2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #17: Days, Faces and Memories Part 2

Memories and Impressions: (This will be the final post from the 2014 Olympic Games – hopefully I’ll get to do this again in 4 years.)

Mornings on the Black Sea, the Boardwalk, Sun and Friendships: Each morning for 22 days I woke up after somewhere between 3 – 5 hours of sleep, drapes closed, darkness in the room, but the infrared heat from sun on the dark shades radiating energy into the room like embers from a firepit, beckoning. I could sense that just outside the window, the sunlight was dancing on the Black Sea, and that my bike was calling and that there were events to watch, people to meet and conversations to be had. Despite being groggy I could never resist so I’d pop out of bed to go ride the boardwalk on the folding bike.

I can remember just being filled with energy and happiness each day. I had a repeated refrain in my head for these days, “Sleep when you’re dead.” In the early days, before the opening ceremonies, I’d find myself riding alone under the bemused scrutiny of strolling Russian couples, grandfathers and fisherman. However after the games started, there was not a single ride where I didn’t run into, stop, and ride with someone I knew with a shared past. One morning it was a 30 minute discussion with Dan Jansen, the next and several times over, it was Apolo – including one run where he was surrounded by John and Billy Bush. Another day it was Bonnie and then Bonnie and Apolo, the next day Summer Sanders and Ariana Kukors. One grey slightly rainy morning the only two people I saw in the first two hours of the day after covering nearly 20 miles on the bike were Apolo Ohno and Terry Gannon. 5000 miles from home and the only two people I see are the two I sit by and work with every day: so weird. I found Apolo to be at his most talkative while running and we had some eye opening discussions about business and the notion of “scaleability”.

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Black Sea Boardwalk

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Black Sea Boardwalk

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Bonnie and Apolo

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Apolo and Veronika

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Summer and Ariana

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Summer and Ariana

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Dan Jansen

Permission to Speak to Anyone, Anytime: Over the last few Olympics I’ve noticed that there is this “permission” to speak to anyone at anytime about anything, so I vowed to do just that for the full 17 days of the games: no filter. As a slight introvert (yes this is true) this is a bit out of character for me, but the Olympic environment makes all things possible. At one point my great friend Chris Needham gave me a label as I repeatedly spoke to everyone passing by, “Coyle, you’re an ‘Olympics Socialite.’” I also made a point of granting this “permission” to others in a matter of paying it forward.

My friend Chris Needham
My friend Chris Needham

The one and only person to ignore my communication salvos was (of course) Katarina Witt, who I haven’t seen in 8 years since Torino and who failed to recognize me without hair. I knew this because she smiled at me once in the lobby. So one day I asked her for a picture with her but of course she said, “I’m really in a hurry right now – we need to make it quick.” I expected this and played my card, “No no – its fine, maybe some other time.” and tried to walk away.  “No its important so we do it, just have to be fast.” Again I tried to walk away, but she grabs my shoulder. “Hans – hold my bag, Ok – so here we go.” I was so amused that she managed to simultaneously establish that she was too busy for a picture yet demand we take it. ‘Diva at Work!”

Katarina Witt
Katarina Witt

Adler/Sochi/Russia: The people of Sochi, of Russia, by and large seemed just like you and I. Some rich, some poor, mostly middle class. I saw a few “babushkas” around – classically shrunken grandmothers with wizened faces, but mostly everyone was in western dress. Perhaps it is too many Russian novels, but I did sense a bit of pretense, of playing the role of the modern westerner, while a subtle tragedy played on behind the camera. Men drinking beer at 10am, workers drinking vodka at 1am, strident voices and urgent strides, frowns more often than smiles at the Baikal. Some seemed to be racing away from the past or pretending into the future. My first night, after a long walk around the area, I came across some unhappy looking men who were working slowly under bright lights, landscaping the sidewalks near the hotel – pulling out large rocks by hand and laying in soil and gravel. I decided to follow my rule and pitch in without saying anything and after moving a few rocks, one offered vodka from a flask with a smile. Moments later I was toiling side by side with the group of them for a good half hour. I got very dirty, but the grins from the crew made it worth it. They talked incessantly to me despite the fact I had no clue about which that they were speaking. I had invoked rule #1 of the games: Talk to anyone at anytime about anything- even if you don’t speak the language.

completed in one day
Built in one day – fully functioning bar and restaurant w/ outdoor seating

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Typical House

Traditional shared storage building in a commune
Traditional shared storage building
The Olympic Park: What a cataclysmic upheaval of human engineering and sheer will. These edifices, crowned by the greatest Olympic cauldron in history created a stunning backdrop for all the shows, actors, mimes, acting and singing troupes wandering the plaza. The heat of the torch in contrast with the humid wash of the fountain shows set to Tchaikovsky and other famous Russian composers was particularly romantic and compelling after dark with the colored lights. I made a loop around the cauldron almost every day – easily a 20 minute walk, most often alone, marveling at the luck of being at this time and place. Every single time I ended up taking pictures for at least a half dozen people wanting to have a photo with Olympic torch in the background.
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Watching opening ceremonies and the lighting of the torch inside the USA house and then running outside to the fireworks felt just like being a little kid on the fourth of July. The same was true on Feb 23 when the tear left the big teddy bear’s eye and we ran outside to watch flame go out and the sky light up. I could feel the warmth leave the Olympic park. It was hard to see and was very sad, but I did get this amazing photo of Emery and new friend Jonathan Garcia.
IMG_2496IMG_4757Working: Short Track Broadcasts

Race days grew ever more complex and stressful. In Torino my tasks consisted of a few handwritten notes each race and answering questions from the producer and replay crew. In Vancouver I added to that counting laps and coordinating camera replays as well as creating short summaries of key skaters from the NBC provided research. In Sochi I did all that AND assembled custom spreadsheet views of each heat, quarter, semi and final as well as identifying lap times and relay exchanges, identifying penalties and falls, replays, lap times and doing real time stats about “firsts” and “bests”. There were so many crashes and penalties and the judging was very inconsistent so many times I could not give the producer what he wanted which was who got penalized on what lap and for what. I was working at light speed, talking, typing, scribbling, printing, talking on the radio and occasionally jumping up tossing my headset and using my network of other broadcasters, referees, coaches and skaters to clarify or get insight to what just happened – yet still I wasn’t quite keeping up. At one point on Friday the 21st I was assembling a complex spreadsheet and printing the next round of quarter finals for Terry, shouting down to my Bulgarian co-announcers to clarify a previous penalty call, talking on the radio with Rob who was pissed about not knowing who was going to be penalized in a crash (what’s the call!? What’s the call?!), on a separate channel w/ Kevin Brown who wanted to know what lap a crash had happened for replays and scribbling a new tally of potential firsts for Terry and Apolo regarding Ahn and Fontana’s accomplishments, while writing lap times for Apolo to reference the next round. By the time we finished the races on the 21st I was physically shaking with the adrenaline.  Honestly at the end I wondered if I had met or completely failed expectations.

