czech relay team to third place in the relay yesterday:

“It was like this, that if we have been top three, after three legs, it was like that for me, I was on the big pleasure, because for me it was anything close than medal it will be big disappointment, because I am good sprinter and good skier…I fight and then in the last kilometers, I concentrate for a —because I know that for me, the way to the medal is to beat the French guy.”

Now, I obviously don’t have any right to complain, not speaking a shred of Czech or Norwegian or Swedish myself. And I do not want to denigrate Martin at all—he was exceedingly friendly and gracious and patient with me, as I tried to understand what was going on through this fog of language. But it does illustrate how hard it can be to get a sense of exactly what was happening out on the course. Don’t even bother with the Russians—they don’t speak English at all, and they get offended if you even ask if they do.

By the time you get to the press conferences, these guys are already so sick and tired of reporters trying to extract stuff from them that they basically just thumb their noses at you.

For example, the guy running the press conference yesterday asked all the members of all the relay teams yesterday (they bring in all the medalists) to introduce themselves and give a comment about their race. Among the highlights from the Swedes:

“I’m Johan Olsson, and I’m very happy for the gold medal.”

“My name is Marcus Hellner, I’m also very happy for this gold.”

And then the absurd:

“Yes—my name is Odd-Bjorn [Hjelmeset], and I skied the second lap, and I f—ed up today.”

As Patrick Stinson already covered in his post, one of Odd-Bjorn’s problems was that he had iced up harries skies. But Topher and I saw him on one of the climbs, and he looked like he was just hurting, so:

“Odd-Bjorn, when you say you f—ed up, it sounded like there were problems with both your body and your skis, or just your skis, or just your body? What was it?”

“No, I think I have seen too much porn (laughter). For the last 14 days, I have the room next to Petter (Northug), and every day it’s some noise in there, I don’t know what. So I think that was the reason for I fucked up. By the way, Tiger Woods is a really good man.”

I swear to god he actually said this. If you don’t believe me, leave your e-mail in the comments and I will send you the audio file.

In any case, that made Topher and I laugh (as well as everyone else in the room)—I mean, that was pretty funny. Then we waited for Odd-Bjorn to actually answer the question. He didn’t—we moved on. Thanks, dude.

15 minutes of waiting for more Norwegian journalists to finish talking to him after the press conference, I finally got an answer. But it took quite a while…

There is other stuff to be written, but this has to suffice for now—time to go watch some Nordic Combined!

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Doing My Own Racing

This blog post was started this morning, hence some potential tense issues. Rather than fix them, I am going to bed.

I am currently on the bus to the Whistler Olympic park with about thirty other international media. We are listening to Coldplay, I think, for better or for worse. (Actually, definitely for worse. I hate Coldplay.)

I though I would provide a quick update on what it is like to be a member of the hordes of international ski media assembled here in Whistler. I am going to do this by showing, not telling, because apparently that’s the more writer-ly thing to do.

I was going to begin by showing the ingredients for the FasterSkier satellite office, as they were in a pretty rad picture that I took in the Whistler press room when my s— was spread out all over a desk. Unfortunately, in my infinite wisdom, I seem to have deleted it from my computer. So I’m going to ask all of you to just imagine that you’re looking at a picture of desk with a whole bunch of crap on it, as I take you through it.

First, the black bag on the left. That’s a camera. With a moderately baller lens that I borrowed from Topher. (I keep having to revise my standards for lenses. Compared to the one that came with my camera, this one is totally baller. However, compared to the ones being used by photographers here, I feel like a member of the Ethiopian ski team competing against the Norwegians.) In any case, you’d think that I’d be able to use this to get some good photos, but don’t be deceived—Olympic courses are on such lockdown and things are such a giant cluster that it’s actually very difficult. Not to mention the fact that I can’t seem to hold the camera still with a bigger lens on the end of it. Mostly what I succeed in doing with the camera is getting it wet, then trying not to let it get more wet, then bringing it inside and fogging the crap out of the lens, resulting in minimal pictures of American nordic combined medal-winning later in the day. At least that’s what happened on Sunday…

