Howard Berkes on Covering the Olympics for NPR
Berkes: It is a sporting event, but it's also the single-biggest cultural, political, and business event on the planet. The costs of staging these Games are expected to exceed $7 billion. Major multinational corporations are spending millions on sponsorships. The broadcast effort exceeds a billion dollars in rights fees and costs. Politics pervades the Olympics, from the International Olympic Committee's treatment of wayward members to the allegations and expulsions for doping to the coming together of allies and enemies. And it's hard to imagine anything else, other than war perhaps, that forces a city and nation to confront its own weaknesses, its self-image, and its standing in the world. Staging the world's largest sporting event is such an enormous challenge that success can boost a nation's fortunes, and perceived failure can saddle it with a black mark (think Atlanta 1996) for years.
Print reporters can basically go everywhere and do everything, including attending competitions, visiting athletes in the Olympic Village, interviewing athletes in "mixed zones" immediately after competition, and leasing office space in the Main Press Center. Some events have limited reporter seating. Those who report most on Olympic sports have first crack at those tickets.
Rights-holding broadcasters have paid for exclusive access to the Olympics. Generally, radio and television broadcasters in each country bid for broadcast rights. NBC, for example, is the exclusive television broadcaster in the United States and only has rights to broadcast in the U.S. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is the TV (and radio) rights holder for Canada.
Rights-holders have their own media center (the International Broadcast Center) where they pick up feeds provided by the Host Broadcaster, an International Olympic Committee organization that provides the broadcast feeds. Rights-holder reporters have access to everything with their cameras and recorders.
Non-rights holding broadcasters are all the national and local radio and TV outlets who have not purchased exclusive rights to the Games. There are a limited number of credentials for them. They're actually credentialed as print media, but they're not permitted to have offices in the Main Press Center. They're not permitted to carry video cameras or audio recorders into any Olympic Venue, with the exception of the Main Press Center, where some news conferences occur. They cannot interview athletes at the Olympic Village, cannot record sporting events, cannot record news conferences with athletes at Olympic venues, cannot interview athletes in "mixed zones" at venues and cannot broadcast from Olympic venues (including the Main Press Center). They're not permitted to say they're at the Olympics. They're not eligible to attend "high-demand" events. They cannot attend the opening or closing ceremonies.
One relaxation of the media access rules in Athens allows non-rights holding broadcasters access to one area of the Olympic Stadium complex with passes that are issued daily and only to a limited number of reporters and camera crews. This access accommodates stand-ups with the Olympic Stadium as a backdrop and interviews with athletes and spectators who might happen to be in this particular area. But there are restrictions on when any interviews with athletes may be broadcast.
NPR has experimented with handing out cameras to NPR correspondents. Will you be "getting visual" for this assignment?
I'm one of the first NPR correspondents to carry a camera (been doing it close to two years) and I have a camera with me. I've already transmitted a few Olympic photos. Photos are often the focus of webpage buildouts that give us the opportunity to provide more information to listeners, in the form of graphics, copy, charts and weblinks. We also do essays exclusive to the Web. Our first essay generated more response than a story that aired the same day.
What do you predict will be the most interesting story of this Olympics?
A number of stories fit the "most interesting" category - security, preparedness, doping. But, we're all likely to be talking about something in a couple of weeks that none of us can imagine now: an unexpected victory; a stunning display of athletic prowess; a performance by a Greek athlete that leaves Greece either joyous or dismayed. The best predictable story is the connection between the Olympics and Greek pride. Will these Games leave Greeks revived or dismayed?
We have heard an awful lot about security concerns at this Olympics. How tough is it to get around and do your job?
It gets more difficult every day. Every Olympic venue has "mag and bag" lines and maze-like fencing. But reporters are privileged at an Olympics. We have our own reserved security lines. We have our own transportation system. We have our own (albeit expensive) housing. We even have special travel lanes on streets and highways reserved for media, athletes, and officials. None of us likes waiting in line, especially on deadline, but it's worse for spectators and average citizens trying to live normal lives. Reporters who plan for extra time to get places don't have too much trouble.
Many of the competitions that television will air in the States will be delayed. What concerns do you have about reporting competition results when your reporting might spoil the listener's evening TV viewing?
Results are news. It's our obligation as reporters to report the news. Holding the news to meet the scheduling preferences of rights-holding broadcasters does a disservice to listeners. People who want to watch delayed coverage without knowledge of results should be rigorous about avoiding news before the broadcasts.
You are allegedly a reporter who specializes in covering rural America. How did you get this Olympics gig?
I've been an Olympic reporter far longer than a Rural Affairs reporter. This will be my fifth Olympics. The first was the Los Angeles games in 1984. I also covered the Calgary Winter Games in 1988. In 1998, my reporting was credited with helping to elevate the Salt Lake City bidding scandal from a largely local story to an international controversy. I followed that story to International Olympic Committee meetings in Switzerland and congressional hearings in Washington, developing an Olympics politics beat. That triggered other smaller breaking stories and the assignments to cover the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
I still focus on Olympics politics but also do stories about athletes, host city organizations, doping and anything else that deserves attention. Also here in Athens are Sports Correspondent Tom Goldman (for his 6th Olympics), Business Editor Uri Berliner (for his 3rd Olympics), European Correspondent Sylvia Poggioli (her first Games) and producer Taki Telonidis (his first Games, but with some expertise in the ancient Olympics). We're not here covering a sporting event. We're covering the biggest cultural, political, and business event on the planet and aim for coverage that captures that.