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I didn’t have a speaking role during the races so every day I was trying to find other ways a way to add value. In the end what I tried to do was help the camera crew, producer, director and replay crew understand the true but hidden dynamics of the sport. I created diagrams, powerpoints and pencil sketches showing the nature of the relay, the critical moments in passing, how the starts work, and most importantly analyzed the physics of short track speedskating with the help of my friends Tom Stat, Dave Torgerson, and Scott Evans. I did the initial math using the formula for angular velocity and acceleration but got stuck with the integration of normal gravitational pull. Fortunately between Dave Torgerson (one of the smartest people on the planet and great friend) and then a review by Scott Evans, I knew the work was complete. One of my favorite emails EVER was from Scott, who, after reviewing the math shared the following: “I was a physics major at Stanford.If you want any calculations done, I’ll be happy to do them for you. Just ask!” Oh and then he shared, “I do work at the Jet propulsion laboratory for NASA” – making him a rocket scientist. By doing this work I was then able to parlay it into 3 TV “features” – small vignettes with TV personalities to add interest to the regular coverage – 1 with Summer Sanders, 1 with Ariana Kukors and 1 with Jeremy Bloom. These made me feel one step closer to being “talent” but without all the burden of working 24/7.

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Teaching Jeremy to skate
Teaching Jeremy to skate

THE HOUSES:

The “houses” are the secret party places of the Olympics. Each country with a large retinue has a “house” where athletes, Olympians (current and former) and sponsors can go and meet, eat, and have various receptions and meetings. There’s the USA house, Canada House, Holland House, Swiss House, Austria House, Russia house etc, and then there are houses by pure sponsors – Omega house,  P&G House, Visa house, Budweiser “Dome” etc. The King of all houses is the IOC house (International Olympic Committee). In previous years I made a point of trying to get to as many as possible and in previous years the Bud “Dome” was the primary place to see and be seen. But in Russia there was no Bud house and word on the street was that the other houses were pretty boring so I only bothered with two houses: the USA house and the Holland House (though I did got to the stuffy IOC house twice).

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The passes to the secret houses and parties

The Holland House: I’d be remiss if I failed to mention one of the world’s greatest parties. The Dutch love speedskating. The Dutch love beer. The Dutch are unpretentious, tall, slightly awkward and dance mostly by jumping straight up and down. They are so warm and inviting and happy and goofy. If I’m ever to enter a dance club again, these are my people. After their amazing medals presentations described in previous posts, a famous DJ comes out, a pair latex clad dancers arrive, and then the bass builds and the place gets hopping – literally. 500 Nederlanders jumping straight up and down at the whims of the DJ. This is the hardest ticket in town – but due to writing an article about the experience and then getting 4 tickets for the director of the house to the main event in short track I was able to enter pretty much as I wished more or less. I came 5 times and 3 of those visits stood in back on the press pedestal just watching and enjoying, but the final visits found me down on the floor jumping up and down with my friends like everyone else.

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Holland House DJ

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Holland House DJ, Dancers and Jumpers

The USA House: This domicile is ever the heart of the Olympic experience. A safe place in a foreign land, with (mostly) American food, open bar and a constant parade of olympians – current and former. Yes, sure, sponsors and others squeeze in around the edges, but the excitement amongst the large throng of retired olympians is to see the newly minted athletes arrive after their competitions and to catch up with people who have a shared an experience unique in the world. Tables, chairs, couches, even phone lockers to charge your phones, this dwelling is the perfect place to be. Large screen TV’s play all the live coverage, and then each evening the Order of Ikkos award is granted to the coaches of the medalists. I went every single day – usually multiple times as it was right in the Olympic park on the way to my venue and just behind the cauldron. For a week the volunteer staff were GWU students that I had spoken to as well. The USA Nike/Polo store was here as well and I eagerly awaited the final days for the fire sale that took place in Torino and Vancouver and, alas, on the final day I entered a store that had NOTHING left. They had let all the Russians in from the park in to shop and they had picked the place clean. I’m glad I had bought my shiny chrome jacket the first week. Most days I took pictures with someone famous:

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IMG_4679The USA Short Track Team

IMG_4675         JR CelskiIMG_3188Willy O’ReillyIMG_3189    Steven Bradbury – last man standingIMG_3135Summer Sanders

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Bonnie BlairIMG_3125Short Track Boys deciding whether to do the Order of Ikkos w/ ParenIMG_3008Nancy Kerrigan – 20 years later

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Palm Trees

IMG_2848Joey Cheek and Ariana KukorsIMG_2830Jason BrownIMG_2827Dan JansenIMG_2808Shelby, SuzieIMG_2807Summer’s nailpolishIMG_2775Kristie Yamaguchi   IMG_2570Emery LehmanIMG_2528 Patrick Meek1926023_10152307963594772_396840053_oAlex Izykowski, Mike Koorman1669861_10152307963959772_1998983848_oShort Track Silver!1653698_10151959811712686_1200750375_nShort Track Order of Ikkos

Remembering a Day of “Really Living” – Full days and Nights:

I guess my whole life has been spent trying to get more done in less time (more strokes, more laps, more miles, more rpms, more work.) I felt the same at the games – trying to compress as much as possible into the limited window of 17 days between opening and closing ceremonies. Almost every day I ended up running several miles, an activity I hate, from one place to another in order to not miss something. Here’s just one sample of one of many, many, full days.

February Something-th: After waking at 8am after 4 hours sleep, I dressed in my cycling clothes and rode to the boardwalk, riding 30mins hard near to the Georgian border and then, seeing Apolo, riding another easy 30 mins beside Apolo who was running. We talked about his business, my work, the races. Returning to my room, I dressed and headed to the USA house for breakfast, seeing a few good friends like Ariana Kukors, Alex Izykowski, Tommy O’Hare or Chris Needham inside. This day I had to do all this early as I had to give a speech at the IBC to a group of 35 or so George Washington University grad school students at about 10am studying sports marketing. The speech went well and immediately after, at 11:30 I reported to the Iceberg Arena for the short track production meeting.

After the production meeting, I assembled the research, approved the graphics icons and language, guided the camera crew on what to watch for and then from 1:30 – 3:00 watched races with Apolo and Terry, Rob and the crew. On the headset I counted laps, clarified penalties, identified passes and skaters, suggested replays and clarified rules. Ahn wins and the crowd goes crazy. Apolo and Terry nail it. It flies by. By 3:30pm we wrap up and I’m off to long track to watch the men’s races. I walk the 600m to Adler Arena where I stand in the booth with my great friend Wilf O’Reilly and watch Emery Lehman, a 17 old from Chicago I coached until a year ago, get 16th place in the world. After his race I walk around the cauldron, taking pictures, the one mile journey to the USA house and sit with Emery and his mom Marcia and dad Dave and have dinner and a glass of wine. They are so very happy – 17yrs old and 16th in the world. We marvel at the journey, the incredible luck and honor to be here. We watch an Ikkos award by a Sage Kotsenburg. Everyone is moved. I meet Patrick Meek, Emery’s main US competition and his beautiful girlfriend Siena. I’m inspired to write them both a note and hand it to them before I leave. They are surprised and grateful.

I walk to Baikal and navigate the supermodel gauntlet. Inside I find Apolo, Steven, Wilf, Stephen Gough, Alex. My favorite people. We tell stories. One night we have a Callis appreciation night regaling each other with the whims and whimsies of my great friend Chris Callis including stories of the month he spent living out of his car in San Diego at the beach with a welcome mat just outside the rear door of his car.