Next we have the yellow drink belt. Pretty self-explanatory: even huge baller ski journalists need to hydrate, at least in theory. Thus far over the three days of the Games I have filled it up once, and that was at three o’clock yesterday afternoon. But when I did that I was working hard on the nordic combined report, and I also had to pee, so I didn’t want to drink more. I didn’t end up going pee until like eight o’clock, either, so I actually drank the whole thing between when I got home and when I went to bed, which was a period of about half an hour. The fact that I didn’t even come close to waking up in the middle of the night is a pretty good indicator of my level of dehydration. Other than my water intake last night, my consumption of liquids at the Olypics has consisted exclusively of the free hot chocolate, coffee, or some mixture of the two that’s available at the various media centers. I haven’t actually noticed any real difference in how I feel in terms of energy or anything, but at this point I’m more psyched about sustaining myself with hot chocolate and coffee than peanut butter and jelly, so until my gums start falling off from scurvy I think that I will continue with the brown beverage diet. I will let you guys know how it goes—maybe it will be the next big thing. [Update, as I am finishing this late at night: I had two more cups of coffee and one of hot chocolate today, which made for an energetic day if nothing else.]

Now, we move to the big jumble of wires in the middle. Technically those papers are probably next on a left-to-right basis, but I’m more psyched to talk about the wires, so that’s where we’re going. As you can see, we’ve got a macbook charger, and then also an Iphone connector cable, an Ethernet cable, and a pair of headphones all in one gigantic ratsnest. I have stopped bothering with untangling them each time I take them out of my backpack; it’s actually easier to have them in huge knot, because then you don’t have to go fishing in your backpack for each cable every time you want it. Instead, you just poke around in the knot for the end you need, then plug it in. It actually works surprisingly well. Perhaps another marketing ploy along with the free hot chocolate/coffee diet. Maybe I could combine the two somehow, or market them as a package—like, sell big bottles of coffee mixed with hot chocolate (I know, that’s a mocha) with a big jumble of soggy wires at the bottom as the prize when you finish drinking it.

One thing worth mentioning specifically is the ethernet cable. The wireless network at the Olympics is not very reliable, and they have ethernet cables for checkout at the various media centers. Most of the time they make you sign up on a list and then return them, but yesterday was different in an awesome way. I went up to the desk and asked for a cable, and the woman smiled and handed me one without taking down my name or anything—just saying something along the lines of, “you just have to promise to return it, okay?” I nodded and gave her a pretty solid s—t-eating grin, all the while thinking to myself, “there is absolutely no chance that you are ever seeing this thing again.” So now I have my own, and I don’t have to bother with checking one out any more. Yes, I did steal a two dollar ethernet cable from the Olympics. Proud of it.

I don’t remember what else was in the picture, so I’m going to move on to describing the actual journalism scene here. I will begin with this:

It's weird--all the Polish reporters seem to wear team jackets...

That’s Justyna Kowalczyk after the 10k today. There have been some seriously legit reporter scrums here. Basically the way things work here is that things are set up in an extremely complicated hierarchy. First you have “rights-holding broadcasters” like NBC and others, who get like baller TV spots, course access, etc. Then you have news agencies like Reuters, the AP, etc., who get prime standing location in this area called the mixed zone, a kind of gauntlet through which every single athlete has to pass, like it or not. This leads to amusing situations like this one, where Johnny Spillane is talking to the AP and someone from the venue with a microphone in the elite mixed zone area, and all these other reporters don’t have access, so they’re recording what he’s saying out of the speaker.

After everyone is done talking with NBC, the AP, etc., they come down to the lower part of the mixed zone where us sharks of the rest of the media can feed. The amount of Scandinavian media is crazy, as well as when there are medal contenders from other countries. And they all talk in Norwegian or Swedish or Polish or Czech or whatever, making it very difficult to get any idea what is going on. And then when there are any American medal contenders, the scrum of English-speaking reporters appears to multiply by a factor of 47. Yesterday after the nordic combined race, there were probably a grand total of like 50,000 reporters who wanted to talk to Johnny Spillane.

