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.
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.
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.
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…
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.)
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.
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.
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.