I leave and head to figure skating which is 2/3′s over, but the best yet to come. I visit the booth and can see Johnny and Tara as well as Scott and Sandra and Tom doing dual coverage and then move up into the stands seeking Paul and Cheryl Davis and Jaqui White. I find them and sit directly in front of them as the few remaining pairs line up for the short program. Cheryl leans forward and rubs my shoulders, “You are our good luck charm.” I haven’t missed an Olympic event with them.  Finally Meryl and Charlie come out and KILL IT. I hug the moms, take some pictures and then hoof it to the train station, running the whole 2 miles to make the train, where I head up to the mountains, arriving to moguls just before midnight to see the final few runs and joining Suzie, Summer, Josette, Tim and Joao in the snow environs of Rhosa Khutor. By 2am I’m back down mountain and tired, but as I walk through the lobby of the Azimut hotel, there they are – friends old and new yelling my name, “Coyle! Get over here!”. Wilf, Bradbury, Suzie, Josette, Tim, Ariana and others. I sit. I vow “just 15 minutes and 1/2 glass of wine.” Suzie splits a glass of wine with me.

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Good Times at the Azimut w/ Tim, Joao, Shelby, Suzie, Josette, Shannon, Stephen Gough

3 hours and 4 times a 1/2 glass of wine later I stumble up to my room at 5:15am and throw myself at my bed. Still… only a few hours later, the next morning at 9 am I can feel the sun calling through the shades so I pull them aside.

The sun is shining over the dappled waves of the Black Sea and my bike is waiting, so I pull it off the balcony and get dressed…

Departure and Re-entry.  Sochi was 22 of the best days of my life, surrounded by old friends of more than 20 years with shared experiences, stories and real empathy and understanding for such an intense existence and all the highs and lows of trying to be an Olympic athlete. We were leaving the “bubble” as we called it – the secure zone, the safe zone, the place where you can talk to anyone, where smiles abound and friends feel free to say, “we love you (John Coyle)” again and again upon sight at arrivals to the USA house, events or meeting spots. Slowly I found myself drawn into the same emotiveness and I found myself saying again and again, “This is why I love (name here) because you see, (Story here of a shared experience).”  A lot of love goes around and you learn the greetings for each country. Hugs for the USA, one kiss for the Russians, two kisses for the Europeans and French Canadians. The Dutch – 3 kisses – left, right, left.

Is it all a hypomanic dreamworld fueled by contagious goodwill and proximity to greatness? Yes. Of course it is, but who wouldn’t choose this? Is it short lived, temporary? Yes, naturally.

Do the memories store like a ultra high density camera even as time flies by? Yes they do and that memory bank creates a sense of expanded time like no other. This is “really living” at its best.

Is it shallow, fake? No. No it isn’t because like all “true” friendships these relationships pick up without a beat 4 years later. Time expands and contracts in the gymnastics only found in meaningful relationships. I truly miss my friends, but I rest assured that when I see them next, no time will be lost and everything restarts only with a few more wrinkles.

The challenge is, how to re-enter “real life”? What did I learn this time out, what lessons were imported through this experience? This time its not so clear. I did some things wrong. This was a micro of my macro. I tried to pack too much in, was constantly running, running, running. I had trouble, early on in particular of “being in the moment.” I was a little too much the observer and planner vs. the participant – and only at the end, in the last five days did I just simply sit and talk, dance and walk, swim without much consideration for the “plan.”

Ever sitting in the consciousness is the possibility that I’ll never be invited back, that each day was the last. Perhaps everyone feels this way hence the avoidance of sleep in the final days. “Sleep when you’re dead.”

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Sad Moments in the Airport Terminal Leaving Sochi

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #17: Days, Faces and Memories Part 1

(This will be the second to last post as I try and recall and wrap up the best moments of the games. This is the first of two, warning part 2 will likely be sappy)

the one picture I waited the whole trip for: the Black Sea Plunge

The $120.00 Cappuccino:

On race days the producers, talent and myself would hold our pre-race “production FAX” meeting at the 5 star “talent hotel” – the Radisson Blu about 1/2 mile south of my hotel. After Apolo and Rob and Pierre and Terry had left and on the morning of the last day of racing I stayed behind at the hotel restaurant sipping coffee and assembling the mens 500m semis on my laptop. After an hour or so I asked the waitress for a cappuccino as they had taken away the coffee pot from the table. A short time later I stood up to leave and the hostess told me I would need to pay since I didn’t stay at the hotel. I quickly realized I had no money, but sitting one table over was Ted Morris – Executive Director of USA speedskating. I asked him if he could put the bill for the coffee on his room and I’d pay him back. “Sure – no problem – you don’t need to pay me, how much can a cappuccino be?” I thanked him and walked off.

Boy was he surprised… the next day, I was chagrined to find out that my cappuccino had somehow expanded to include full lunch buffets and other assorted items and that the tab was $120. Ted had tried to fight it, but didn’t really know what I had ordered or maybe it was for the whole crew I had been with – so he paid it. So at the USA house the next day I gave Ted 4000 rubles to purchase the single most expensive cappuccino in the world. Before I arrived, Ted had asked my friends, “Uh, this John – does he do this often?”

Vodka shots and Caviar at… the Grocery Store

Early in the games after realizing that a glass of wine at the hotel was $15, I sought and found a small market near to the hotel. After a bike ride I purchased 3 bottles of wine and put them in my back pockets of my jersey. The silver and gold toothed ladies in the red shirts working found this amusing and the next thing I knew one of them had my hat, gloves, headphones and sunglasses on holding onto my bike for a picture.

Fast forward 2 weeks and I went into the store right at closing to buy another bottle of wine and the sign said “closed.” I knocked anyway and they quickly ushered me in and then around back to where there was a small table, bread, salmon eggs, cucumbers, chicken cutlet, vodka, shot glasses and some sort of orange flavored chaser. They wouldn’t take no for an answer so 20 minutes and several vodka shots later I extricated myself. Similar story happened the night of the short track party – walking outside of the restaurant to the outdoor seating to find my missing friends, a group of Russian hockey fans literally trapped me and would not let me go until I joined them for a shot of vodka. I don’t even like vodka.

 

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Club Baikal – Supermodel Service:

Baikal is a restaurant / bar found within the bubble that we didn’t discover until a week into the games. Apolo was particularly fond of this luxurious place in the early goings. The food was excellent, the staff – gorgeous supermodels, and the service…. absolutely horrendous. Getting served was a gymnastic exercise and sometimes just getting inside was like climbing Everest. We scheduled a short track reunion party there under my name, inviting more than 30 Olympians in in the process I quickly grew to hate the place.

Baikal catered primarily to wealthy Russian men and no amount of other collateral would sway the stilletto heeled women manning the door and hostessing the seats. It all came to a head when the reservation I had made for 25 short track speedskaters was arrogantly ignored. Half the group was inside when the other 10 arrived and were promptly denied entrance. “They cannot come in – it is full,” she says. I looked around and every other table was empty, the place was cavernously hollow with the lack of people. “Full?! This place is empty!” “It is full,” says the supermodel with compete conviction. We move to the door where a host of olympic speedskaters were standing in the cold, annoyed. “Those people right there – they represent 10 countries and probably 20 Olympic medals – they are very important.” Unmoved, her response was infuriating “Everyone here important – athlete, politician, rich – doesn’t matter, we are full.” I switched to a different supermodel to no avail. “You have reservation?” she asks. “Yes! I have a reservation!.”  “Doesn’t matter, we are full, they cannot come in.” Finally with the help of one of the nicer girls the manager came over and she was at least attempting to hear me and I let her have it in a 2 minute rant loud enough for everyone to hear.

