This is what it's like to cover your first Olympics
Over the weekend, Tamerra Griffin posted a selfie from Rio on Instagram. The BuzzFeed News reporter included this caption:
To 14-year-old Tamerra who watched the 2004 Olympics in Athens laying on her belly with her chin propped up in her palms in a constant state of enchantment, saw NBC host Bob Costas and said out loud, 'I want his job': Here you go, boo.
I'm writing this from Rio de Janeiro. My first international reporting trip. For THE OLYMPICS! I've already interviewed several people in Portuguese (!!), gotten a taste of tear gas, and obviously am having the time of my life. More soon!
This is Griffin's first Olympics, but it's not her first time in Brazil. She spoke with Poynter via email about covering the Olympics from a different perspective, the stories she wants to tell while there and how she's staying open to the unexpected.
When did you find out that you were headed to Rio to cover the Olympics, and what was your reaction?
I still remember this vividly: I found out I was going to the Olympics on April 12, my first day back at work after my weekend (I work Tuesday-Saturday). The first email I saw when I sat down at my desk was from my boss, and the subject line was: "BRAZIL." We'd been talking about this trip since January, so I knew what it was. I just sat there for a second, then put my head down and sort of silent-screamed, which was perfectly fine to do because I work earlier hours than most of my colleagues and the office was nearly empty when this all happened. My birthday is on April 6, so it felt like an extension of the celebration.
And then, of course, I texted my mom.
You speak Portuguese, right? How did you learn?
I traveled to Brazil on vacation with two of my closest friends last October, and had been doing a lot of Duolingo-ing to prepare for that trip. Naturally, my learning curve intensified while we were in Brazil, and I was so enamored with the country that I decided to continue my progress after I got back to the states. Even then, I knew I'd be back, and I figured learning the language was a way of manifesting that.
I signed up for Meetups in the city and practiced with others who wanted to learn the language, and through that met someone who is now such a dear friend. She's from Rio, living in New York City for a year, and wanted to practice her English, so we started meeting for coffee once or twice a week for a language exchange. We've been doing that since January. I also received formal Portuguese classes as a Christmas present, which was the perfect supplement to the conversational practice I'd had. I'll be fluent soon enough!
One of the things we usually can't see from home is all the media that are on the other side of a shot. What does the media look like to you? Have you met a lot of other journalists?
Because I haven't been at the heart of any athletic events yet, I haven't encountered anything like a media frenzy where you're jostling elbows with the person next to you and shoving your microphone within earshot of a source. Interestingly enough, I've noticed that the media are somewhat nondescript for the most part, save for the super suave-looking broadcast hosts, who I rarely see. There have been a few instances where I'm working on a story and approach someone on the street or beach to interview them, only to find out that they're also a journalist. I also found out a few days before flying out to Rio that a few journo friends of mine were also coming, which was awesome.
BuzzFeed has a lot of Olympics coverage. But it seems like your focus is to tell stories we wouldn't otherwise find, including the opening ceremony video with protests and celebrations outside the stadium and your piece on how Russian fans are feeling. How are you approaching covering the Olympics? What are the stories you want to tell?
Because of the rights NBC has to the Olympics, we've known for awhile that it would be really difficult to cover athletic events to the degree that they do. And that's perfectly fine; that's not really what BuzzFeed "does" anyway. I gravitate toward stories that focus on social issues, and it's been no different here. My colleague Ryan Broderick and I hit the ground running by filming the protests on the day of the opening ceremony, which was really important as far as showing a side of the Olympics away from the glitz and excitement.
I have a masters in Africana studies, so I'm interested in showing aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture as they relate not only to the Olympics, but to life in Brazil in general. I have a really fun piece I'm working on right now that will showcase that.
Beyond that, I'm on the lookout for anything fun and unexpected happening here: Crazy parties, interesting food, and other experiential stories that our readers tend to go crazy over.
In Sochi two years ago, reporters tweeted so much about the conditions that we finally wrote a story about it. What's your experience like? Where are you staying? What are you eating? How are you dealing with health and safety?
Maybe I lucked out (although I'm working on a story similar to this and after talking to lots of people, I don't think luck is the primary factor), but I've been perfectly fine this whole time. I'm staying at an AirBnb in this small, artsy community on a huge hill in Rio called Santa Teresa. My host is so kind and accommodating. I was very intentional about staying with a Black Airbnb host, not only because of the discrimination Black people face when they use the service, but because I knew that it would help frame my understanding of and experience with my surroundings, which is so important to me. I've had absolutely no problems yet.
As far as what I'm eating — um, everything? I love Brazilian food! I have my favorite dishes (acarajé, coxinha de frango, feijoada, pão de queijo, etc.) from my first trip, and have picked up many more since. I have a very always-on-the-go lifestyle working here, so it's often easier to pick something up on the street than sit down at a (much more pricey) restaurant. I brought loads of bug spray, but because it's winter down here, I've not had to spray even once yet. And as far as safety, I'm applying the same street smarts I have living in New York City, plus a little bit more because of the language factor.
Have there been any moments so far that will stay with you years from now?
The one that sticks out the most happened just last night (Tuesday). I was at the Espaço de Meu Porto Maravilha, this huge fan area, interviewing people but also keeping an eye on the women's gymnastics team finals. I took a seat just in time for Simone Biles' floor routine. Obviously, I knew she was going to slay, but in that moment, everything I'd been feeling about this trip; the opportunity to live out a dream; the positive experiences I've had with my colleagues and old and new friends...everything all came up during this phenomenal Black female athlete's routine, and I just started crying. It was very much a "Mama, we made it!" moment, and I'll never forget it.
Are there any stories you really want to tell while you're there?
waves at Simone Biles
Just kidding (actually, no I'm not). Doing a video interview with her would be amazing. I'm cooking up a few other ideas, though...
You have a great Instagram post about wanting Bob Costas' job while watching him in Athens in 2004. Have you met him yet? Do you still want his job?
As far as the access Bob Costas has to Olympic athletes, I definitely wouldn't mind having his job. But since being here, I've realized the value of having access to spaces outside of Olympic venues; important stories live there, too. And I don't know that Bob Costas, as amazing as he is, can have that the way I can. I haven't met him yet, but I'm still here for another week and a half, so who knows?