So, what was it like to cover the Beijing Olympics?

One of the things about being a foreign correspondent for a large news organization is that you are expected to be able to solve all logistical problems yourself, including those inadvertently caused by someone back in New York. If you’re not part of the union, or full-time, why should the desk be concerned about anything save the work product for which you were contracted?

Bill Marcus <[email protected]> Oct 17, 2008, 5:38 PM

Covering the Olympics on my own was exhausting: mentally, and physically. When it was over I was a zombie. For a day I wandered downtown Beijing allowing the wind to blow me any way it chose.

My first clue that there was much too much for me to take in came after the women’s volleyball team press conference (who knew there were press conferences?) I had hunkered down in the basement of the Main Press Center with dinner and a thick handout that contained everything anyone ever wanted to know about American Women’s volleyball. I started underlining everything important that I might use in a story.

I had discovered the handout on a table in the USOC press office (who knew there was a USOC press office? with handouts, no less! It had been provided by the federation (there’s a federation? oh, so that’s how all of this is organized) I tried to not to look as dumb as I was. Being older helps in that regard. Things were printed and on computer discs. I started collecting stuff. I would learn.

So, I’m reading this small telephone book of information when I come upon the line “…the golden age of Hungarian volleyball…” At that moment I realized all this was bigger than me. Somehow I had missed the Golden Age of Hungarian Volleyball. I knew about the uprising in 1956, Dulles’ failed American foreign policy of Liberation, and the Suez crisis. But the notion that there had been a Golden Age of Volleyball and that it had taken place in Hungary, was jarring. There was just too much I didn’t know.

I’ll just get up and run as fast as I can. From some undisclosed location I’ll call Fox and explain they made a terrible mistake. I was never a sports guy. Despite being born to jocks, I am not athletic. Memories of little league humiliations rose up. I have miserable eye-hand coordination that stems from a pre-disposition toward writing long hand with my left hand and doing everything else with my right. That — and bad coaches and brain-dead gym teachers – kept me from success at any sport that involved a ball. Throughout my childhood other boys yelled at me: Billy, keep going out in right field, further, further! so I wouldn’t drop the fly balls if they came to me. As a result, I had developed a healthy disdain, if not a disgust for all things sports-related until, at 29, in Albany, I started to row. Now, my athletic sense of inadequacy was suddenly reinforced by a sense of sport-knowledge inadequacy. Golden Age of Hungarian Volleyball? This really wasn’t the place for me: please, find someone else.

But I toughed it out, figuring, if I could re-invent myself as a business reporter in China for three years, I can fake it as a sports reporter for two and a half weeks. There is little to say on the radio, besides. And everyone knows the Olympics is all about politics and world events anyway and that the sports are just incidental distractions. As it turned out, the sports reporters I sat near often corrected me after I had taped my reports so loud they couldn’t help but overhear a misstated fact or a mispronounced name — of a tennis player, no less! My parents’ memory, besmirched. (They met on a tennis court; my mom was a ranked amateur and a teacher of tennis, my dad was a top rated club player.)

I was, of course, my mother’s son. On the court, so often, she told of losing her confidence. Being psyched out. Psyching herself out. The reality was that Fox was thrilled and delighted with the work I did and they told me so. What made me a lousy athlete may just have made me a passable writer and communicator. As I learned and understood I explained so that others would, too. Bats, balls, and hoops were my enemy, but keyboards in which both hands function as one whole were my friends.

In addition to live broadcasts and regular reports I also did what are called “2-ways” with anchors on affiliate stations – talk show hosts – who in many cases were asking me questions about what they had seen the night before on NBC. Of course, I couldn’t see those broadcasts in China, so their Olympic reality, filtered through television was markedly different from the truth. Nothing new there.

But what they were talking about was a day and a half old and I had already moved on to reporting about things that they were going to see that night. It was a good day when China and not a specific athlete or game was the discussion.

Often I had to deal with idiot questions about eating dog or suppositions that presumed China was still caught in the throws of the Cultural Revolution. So it came in handy that I was a teacher. Then there were other times when I simply fell flat on my face. I seemed to connect best with a team outside Portland, Maine and another in Gainsville, Georgia. I told them about how my uncle Marty (Glickman – my late dad’s best friend, a famous New York broadcaster) had told me over and over about his experience suffering antisemitism in Berlin and how that fueled my desire to stand up to bullies when the time came in Beijing.

That’s where that press conference row story in the New York Times came from. Click on this link to read it.

As for seeing the games, even though I had a pass to go everywhere, I was tethered to the computer and mike in the Main Press Center. I did watch a couple of things: some dual synchronized swimming, and gymnastics qualifiers. That was on my time off, of which there was scarcely little. The time difference meant I never was able to see any track and field, since that was at night, when I was on the air in the U.S. during morning drive.

I did walk over to an empty bird’s nest stadium and stood in the middle on the green. I also tested the footholds on the track. The ones the runners push against. They have got to be tall! My knees didn’t even touch the ground. And I walked over there and stood at the floor during the closing ceremony, though I didn’t have a ticket since I was “non-rights” media, which meant my employer hadn’t paid for exclusive rights in our country to broadcast the games. Only NBC could do that. Basically, I snuck in.