Eventually we were able to get everyone in, but after that moment I swore I would never go inside Baikal again and I didn’t. Later that evening there was an amusing moment as I was telling the group what had happened and as part of the story I pointed with emphasis to each of the hostesses and said loudly “and I don’t like her. This one I don’t like either. That one I hate!” reserved for the worst of them, a brunette named Ala. Alex turns to me and says, “you realize they all saw you pointing at them” and I said, “that’s exactly the point.”

I did return a few days later and sat outside on the deck with Wilf O’Reilly and Steven Bradbury. Before they arrived the most terrible hostess Ala came up and stood there glowering at me, not saying anything. I looked her straight in the face and said, “yes, I still don’t like you!” She turned and stalked off yelling over her shoulder, “I don’t care!” It was awesome. (see pictures below)

 

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Club Baikal

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At Baikal w/ Apolo and WilfIMG_4526Short track party

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Club Baikal in the background

The Black Sea Plunge.

From day one I intended to do the Black Sea Plunge and announced it to others repeatedly to gauge interest. “On the last night, I’m going to swim in the Black Sea at midnight – are you in?” The responses varied from “uh, why?….” to  “Hell yeah, I’m in!” The first two people to say they were in was Summer Sanders and then Ariana Kukors – so with two Olympic swimmers I figured I wouldn’t drown, and Tony was next (military special forces, probably CIA) so I figured we’d be safe. So Erik, Tim, Tony, Suzie, Josette, Tom, Izzy, Alexis, Shelby, and Jeremy all said they were in as well.

Since Summer was leaving a few days early we tried and failed to schedule a window during the day for her but couldn’t make it work with people’s various social engagements. We were running out of time, but, sure enough at 4am on Jan 24th, our last morning in Sochi, 3 hours before our airport bus pickup, 8 of us headed out and implemented the plan. Wearing bathrobes and slippers we sat in the bar as the group assembled and then made our way out to the rocky shore, passing through the hotel lobby blaring “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC on a Jambox to the bemused smiles of Russian partiers and hotel staff.

Exiting the hotel with a photographer in tow wearing one of my powerful LED headlamps, we then proceeded to the shoreline to a) take shots of chili infused vodka and b) eat slices of Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper – the world’s hottest chili – in order to heat up our insides in prep for the 39 degree water. All went according to plan and shortly thereafter as the “leader” of this escapade I ran across the rocks and into the water first, splashing all the way in until I couldn’t touch bottom screaming with the cold. I turned, excited to see my comrades splashing in besides me and realized that they were still 100yards off, picking their way very, very slowly across the rocks. I was dying. I treaded water for one minute, then two. I lost feeling in my limbs, so I swam forward so that I could at least stand. Finally 3 or 4 minutes later, everyone was in and we got our Black Sea Plunge photo. Tim, Erik, Josette, Tony, Alexis – love you guys – we will always share this moment. (see pictures below)

 

The fuel: Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Peppers and chili infused vodka

The fuel: Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Peppers and chili infused vodka

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notice the lovers

notice the lovers

stylin' through the lobby in russian style

stylin’ through the lobby in russian style

"thunderstruck" by AC/DC

“thunderstruck” by AC/DC. Why? It was the first loud song I found

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(The pain of the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion Pepper!)

Seriously - this is why I froze - tenderfoots couldn't walk on the rocks

Seriously – this is why I froze – tenderfoots couldn’t walk on the rocks
the one picture I waited the whole trip for: the Black Sea Plunge
the one picture I waited the whole trip for: the Black Sea Plunge
success
success

Katarina Witt

Every single interaction over the years with Katarina Witt has been a bad one. In Lillehammer I explained figure skating to her not realizing who she was until she whipped off her hat and said, “You’d think I’d know!” A year later and Kristi Yamaguchi gave me a flower under spotlights rink-side at a Stars on Ice show that they both starred in and afterward at the bar, Katarina announced loudly “not with him” when asked to join us and refused to sit with us. Years later in Torino we knocked over a metal barrier in the hotel she was staying at at about 4am and she came down wearing nothing but a fur coat and yelled at me “Vat is all this noise!!? Vat are you doingk?!!! People are sleeping!! Stop!!”.

So it was with some amusement that my first night at the Azimut 4 hotel I see her in the lobby and start chuckling. That night absolutely no joke, I open my computer and right in “Finder” I see that her entire computer and all her files are somehow wirelessly linked right onto my desktop. Never in my life has this happened – and of all people why her?

What are the odds, in all the world that one person at the Olympics who dislikes me, somehow her computer just magically shows up on my desktop? Later Steven Bradbury told me he had access to my computer the same way – weird.

Katarina Witt
Katarina Witt – I had to take a picture – clearly she didn’t recognize me w/out hair

 

Other Funny Moments:

  • Exploring the sleek modern marble hotel spa and finding the “stuff only” rooms. I asked if I could put my bag in there. (see pics below)

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  • Summer and Suzie turning the USA house into a disco with their reckless enthusiasm
Summer and Suzie get the USA house going

Summer and Suzie get the USA house going

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Summer photo bomb
Summer Sanders photo bomb at Holland House
At holland house w/ Steven Bradbury, Suzy, Summer, Josette and Shelby
At holland house w/ Steven Bradbury, Suzy, Summer, Josette and Shelby
  • Obtaining passes to the USOC house – hottest ticket in town – from Tommy O’Hare and sitting down to a nice meal w/ Stephen Bradbury, only to received this for the salmon and gruyer platter…. thumb sized sandwiches
It sounded so fancy and filling... the IOC house

It sounded so fancy and filling… the IOC house

  • Letting Tommy know we missed him through a 4 finger salute after he left
Tommy - we love you

Tommy – we love you

  • Riding one morning, joining Apolo and two dudes I didnt’ know. After intros of Billy and Johnny Bush, I started asking Billy if he was in media. Apolo says “he IS media.” I apologized and told him I don’t watch TV. Turns out he is the host for Access Hollywood and cousin to George W. Bush. As I rode off he yells, “go Johnny go!”

Billy and Johnny Bush and Apolo

  • The super high speed train to the mountains, that went 10km/hr for the first 35 minutes and then 120km/hr for the last 15 – why? No one knows
  • One day on my bike ride I noticed some men laying the foundation for a platform of some sort. By that evening there was a completely functioning restaurant / bar with tables, and kitchen, and a fully stocked bar. Must have been 30 people working on it all day. Amazing.
completed in one day
completed in one day
  • Doing the TV shoots w/ Summer Sanders, Ariana Kukors and Jeremy Bloom. The Summer shot was totally last second – “hey can we put you on camera?” The Jeremy shoot was my idea that I pitched – so cool to see it happen and he was a blast.
Jeremy Bloom
Jeremy Bloom
Teaching Jeremy Bloom to skate
Teaching Jeremy Bloom to skate
Teaching Jeremy to skate
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Teaching Jeremy to skate
TV w/ Jeremy
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Ad hoc shoot w/ Summer

Ad hoc shoot w/ Summer

  • Bonnie Blair. Bonnie is the sweetest, nicest person you could meet. But at the USA house, with a couple glasses of wine and the whole speedskating program getting ground beneath the Dutch skating machine, she didn’t mince words, especially about the “whiny babies” on the team complaining about the suits and the ice. Loved it – go Bonnie Go!