It’s all kind of funny for a few reasons. First of all, a lot of these athletes don’t actually have that much to say. Obviously, some are better than others—Kowalczyk is actually great, although her English grammer isn’t the best (not a criticism, as my Polish definitely blows—it’s just a fact), as is Petra Majdic, and Todd Lodwick was actually incredibly candid and honest yesterday. But a lot of times, you’re getting some seriously canned quotes, and the funniest part of it is that large portions of these interviews are being recorded and transcribed and distributed by the “Olympic News Service,” which is both a blessing and the bane of many reporters’ existence, because these people take quotes and information that might normally be in your exclusive possession and instead distribute them to all the Olympic press centers and then around the world. So there’s a lot of absurdity here, because you have all these people standing around and waiting to get something that really could be (and is) gotten just as effectively by one person. And I won’t even get into some of the non-sequiturs or self-serving questions that some of these reporters ask (although again, to be honest, I have definitely asked a decent number of these myself). I laughed out loud yesterday at a question from the New York Times reporter, until I realized that she was the New York Times reporter. Then I shut up.

I am a naturally competitive person (that’s why I got into skiing in the first place), so I am not happy to just stand around and do the same thing that everyone else does and write something pedestrian. Instead, I want to beat them. Journalistically. I mean, this is the Olympics, after all–it’s about competition. In any casing, dominating the other journalists basically entails finding stuff out that nobody else does. Which means that sometimes you have to step away from Johnny Spillane or Billy Demong or someone important, and actually walk around and go find someone else interesting to talk to in the vague hope that they might be able to tell you something that nobody else will. In general, this happens with mixed success, and I definitely have not figured it out yet. I struck out with a couple of Fischer service guys this morning, and a Norwegian staff member this afternoon who just flat-out said “no” when I asked her about Petter Northug and then walked away in an ice-cold manner. But then I got lucky with the Swiss team doctor, and some short dude in a Norwegian team hat who turned out to be the team’s sprint coach (gulp—next time, I’ll know). Fortunately, there’s one thing that’s very helpful in these pursuits: the gigantic credentials that everyone wears around with their names on them. Sometimes that leads to some awkward scenarios, as I’m like trying to sneak up on someone from behind, walk past them, and find a way to stare directly at their chest (where the credential hangs) without them noticing. But for the most part it’s pretty helpful.

That’s about it. Finally, I leave you with this photo of a Slavic journalist (sorry—couldn’t discern his nationality), doing god knows what. We surmised that he may be doing something with radio—at a certain point, as I was having a conversation with a friend nearby, he pulled his head out and gave us a pretty strong glare…

Until next time…

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Games On

From the peaceful paradise that is the Silver Star Resort, Topher and I hopped back in our fully loaded station wagon on Wednesday for the final leg of a very long journey to Whistler.

Before I get going, I need to respond to a comment from my mom on the last post about how my car needed to be fixed. I realized looking back at the last post that my description of the problem with the brakes made it sound a little worse than it actually is-it’s really not that bad. Plus, as Topher reminded me, the periodic alarm bell that goes off on the dashboard is the only thing keeping us awake at the wheel.

From Silver Star we headed back down the valley into Vernon’s unpleasant suburbia. After a quick stop to load up on some non-astronomically-priced food, we continued on our way. I had some coffee, which meant that for a while, the driving was totally kickass.

We were making really good time, ripping along route 97 towards the town/city of Lillooet. We had covered about 75% of the distance and were scoffing at the e-mail warnings we’d received of how the roads into Whistler were “treacherous,” “winding,” etc., until we turned onto the “scenic highway” that is route 99. It was pretty awesome, but it slowed our progress to about 20 miles an hour.

Pretty sweet road...

Pretty sweet road...

Our goal for the evening was to reach Whistler by 8:30 PM, which we figured would give us enough time to attend the “Spyder Media Party” to which all media were invited, and at which they promised that all in attendance would be given free gift bags, and, we really hoped, some dinner. Again, while FasterSkier staff always adhere to rigorous journalistic standards, this was a similar situation to the one I found myself in Germany: Spyder doesn’t make any xc equipment. And we were both hungry.

I think Topher and I both assumed that this place would be totally hopping, and that we’d be able to sneak in, grab a couple of the sandwiches that were awaiting us, and then leave. Surprisingly, when we got there, there were about six other people in the room, total: two Spyder PR people, two other journalists, and an artist who was painting the new Spyder racing suit onto a naked woman. I kid you not:

If you're offended, don't look at this

If you're offended, don't look at this

Needless to say, I didn’t actually notice what was going on when I stepped in the door-I was too focused on the cupcakes. I had a delicious chocolate one with vanilla frosting. At a certain point I turned around to check out the rest of the store where this event was being held, and lo and behold…well, yeah. I turned back around very fast and tried to focus on what the Spyder PR woman was telling us about the conductive capacities of the silver fibers in the new suit. Is this what the Olympics is going to be like? Hm. And then the woman insisted on making things really awkward by spefically POINTING OUT the painted woman behind me, I asked her if I could take a picture, because some things just have to be blogged for posterity. She encouraged me, which made things even weirder. After receiving our sweet gift bags, Topher and I busted the f— out of there back to our condo.

