For reporters covering the Olympics, a mix of chaos and wonder
Christine Brennan initially was very positive in her assessment of how the Olympics were going in a response to my email over the weekend. However, her reply on Saturday had this line.
"Anything can happen this coming week, but so far, Rio is pulling this off," wrote the USA Today columnist and CNN contributor who is covering her 17th Olympics.
Then anything happened. Sunday, it was learned Ryan Lochte, a six-time gold medal winner, was among a group of swimmers who were the victims of a robbery at gunpoint. Brennan sent me an amended reply.
"The visual image of Ryan Lochte with a gun to his head early Sunday morning in Rio is very alarming," Brennan wrote. "I think that changes things dramatically here. Already the Australian Olympic Committee has declared the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches off limits to its athletes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. each day. I'm surprised the U.S. Olympic Committee hasn't done something like that. Maybe it will."
"After a week of conversation about green pool water and lost buses, I think there are very serious concerns that thousands of athletes whose events are done here are going to flood a city where indiscriminate street crime is the stuff of legend."
So it goes in Rio.
With less than a week left in the Olympics, I decided to check in with some of the media horde in Brazil. Via email, I asked them about the logistics and whether the doom-and-gloom predictions actually came true.
The perspective was somewhat split, with some media folks happier to be there than others. This much is certain: They all will have a new appreciation for buses that run on time and drivers who know where they are going. Virtually everyone talked about the pathetic transportation system for the media.
I received an interesting range of responses. Here are some excerpts:
More insights from Brennan: "No one wants to hear about the media's issues, but I will say the signage is the worst I've seen at any Olympics. I went to the Deodoro Olympic Park the other day to cover the U.S. women's field hockey team and no one, I mean no one, had any idea where the stadium was. There were no signs, no nothing, I found it, but it wasn't easy."
"I covered swimming much of the first week and it was terrific. Nothing but news, from Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky to Lilly King and the Russians. You couldn't ask for anything more."
John Cherwa, the deputy sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, definitely is not a fan of these Olympics:
"First, no one should care about the niceties of the media experience, but only in how it impacts the media in the doing of their job."
This is Cherwa's ninth Olympics. He calls Rio's effort "by far the worst job done by any organizing committee."
"By far the biggest problem is transport," he said. "Buses do not arrive and depart on schedule if they arrive at all. Apparently bus drivers are quitting in mid-route, drivers are constantly stopping and asking for directions. It’s as if they hired the person who ran it in Atlanta."
The hotels are fine compared to the ones in Turin and Sochi, Cherwa said. But there are other problems.
"Early, I nicknamed this the 'shortcut Olympics,' he said. "If they could cut a corner, they would. There was no printed transport guide, you had to use their app, which didn’t work half the time. Things like results are never printed. You are told to take a picture of the scoresheet."
Some were doubtful that the games would last two weeks, but, for Cherwa, those concerns have evaporated.
"In the end, we’ll get it done, but I’ve heard the phrase 'This is my last Olympics,' more than I ever have.”
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports was leaving the Olympic Aquatics Stadium with columnist Pat Forde early in the morning on the second night of swimming when the pair was stopped by an officer from the Brazilian state police.
He let the pair pass, but they knew getting through the next time wasn't going to be easy. So, he decided on a bribe.
"I went to the market attached to the Main Press Center and found Oreos," he said. "Everyone loves Oreos. They transcend language. Two nights later, as we were walking back, I pulled the sleeve of Oreos out of my bag as we approached. It was a different guard. He said the same thing as the previous one: 'Bus.'"
"I extended my hand and, quite jubilantly for it being 3:30, said: ‘Cookies!’ Apparently Oreos do not transcend language, because immediately the officer dropped his right hand and put it on his holstered pistol. Pat, noticing this immediately, turned around and walked away. It took me a second to realize what the officer was doing, and once I did, I followed Pat and race-walked the hell away."
"I ate the Oreos the next day. They were delicious."
Gary D’Amato, a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, is covering his 10th Olympics and says the initial foreboding coverage surrounding Rio was exaggerated.
"At the Olympic Media Summit in Los Angeles earlier this year, every athlete was asked about Zika (several times), and it became the ‘hot’ story," he said. "There was a little bit of a herd mentality to it and I intentionally stayed away from it. In my opinion the incessant stories about Zika, crime, raw sewage in the water, etc., were overblown. Yes, they are real problems and there are real concerns for Rio residents. But we (athletes and media) are guests for three weeks here. I think we'll survive."
So far, D’Amato says, he hasn't seen a single mosquito. He's also felt safe while covering the Games. He does, however, wish there was more to eat.
"The only complaints I have — and they are minor — is that there is a very limited selection of food items for the media at several of the venues, and the men's restroom for the basketball arena venue has one toilet (to service, at times, up to a couple hundred of us)."
"Really, though, those are minor problems. I hear reporters complaining about their accommodations, but when you cover an Olympics, you should know you're not going to be staying at a Four Seasons."
It's certainly not that. D’Amato's sharing what could pass as a two-bedroom apartment with a reporter from Germany. A couple of nights ago, when he finally laid his head down on one of the twin beds, all the slats broke, and he crashed to the floor.
"I'm just keeping my head down, doing my work and counting down the days," he said. "I can't say I'm enjoying Rio because I've only seen the inside of buses, the Main Press Center and the venues."
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Hine has the perspective of a first-timer:
"This is my first Olympics, so I can't really compare it to any other I've covered. I will say that things are running about how I anticipated, which is to say not terrible. Sometimes you're waiting for a bus forever to take you from one place to another, but that's to be expected. Sometimes you find ways around it, like taking taxis or walking."
But he's felt safe at the Games.
"The only odd thing that happened was last night I was covering Spain and Nigeria's basketball game and police had to perform a controlled explosion on an unattended bag in the arena," Hine said. "They didn't let fans in for the first few minutes because of that, so it was a weird thing seeing the game start without fans and hearing the big boom of the explosion."
Teddy Greenstein, also covering his first Olympics for the Chicago Tribune, shared the kind of story that usually happens in The Games.
"Fave Oly tale: I go to mixed zone to interview Brazilian swimmer Marcelo Chierighini. Snag a translator. She asks my questions in Portuguese. After Michael Phelps wins, I ask him slowly:
"'What do you think of Phelps?' Turns out he speaks perfect English. 'I went to Auburn University,' he says."
Also, I want to include this column from Vahe Gregorian of the Kansas City Star. He did an amusing piece detailing 24 hours covering the Games. He concludes:
12:20 a.m.: Get some kibbee and cheese bread from Junior and Bea. Dave and I head to bus to the bus as Cindy calls. When tell her what doing, she laughs pretty hard, saying every time she calls I’m on a bus. Quite pleased to catch the 1 a.m. instead of the 2 a.m., slump into seat next to journalist from Kazakhstan who speaks English and is thrilled to speak about the swimming medal.
As two Vietnamese journalists had been a few days earlier after the nation’s first gold medal of any sort. And as I remember an Indian journalist being at the 2008 Beijing Games after the nation’s first individual gold.
"So went just another day at the Olympics. For all the stress and times I mutter about it feeling impossible, maybe I wouldn’t really have it any other way.
Indeed, dealing with conditions that are markedly different than what we encounter in the U.S. is part of the Olympic media experience. Hopefully, everyone stays safe the rest of the way, and the Olympics continue to be about the competition.
As Brennan said prophetically, "Anything can happen."