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bonnie blair
bonnie blair
  • My Great friend Alex Izykowski and his Wizard of Oz folding bike (dut da-dut da-da da) – zipping circles around the olympic park and one night, the US trainer, riding Jenny Walters standing on the bike rack on the back – stoic like a charioteer.

s:

Jenny Walter riding chariot style
Jenny Walter riding chariot style
Alex and his bike
Alex and his bike
Alex and his bike
Alex and his bike

IMG_4443 IMG_4447Alex, Apolo, Wilf, Steven

Sleep, Please?! Tomorrow. No, Wait, I’ll Sleep on the Plane. No, Wait…

In the last few days, everyone was wanting to connect, to make sure they didn’t miss a moment – to “really live” the final moments of the games up to the sad moment of closing ceremonies and the extinguishing of the flame. I got 3 hours of sleep on the night of the 20th, 2 hours on the 21st, 2 hours on the 22nd, and the night of the 23rd, zero hours. That was the night of the Black Sea plunge. After the Black Sea swim I finished gathering my belongings and headed down to get on the bus at 7am. I was hazy and disorganized. I proceeded to leave my phone on the bus, and then other items in the bin at security at the airport and then stood swaying in the terminal and waited with Apolo and Ariana 2.5 hours until we began boarding. As we walked out of the terminal a wave of sadness rolled over me. It was over. No more of the world’s greatest contests surrounded by people whose intense shared experiences with me go back 25 years. No more permission to speak to anyone at anytime about anything. No more USA house, Holland house, late night conversations and morning rides in the sun along the boardwalk.

I was nostalgic for the recent past and already curious and hopeful for Peongchang 2018. at 11am I filed onto the plane excited to do nothing other than sleep. I settled in in row 44A, closed my eyes and we took off. Thirty minutes later the “bing” of reaching cruising altitude roused me from the beginnings of sleep, and then the announcement, “ladies and gentlemen – your flight attendants have rolled the bar carts into each aisle and galley and cleared out: it is open bar until we reach NYC.” Moments later half the plane was up talking and laughing and try as I might I couldn’t sleep. There was a lot of noise and laughter in the back so I got up to see what all the commotion was all about. In the back I was immediately recruited into some odd dice game with a pair of stewardesses a few producers including Bobby V. from Chicago and a news anchor from Atlanta named Jay Watson. We started w/ Moet champagne but swiftly moved to stronger stuff. 11 hours later we landed in the good old USA and I still had not slept. The whole plane smelled like a bar. The whole plane WAS a bar. I figured I had 7 hours sleep in 5 days. I was vibrating all over with tiredness and some bits of fear and sadness. I arrived home at 8pm Monday night, and 12 hours later was sitting at my desk at work staring down 457 unread emails. I still have not fully recovered four days later…  (see pictures below)

At the airport w/ Apolo and Ariana
At the airport w/ Apolo and Ariana
Weird gambling dice game w/ the stewardesses
Weird gambling dice game w/ the stewardesses
Jay and Bobby V - owning the galley
Jay and Bobby V – owning the galley

 

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #16: The Secret Ceremonies of the Olympic Games

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Perhaps some of the greatest moments of the games are held behind closed doors and reserved for a select few to witness. These “secret ceremonies” have evolved because Olympic officials are following the golden rule of business: “know thy customer.” If the Olympics are big business (they are, NBC paid $4.4 billion for the next 4 games including Sochi) then it is essential to know just who the “customer” is. As it turns out there are 4 segments of declining size, but increasing impact in Olympic sport: 1) fans – the largest, 2) competitors, 3) coaches, family and support, 4) medal winners. These secret ceremonies have come to be in order to better serve segments 3) and 4). In order to fully understand why and how we must first debunk some conventional wisdom about the medals ceremony.

There’s a traditional notion of the ultimate moment at the Olympics – the athlete finishes the race or competition and chest heaving, brilliantly lit white breath coming from their lips they march down the red carpet and bend their neck to receive the weight of Olympic metal.

The montages we see on TV and read about from the carefully reconstructed narratives in the media suggest that in this singular moment, all the hopes and dreams and fears and joys come to fruition in one scintillating moment of pride and joy. The victor raises his or her arms and the journey is complete.

The reality is that this is narrative fallacy. The first reason it is a false is because it is nearly impossible for an athlete who has had tunnel vision and a relentless focus on an end goal to come to grips with the sheer impact of the moment and the years, even decades of training and sacrifice it took to get there in just a few minutes after the race. The second reason it is a false construct is because there has been innovation in an unexpected place for this important medalist segment – how to give Olympic medals and create an experience – and the simple reality is they no longer receive their medals the same day as their performance. This is for good reason. As a medalist myself, it is common for me to be asked “what was it like to stand on the podium at the olympics” and for a long time I kept the false narrative alive, “it was amazing to finally reach my goal. I was so grateful etc. etc.” Then I finally assented to the truth.  Here’s the painfully honest answer, “Actually I wasn’t really present. My mind was so stuck in the future that it immediately wandered, ‘should I keep skating? I’m 25 yrs old and have no income, but… I didn’t achieve my goal.’ ‘I wonder if I’ll get drug tested – I hope not, I don’t have to pee…” I wasn’t present at all and mostly missed the moment. In talking with other athletes, – particularly first timers, this appears to be more the rule than the exception.

Enter customer experience innovation for segment four – the medalists. The medals ceremony is no longer done this way. Yes, the athletes march down the red carpet, chests still heaving from the effort but now it is the “flowers ceremony” where they receive… flowers. The medals, as it turns out, must wait – usually almost exactly 24 hours.

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Charlie and Meryl Davis Flowers Ceremony

At the winter Olympics, athletes no longer receive their medals at the venue immediately after their event – Instead, the athletes are given 24 hours to ponder, to let it all sink in, to hear from friends and family, schoolmates and coaches from around the world before they step on stage to stand on the podium. Instead of an echoing half-filled arena, there are now tens of thousands of fans in a central location. It is like a rock concert. It IS a rock concert – immediately on the heels of the awards presentation big name bands begin to play and the party goes on until the wee hours. (pic – the real medals ceremony) Not for the medalists though, for athletes of most countries they still have another ceremony. Holland and USA in particular have created experiences to help segments 3 and 4 (medalists AND family/coaches/support) to breakthrough the tunnel vision that led them to this outcome and help bring perspective on the scale of their accomplishments.

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Actual Medals Ceremony – Olympic Park

Hans Erik Tuijt is the Global Activation Director for Heineken and has been instrumental in evolving the post competition awards process for the Dutch athletes. For their (many) Dutch medalists, they have designed and created an experience for the medalists, their families and fans that is truly magical. A few hours or up to a day after the event, Dutch medal winners and their families arrive to the Holland Heinken House – a dwelling constructed just for this event – where they have a private room to relax, have some food or something to drink, talk, watch the games and decompress. (pic Holland house exterior, family area).