The next day, I got credentialed:

Huge baller credentials

Huge baller credentials

This is pretty sweet for a few reasons. First, it’s legit. Second, note the photo. I think it’s kind of thuggin’. Third, see that infinity symbol on the left? That denotes the infinitely baller status that said credential grants to its bearer: basically, Topher and I can get into any event that we want, save figure skating (woe is us), and the gold medal hockey game (admittedly kind of a bummer, but I’m willing to make the sacrifice). It remains to be seen if we actually have time to go anywhere aside from the nordic events, but in theory, it’s totally sweet.

We spent some time yesterday in the Whistler Media Center, which is sweet, but nothing particularly surprising.

Not impressive

Not impressive

The most notable part is that the Olympic organizers appear to assume that all the journalists at the Olympics are total hacks. Inside each of those boxes are “fast facts” and “flash quotes” from all of the different sports. I suppose if you’re a reporter from a small paper and you’re covering a whole bunch of different events, this stuff could be useful, but it’s also highly inane. Could anyone really use this one-liner from a Lichtensteinian downhiller-“on the Canadians having home course advantage: ‘The Canadians have an advantage here because they have been able to train this one here.'” That’s it. No context. Nothing else on this sheet of paper on Canada having home course advantage or from this guy about anything, whatsoever. Um, cool.

Other tidbits from the media center(s):

–the fact that they want $260 for 14 days of internet access. Wow. And you’re not allowed to use a wireless modem or anything like that, or they cut off your fingers.

–security. We went though kind of an enhanced security screening off the bus in Vancouver-I think it was for people going straight to the opening ceremonies.  Similar to the airport, except the people operating the equipment didn’t seem to have any idea what they were doing. There was a sign on the wall that says explicitly that media are allowed to bring in small quantities of food and drink, but the five people inspecting bags at the end of the conveyer belt were engaged in an extensive debate about whether or not this was actually true. They had pulled out a media gift bag given to an Asian journalist that had chips and gum in it. Eventually they decided that the gum was okay, but the chips had to go. The guy tried to take them back so that he could just eat them right there, but he ended up having to tear them away from the security person-maybe he was hungry and was trying to score some food for himself. Actually, in retrospect, that could have been what was motivating these security screeners all along.

I wasn’t thinking too hard and ended up going through the x-ray with a PB+J sandwich in my bag. Luckly, they didn’t catch me-I’m pretty sure if they had it would have been a bloodbath, or at least a jelly-bath.

An illegal PB+J. Please no one report me.

An illegal PB+J. Please no one report me.

So now I’m ensconced in the press center, trying to actually get some work done. We’ll see. I picked up my ticket for the opening ceremonies this morning from the USOC. They told me to “have fun.” I am not sure that they would have said this to a grizzled veteran, which made me a little bit irritated. But then I thought about it, and though it takes a lot after getting to go to Nationals, Germany, and Canmore, I have to say that I am a bit wide-eyed. I’m not doing anything differently-still walking around the press center with five days of scruff in dirty jeans and a Bowdoin sweatshirt. But I’m walking past people with credentials that say they’re from the AP, BBC, CBC, etc., listening to them asking questions, talk to their editors, and jump over some of the same mundane BS hurdles here that everyone has to. The cool part is that there feels like there will be actual work to do-while few people are going to be reading our coverage of the opening ceremonies, it is pretty exciting to think that there will be a bunch of people who turn to us for the first stuff from the xc races. And if Kris Freeman wins a medal on Wednesday and someone sitting in their house in Iowa does a Google search for his name (assuming they don’t misspell it), they’re going to find us. That’s pretty exciting-now we just have to not screw it up. Sorry for all this emo-weenieness, but this does feel pretty monumental (and yeah, that’s what she said).

More soon!

40 cameras at the press conference about the Georgian luger

40 cameras at the press conference about the Georgian luger.

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