Philip Hersh covered mainstream sports when he went to his first Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980. He was a baseball guy, with the other big sports thrown in.
Then, Hersh recalls, he became an Olympics guy.
“I was covering figure skating,” Hersh said. “Everyone was so welcoming. There was the classical music, which I enjoy, and the skating was wonderful. And there were so many great stories. I loved it.”
Hersh became hooked on the Olympics, and his career was never the same.
Hersh is getting ready to cover his 18th Olympics in Rio; 10 winter and 8 summer. He was a longtime fixture at the Olympics for the Chicago Tribune. However, after taking a buyout last year, his work for these Games will be featured on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s TeamUSA.org and his own site, GlobetrottingbyPhilipHersh.com.
I had the pleasure of working with Hersh as part of the Tribune’s coverage team for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. I always say those three weeks were my best experience in more than three decades as a sportswriter.
So it is easy to understand why Hersh, who will turn 70 this year, wants to keep attending the Olympics.
“With the way travel is, I don’t get excited going anywhere anymore,” Hersh said. “I’m sure I will be grumbling [en route]. But I know that I will find three or four stories that are absolutely spectacular, and I will be happy I was there.”
Hersh has seen quite an evolution in the scope of the coverage and Olympics themselves during the last 36 years. He recalled the press center for Lake Placid was in a high school, quite a contrast to the massive convention center set up for today’s media masses.
In the days way before the internet and modern communications, Hersh calls the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, “the last truly foreign Olympics.”
“Making a phone call [back to the U.S.] was a project,” Hersh said. “Every story had to be filed through [an Associated Press setup] in the press center. I remember Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, taking dictation from a New York Times reporter who was covering a hockey game.”
Technology moved rapidly; Hersh actually used a typewriter for his stories in 1980. He said Sydney was the first “Internet Games,” and everything changed from there.
Hersh laments that all the tweeting and the post-it-now mentality is a huge distraction for anyone trying to do quality work. It all robs the reporter of a great asset: The power of observation.
A case in point, Hersh says, was a story he did during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Derek Redmond, a British runner, tore a hamstring during his race. With the help of father, he completed the final lap, producing one of the most poignant scenes in Olympic history.
“I was able to watch every second undisturbed [by having to post something],” Hersh said. “Then I spent 90 minutes in the mix zone [where the media gets access to athletes] and spent time thinking about what I was going to write. I was really proud of that story. I don’t think I would have been able to do that today. They would have wanted me to post something right away.”
Hersh has numerous stories about memorable, if not transcendent, moments during the Olympics. Yet many of his favorite memories don’t revolve around athletes.
Instead, Hersh talks of being submerged in the culture of the host country, and getting to know their people. He recalled the media going to a pizzeria every night in Sarajevo. There was a picture of an ice cream cone in the window. One night, a writer ordered a cone.
“The waitress didn’t know what he was talking about,” Hersh said. “So he pointed at the window. She laughed and said, ‘Oh, Communist propaganda.’”
Once, after a long day in Barcelona, Hersh headed to the subway at 2 a.m. He saw a big family coming up the stairs.
“There might have been 3, maybe 4, generations,” Hersh said. “My Spanish wasn’t great, but I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ They said they didn’t care if nothing was going on. They wanted to be there to walk around and see everything. The Olympics were a life-changing event for them.”
To know Hersh is to know that he is not shy about sharing his opinions. The Olympics are far from a perfect endeavor, and he has come down plenty hard on athletes and administrators when warranted.
Yet despite its many flaws, Hersh remains passionate about what is at the core of the Olympics: The notion of bringing the world together for a couple of weeks.
“The Olympics are big, unwieldy and full of problems,” Hersh said. “But you always get those moments where the Olympics carry the torch for our better nature. It’s moments like that when you say, ‘You know, that’s not so bad.’”
Hersh is looking forward to a different experience in Rio. Unlike covering previous Olympics for the Tribune, where he was posting constantly, he will only write one story of his choosing per day for TeamUSA.org.
The assignment will allow him to take his time and consider many different options. More than anything else, he will be able to observe in order to write a complete story.
“In some respects, it will be like it used to be,” Hersh said.
Hersh says there is a possibility this could be his last Olympics. Then again, he notes, nobody required him to make the trip.
“I asked to go to Rio,” Hersh said.
Of course, Hersh couldn’t miss it. Once an Olympics guy, always an Olympics guy.