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Holland Heineken House

athlete room

Hans Erik shows me the athlete room

Somewhere around 10pm, the magic begins. Out in the main space, hundreds of Dutch fans have assembled in their brilliant royal orange clothes and after listening to a live band for a few hours, the lights change and go dark, the music changes, and the energy begins to build. Inside, a man on a milling machine works furiously to complete a metal plaque with the winner’s name and achievement.  (pic band playing, man w/ milling machine)

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“We designed it for impact – for the athletes, for their families, for their fans.” With piece of music designed specifically for the moment, a deep beat begins and an escalating instrumental and electronic theme emerges. A popular TV host appears and as each wave of sound and drums and bass rolls over the crowd the host uses the music and energy to whip the crowd into a manic frenzy. Then, just at the crescendo, the moment comes as designed: with a brilliant flash of light, a door at the end of the hall opens and – arms raised – in comes the hero, the medalist. Simultaneously a hidden host of workers in the house forms a human chain and linking together pulls the crowd back allowing a lane to emerge, the “legendary lane,” filled with plaques celebrating each of the previous medalists. In time with a change of music the athlete walks through the parted “orange sea” and on up to the stage in a cataclysmic release of energy and pure emotion from the fans and the family members who have a seat at the front of the stage. (pic – the moment of impact) There the athlete, often in a fit of emotion shares a brief story of their journey and finds words sometimes in tears to thank those that helped them arrive in this moment.  Last night Holland swept the mens 10,000meters and so bronze, then silver, then gold made their grand entrances.  Here’s the theme music: http://www.tribecompany.com/

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A parallel, quieter yet perhaps even more emotional ceremony takes place each night at the USA house. No media, no throngs of fans, only Olympic athletes – current and past, coaches and close family are allowed in the hallowed cloisters of the USA house to witness the presentation of the “Order of Ikkos.” (pic – Ikkos medals)

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ImageOrder of Ikkos Medals

The athletes arrive late, flushed from all the excitement, medals still around their necks. But their miens are serious. In the past 24 hours they have been given the chance to let their success sink in. They have also been granted that same amount of time to think about all the people that helped them get there – all the sacrifices of others in order for them to have this moment. This elegant transposition takes the form of granting a medal themselves, the “Order of Ikkos” award to the one person that helped them the most. The thundering drumbeat of pride is set against the shattering humility of gratitude creating an emotional crescendo like no other. As they begin to speak, the gravity of the moment hangs thick in the air. Voices husky with emotion the halting inadequate words come and inevitably bring a waterfall of tears – from the athlete, the Ikos recipient, and every eye in the house. This is perhaps the most hallowed moment in all of sport.

Mikaela Shiffrin Gives the IkkosOutside the party goes on, new competitions are held and the customer experiences for fans, athletes, families, and medalists are complete.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #15: The Single Greatest Event at the Olympics

download In terms of live events, tomorrow is the single greatest event at the Olympics.

Figure skating has artistry and camera work, costumes and color. Slope-style has the dizzying heights, brilliant sun, and amazing gyroscoping of the athletes 3, 4, 5 seconds in the air – for TV these and others are the glamor sports – great on film with awesome replays.

Short track, with its standard uniforms, fluorescent lights and indoor location looks a bit flat on TV. But… In the venue it is all action and mayhem, volume and noise in a tightly contained space where athletes trade spaces of inches and travel speeds in excess of 30mph on razor sharp blades making turns harder than jet fighters, crashing, crashing and crashing again until the winner, sometimes ejected from the mayhem emerges.

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Anyone who has been to an olympics and pretty much anyone else knows that tomorrow is the one ticket for the games if you want to leave having the penultimate olympic experience: “thrills and chills” and the “agony of defeat.” Is it unpredictable, often unfair, surprising and full of upset? Of course it is and what does all that do for the drama, the excitement and energy? It drives it, it makes the crowd manic, particularly when the home country (Vancouver/Canada ’10) and (Sochi/Russia ’14) is a driving force in the results.

The last few days the Olympic park is abuzz – everyone know knows the spectacle of short track now. In about one hour tomorrow night, the men’s 500m gold medal, womens 1000m gold medal and the men’s 5000m relay gold medal will be decided. There are FIVE teams are in the relay final, 20 men on the ice battling and it will come down to a duel between USA and Russia for the Gold. I expect USA to win but will be close and the Russian fans will WILL Ahn to the victory if they can – he’s the anchor for Russia and JR Celski will be the anchor for USA

I’ll be wearing earplugs this time… After Vancouver my ears rang for 2 days (and I’ve been to a lot of rock concerts with no problem).

2014 Olympic Games - Short Track Speed Skating 1500m

Make sure to tune in, or if you are here in Sochi let me know – I MIGHT be able to help you get you a ticket!

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #14: Days, Rhythm and Places

Friends back home ask “what is it like to be at the Olympics” and so I’ll try to describe it. Things have been busier here than the prior 2 Olympics that I worked for NBC – in some part because it is almost entirely a new team – new producer, new “talent,” graphics etc. But now that we are in the thick of competition and most of the research and prep has been done things are calming down and I’ve had some free days to establish my pattern from prior games – specifically, riding my bike, working, walking and talking, watching events and writing when time permits.

On race days, my day is pretty set – I wake up 9-ish, dress for riding in the 50+ degree weather, head out for a short 45-60 minute ride along the Black Sea boardwalk and then return to dress for the event.

The Boardwalk: just behind my hotel is a long brick paved path for running and riding along the Black Sea. I typically head out at 9. By 10:30 I return, change, shower and make my way through the heavy security right out front of the hotel and into “the bubble” as everyone refers to the secure area where all the venues are. I arrive to the venue by 11:30. Racing has been starting 1:30 or 2:00 but our production meetings have been at 11:30.

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Production meetings: Our producer is NFL football producer Rob Hyland, and director Pierre Moussa – they are serious and want everything to be perfect. We meet in the trailer in the compound of vehicles and trucks and march through the days schedule. I occasionally pipe in. I’ve made various graphics and guides for them to know what to expect. I wrote a series of articles for them and then created a set of drawings and powerpoints that they have turned into animatics or graphics that show up on TV. We do the same with the camera and replay crews and I talk more there – I’ve pushed them to go wide angle w/ 6 laps to go and created a rough sketch of how to know when passes happen. Also, and I think I’ve definitely seen the fruits of this effort, I’ve pushed them to zoom in and to capture the “pivotal moment” in the apex of the turn with close-in views of the blades slicing through the ice. My goal is to get all the basics done and add value by thinking of things no one has considered. In general I’ve been better at the latter than the former. At my first Olympics the executive producer told me as a caution, “John, they are going to scream at you -  call you names, curse you. If and when you get fired, keep working. If you get fired twice, keep working. If you get fired three times, call me.” I’ve been working in that spirit since and so far so good.

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Racing: After the production meetings we head up to the booth. I create spreadsheets of each heat with the racers and all their stats and stories for Terry and Apolo in a rather ungraceful spreadsheet that I’m constantly updating/changing. I send the completed heats to the compound where a runner brings them back to us in the venue – the “iceberg”.  During the races my job is seemingly simple: count laps for the producer/director/graphics/rewind crew in the truck, queue replays and rewinds, identify specific contact and potential penalties, identify names/colors/numbers and try to find good “soundbites” for Terry and Apolo. In the relays I also indicate which side the relay exchange is happening. In between races I update all the spreadsheets and resend them down to the compound where they are printed and a runner runs them back up. It is fast paced and hectic. I have not yet been fired this Olympics but did hear one of the graphics guys go off on me when I got something wrong, “that’s why I have a f*#@ing stats guy – WTF!” Still it is all short tempers and quick forgiveness.

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The Venues: It is hard to overestimate the sheer scale of the Olympic Plaza – on paper an through the limited perspective of a human eye walking towards them what you see is 7 or 8 large buildings nestled close together but as it turns out it is a 10 minute walk from one to the other and more than an hour to circle the park. The torch itself is of incredible scale – impossibly large and hot – you can feel the heat when you get close, can’t imagine the amount of MMBTU’s used per hour to keep that thing going. The environment is exhilarating – thousands of people all in a good mood taking pictures and more and more athletes now as they finish up, walking around in their colors. There is a band or music playing in the ampitheater all day and night and dozens of other shows and costumes and attractions, dancers, singers, jugglers, mimes, stilt walkers. On the sunny days I sat and watched people for hours in the sun – I actually have a tan. After racing I usually walk past the cauldron and then head to the USA house…

IMG_4486 IMG_4481 the scale is incredible - they play water fountain tchaikovsky ballet IMG_4477 IMG_4475 IMG_4474  IMG_4391 IMG_4386 IMG_2706 IMG_2704 IMG_2701 IMG_2700 IMG_2687 IMG_2684  IMG_2681

The USA house (and others): This is the gift that keeps giving: make an Olympic team and for the rest of your life during an Olympics if you are an olympian (“never former, never past”) you can visit the USA “house”. The “houses” are a series of dwellings/spaces – basically hospitality suites – that countries (USA. HOLLAND, CANADA, RUSSIA, AUSTRIA, SWISS ETC) build/buy to have daily meals and receptions and smooze sponsors. I spend several hours a day on average at the USA house. This is also where some of the “secret ceremonies” are held including the Ikkos award. Every few minutes an Olympian (active or retired) walks in and everyone can talk to everyone. Its just a joy to be there and reconnect with old competitors, friends, and meet any and everyone. Even the most famous walk around with their guard down. My crew last time was the active skaters in long track, but this time I often sit with Bonnie Blair during the day (I work, she talks), and then in the evening it is the retired short track crew Alex Izykowski, Chris Needham, Apolo, Ian Baranski, Tommy O’hare, Steven Gough, Steven Bradbury (when we get him in), Wilf O’Reilly. When they are not working, my second crew is Suzie Paxton, Summer Sanders, Josette Persson, Jeremy Bloom, Ariana Kukors who do features (stories around the athletes.)

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Events: being in-venue is cool but the trip up to the mountains is 2 hour each way (despite the high speed train) so other than moguls, I’ve remained coastal cluster bound. Still, the mountains are gorgeous – I went up 3 times.

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Climate: This is the weirdest winter olympics ever – we should have brought sunblock – last week the temperature approached 70 degrees. People were sprawled everywhere in the olympic park enjoying the music and water show.ImageImage

Sleep: pretty much everyone has given up on sleep – with only a few days left, mountains to the left, 8 venues to the right, the sea, the USA house and work to do, nightly sleep is diminishing as crews finish late and stay up later. Breakfast is at 11am, lunch 3 to 4, and dinner 9 to 10. The entire Olympic park is rocking from about 10am to midnight or later and the fleeting moments of joy and laughter and friendships formed have suddenly regained their fleeting nature and there is now a shadow of nostalgia and melancholy over the conversations.

Olympic Moments” – in such a special place and time as this conversations begin to turn to questions like “what was your favorite moment?” Over time though, the returning cast and crew start to ask, “what was your ‘Olympic moment’?” the implication is clear – at some point in time or place, something tends to happen that has a significant impact on your return to reality. Torino and Vancouver both had clear moments for me, but for now Sochi is holding out. Still with 4 days and nights left a lot could happen.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #13: The Greatest Innovation at the Olympics

The greatest innovation in U.S. Olympic History (for Olympians):

No, it is not the BMW designed USA bobsled, the Lockheed Martin designed Mach 39 speedskating suits, instantaneous video replays on iPads, or Shawn White’s new frontside double-cork 1440 in half pipe.

No, perhaps the single greatest innovation for the athletes heading to Sochi is “Crowdfunding”. In case you are not familiar with the concept, here’s a definition, “crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.” There is now a suite of relatively new online social media tools that allow athletes, Olympians and potential Olympians to cash in on the largesse provided by the intersection of goodwill and need. By using the power of social media to gather a large number of small donations, athletes are able to find financial support to cover their expenses. Some examples of these sites include GoFundMe.com, IndieGoGo.com, Dreamfuel.com, Rallyme.com

Except for a small handful of  “A-list” athletes like Shawn White, Apolo Ohno or Bode Miller, most Olympic athletes toil in anonymity for more than a decade in order to make an Olympics and scrape by through a combination of parental support, off-season jobs, and small stipends from their sports federations.

For well-to-do athletes or those in high profile sports (snow-boarding, figure skating, skiing) where ample funding is available a single-minded focus on training and preparation is all that is required. This is also the case for many athletes from nations that fully fund their athletes, think Russia or South Korea.

For the rest, a constant ever-present worry is “how will I pay for this?” -be it new equipment, travel, lodging or even food. At its extreme it reaches the levels that Emily Scott, newly minted Olympian in short track speedskating, has faced. With a mother and a sister behind bars and raised by a single father with a blue collar income, Emily, at one point, was forced to rely on foodstamps to feed herself.

One might think that making the Olympic team would finally put these fears to rest, but in reality that success breeds a whole new brand of financial worry. Sure, now their travel and food and lodging are covered to travel to the games, but just as abruptly parents and others who have played significant support roles are faced with massive expenses to try and get to the games.

Olympic qualifying trials are often held close to the date of the Games themselves to ensure the very best team is selected, but this then creates the situation of the parents and supporters of the Olympian having only weeks to find flights and lodging in cities that have been booked solid for months and with flights subject to the supply and demand algorithms of Sabre (the airline yield management software) and hotel pricing often reaching $1000/day or more at the Olympic site.

Even a weeklong trip to a place like Sochi can involve multi-leg flights to save money and then incredibly steep prices to find a place to stay anywhere remotely close to the venues. Craig Scott, Emily’s father IS coming to the Olympics, thanks in large part to crowdfunding, but here’s his flight plan: Kansas City to Chicago, Chicago to Washington DC. Washington DC to Istanbul, Istanbul to Germany, Germany to Sochi. Here’s how Craig Scott will get to Sochi. He will board a plane in Kansas City and go to Chicago. From Chicago he will go to Washington. From Washington he flies to Turkey. From Turkey he flies to Germany.

For middle class parents there is always credit cards, but what about young spouses, fiancés or boyfriends/girlfriends? Often those that participated or sacrificed the most are forced to watch and cheer from afar.

Enter Crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding has existed for years in various forms – be it innovations looking for startup money, patients needing medical treatment seeking support, or artists with a new idea, but this emergent social media platform is potentially at its best in supporting potential Olympians. Finally there exists a way to tap into the general support of the USA! USA! Spirit and collect large numbers of small sums to support the real needs of an athlete and their family.

Emily Scott is perhaps the most direct example. After applying for foodstamps she decided to create a GoFundMe page and at the same time had the luck of a USA Today article to lend visibility to her plight. In particular, other than feeding herself, she was most anxious that her father Craig would join her in Sochi. 24 hours later she had $30,000 in donations – most of them small, but in quantity, and by late January she had $49,000 from more than 650 donors – more than enough to ensure that her father could join her at the games.

Emily's gofundme page

Emily’s gofundme page

The list of athletes receiving significant support is substantial – from Emily Scott raising over $50K to fellow short track speedskater Kyle Carr raising $14,000 to bring his mother to the games. Lindsey Van, part of the new retinue of women’s ski jumpers, raised $20,000, Sugar Todd a long track speedskater raised almost $6000 to bring her parents to the games, while teen brothers and Danny and Drew Duffy raised over $50,000 on RallyMe to cover their expenses.

Others, though have struggled with getting visibility in order to generate support. Bobsledder Elana Meyers has only raised $738 to date proving that just having a campaign is no silver bullet.

Through Crowdfunding, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to ensure that those that compete, and those that sacrificed for their success have the support required to share in the experience. This is particularly important given the relatively new tradition of the “Order of the Ikkos” award where each medaling Olympian gives a medal to the one person who supported them the most. Hard to give a medal to someone thousands of miles away because they couldn’t afford to come….

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Epilogue: The Post Olympic Hangover

I am particularly envious of this emergent source of funding. After graduating college I trained full time for eight years and made one Olympic team where I earned a silver medal. Along the way I used credit cards to fund my dream. As a recent college graduate I was able to apply for an receive over 50 credit cards which I used to pick up and rotate $87,000 in debt to by the time I retired from the sport. My parents also spent years paying off their visit to Lillehammer, Norway. Here’s a REAL picture of the 50+ credit cards I used to fund my dream. I eventually paid them off…

50 credit cards - to a guy with no job

50 credit cards – to a guy with no job

For olympian Alex Izykowski, the burden fell to his parents, who are still filling in the financial hole they dug to ensure his success and bronze medal in the 2006 Torino games. “My hometown community really pulled together to help fund my family’s expenses to travel to Torino, but the 10 years of debt we accrued leading up to my Olympics is an ever-present burden they are still paying off.” Alex’s dad agreed, saying, “Its like a post-olympic hangover you can’t shake.”

Sadly it is hard to ask for crowdfunding support in retrospect so Alex and his parents have little to no opportunity to tap into this emergent funding source. However, for new athletic hopefuls, crowdfunding fuels an olympic dream while reducing the post-apocolyptic olympic hangover.

2014 Sochi Olympic Journal #12: The Media Caste System

There is a very interesting dynamic with regards to media personnel here at the Olympics (and probably other large events.) There is an unwritten caste system that informs all aspects of life, travel, work and access that governs behavior. For the most part it appears to be unwritten and you figure it out as you go. Bumping up against the next level up runs the risk of the equivalent of a hand-slap. Each level within the hierarchy has an escalating level of perks and power, starting w/ volunteers and interns, all the way up to “super talent.”  There are roughly 5 levels or castes and I’m a “level 3″ within the system which has an unusual benefit in that the level 1′s and 5′s work some of the worst / longest hours.  Here are the levels and their benefits / drawbacks and then details below:

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s
Level 2: Production, camera, truck
Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers
Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors
Level 5: “Super-Talent”

Level 1: Volunteers, Interns, PA’s – these are mostly very young and have jobs like “runner” or “spotter” or many of the volunteers merely stand in the venue to tell you if you can, or can’t enter an area. They live in the “volunteer village” or “media village” – huge complexes with bare bones accommodations usually a good distance from the venues and for the most part the level 1 folks do not have access to any of the venues unless they work in one, and some will spend the entire games in the IBC (International Broadcast Center) and possibly not even see an event (unlikely here in Russia due to the proximity of all the venues). They take public transport and buses or walk to get around. It is a rare treat when they get to tag along in a private car w/ the talent

Level 2: production and camera, truck crews  – these are the crusty veterans that make it all happen. They have credentials for key events and the commissary (food) and tend to be older and full of stories. They stay in 3 star hotels and some of them get on the “charter” – the direct flight to the games vs. the regular airline flights. They can often be found in circles outside the event smoking and telling stories. They work long hours, but sometimes get breaks.  Predominantly male, they also sometimes have transport due to their equipment.

Level 3: Experts, Analysts, researchers. Neither “talent” nor production, there is a few of us that enjoy some of the benefits of talent without the drawbacks of the Level 1 and 2 folks. We tend to have credentials with “ALL” on them so we can go to all the venues and see all the events. We get to fly on the charter and stay in a 4 star hotel. We often get to tag along with “talent” and ride in the private cars, but only when invited. If the car is full with talent, it would be a breach of protocol to ask to join. We are often in the meetings with talent / producers, but play a marginal role. We do some camera work, but not the main event. Because of specialized knowledge that is applicable before and during the event, but not so much after, we are often set free just as talent and production and directors/producers get busy. In Torino, races finished at 10pm, I was set free at 10:30pm and the producers, directors and talent stayed until 5am doing voiceovers and fixes. Level 3 jobs in my opinion are the best jobs at the games because on off days we have an all access pass to go watch any event and after the first event are mostly left to do what we want. Being a level 3 former olympian (many of us are) has double privileges as we are also invited to events, parties, and many of the “houses” with receptions etc. There is never a lack for things to do, people to meet, food to eat, or wine to drink.  Other “level 3″ players in Sochi – Mark Greenwald (long track) Kristi Yamaguchi and Katerina Witt (figure skating), Picabo Street and Jeremy Bloom (skiing), and Summer Sanders.

Level 4: “Talent” and Producers/Directors. There are some distinctions between “talent” and the producers/directors, but for the most part they have the same perks. They fly business class to the event, they have a private car and driver ready at a moments notice to take them anywhere, they stay in 5 star hotels and have the same all access credential Level 3 gets. The levels below them treat them with deference and both “talent” and producers/directors can be demanding. One distinction is that producers and directors tend to mock the talent a bit as “talent” tends to be less organized/timely/responsible than the hardcore “we have a show to put on” mindset of the producers and directors. At its simplest, “talent” has trouble being on time and following directions and the producers and directors want everything done yesterday and “better.” Both of them work long hours – particularly in situations like Sochi where it is not “live.” Live action results in no ability to “fix”. Taped means that producers and directors can exercise their desire for perfection and often results in very late nights doing “throws” and “lobs” and fixes.

Level 5: “Super-Talent”. Costas, Matt Lauer, Al Roker and the most senior executive producers are a whole other level of “talent”. Apolo is also mostly in this caste. They fly first class, get the suites in the 5 star hotels, and have “handlers” there to answer their every beck and call. Their credentials have special tags to get them into every room and they can go to the “NBC house” attached to the USA house. However, they also work crazy hours and end up working most of the games.

So, to conclude, I have the best job at the Olympics.

Photo: Sochi here I come! "ALL" is the best part: it means access to ANY event, on the field of play.

The all access credential – the single greatest perk of level 3 and above

IMG_2672The Media Village (above)

IMG_2673The “talent” hotel – Radisson Blu

IMG_2674My Hotel – not too shabby

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