No one else was allowed to use moving pictures of the games. I also went to a Jamaican party with Usain Bolt and the team – the music was so loud! The Jamaican guys were so terribly happy. Bolt, of course, setting a 100-yard dash record.

The gymnastics, the spectacle, it all looks a lot better on tv. The swimming was cool though. Oh…and I also watch the Brazilians practice diving and the Spanish team practice their swim routine..boy are they talented!

In addition, I spent a couple of days drifting through the international area in the Olympic village and simply talking to whomever I bumped into. I met some interesting characters and learned more about the Olympic culture of the participants. There is a whole world of people involved in all this.

My observations: the athletes are very young. Extraordinary 20 and 30 (and some 40 and an occasional 50) somethings doing extraordinary things in an extraordinary time and place. Michael Phelps reminded me of an ADDHD student at Rensselaer where I was a student teacher 10 years ago.  Like people you’d meet at the Price Chopper, most of these folks.

When I said I was sorry to a young Kenyan who had lost his boxing match he shrugged and replied “someone has to win, someone has to lose” – a large rotund man who turned out to the be the head of the Algerian swimming federation smiled cheerfully and explained that this Olympics had been “a start”. 

On my second trip to the village I met the young Norwegian javelin thrower who ended up winning the gold. Also met a dad (his son had come with him) whose job it was to offer psychological coaching for the German beach volleyball team. (How do you get a job like that?). He tells his players stories before the matches. Like the one about the frog who climbed the Eiffel Tower despite all the other frogs at the base yelling at him that he should turn back and come down since it couldn’t be done. The frog made it to the top. He was deaf.

And the Georgian wrestler who’s wife, parents and daughter had just left the country for their own safety and were staying in Armenia. “I didn’t want to come, but the President, he called me and asked me to come.”

“You’re doing a lot for your country, inspiring them, just by being here,” I told him. Then he left the small reflection park with all the flags to go somewhere with two of his Georgian teammates.

Every day was like freshman orientation: where are you from? What’s your major?

The USOC office seemed to be populated with Republicans. The press corp was made up of international sports experts trucked in by the container and regular reporters like me from everywhere that the sun shines. I never saw the TV folks unless I met them by accident when I was checking in. Manuel Galleus from CBS and I exchanged cards after I had put a mike in his face, not knowing who he was.

(This was a common experience for me while in Asia. In 2010 at the DMZ I interviewed Jerry West, the basketball legend from West Virginia, who’s brother had died during the war. The desk, of course was delighted, since his visit was not previously reported. I, of course, handled him like any MOS outside a supermarket since I had no idea who he was.)

There was also the hulking wrestler wearing a white shirt with RUSSIA in big thick red letters across it. The letters probably covered his whole chest. “I am from Russia,” he told me like the character in the “Defenders of the Galaxy” movies only says “I am groot.”

“Yes,” I pointed out to him. I can tell from his shirt.

One night after recording a story another reporter nearby complemented me on my voice. Thanking him, I introduced myself as Bill. He examined my credential which said I was William Louis Marcus, the name on my passport. “I am Louis too,” he said explaining that in Uganda where he is from his friends pronounce his name as “Loo-ee” (as I do) not “Lou-iss” a pronunciation reserved for the unfamiliar. This prompted a Chinese journalist working along side us both to enter the conversation. “I am Lou-ee too!” he said. Checking his credential I saw it indeed read the same. His name was Lu Yi. Truly, an Olympic moment.

A doctor for the Puerto Rican team told me he learned about traditional Chinese medicine, and, in return, he got Chinese to be more expressive with lots of smiling and hugging. I did a story on that.

Most of the time it was like a wedding: everybody was happy every day. I did my job. I was also sucked in to the tumult when I got angry after reading the Human Rights Watch email which enumerated how people had been bullied, and I hate bullies. So I asked my desk in NY to get tape. They hadn’t by the next day so I went, HRW email in hand, to the daily press briefing to ask the Chinese which country they thought they were emulating by announcing there’d be protest parks then arresting citizens when they applied to protest. Never expected it would set in motion a mobbing of the BOCOG officials and a heated response from their Secretary General that would make, for that day, global news. See here and here.

The other time I got really pissed off was at the end when NBC chose to ignore both the story about the first out-Olympian, an Australian diver, and his partner who was in the stands. This, after making a big deal about heterosexual news among the athletes. I got the story from Yahoo and wrote and voiced it for FOX which was more than happy to take it. My first line: NBC PAID 900 MILLION FOR THE EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS TO BROADCAST THE BEIJING OLYMPICS BUT THEY COULDN’T AFFORD ONE SECOND FOR TOLERANCE.

Looking back, that last word should have been “INCLUSION” not “TOLERANCE” – ah, we are but the first draft of history. Radio, not even paper, but tissues: gone with the wind.

The Olympics have a religiosity to it all, one that I eventually, I fear, ended up subscribing to. The IOC sells this. Friends in Beijing described it as the mentality of those “inside the bubble” – which we were. I had two friends staying with me in the suite Fox had rented so I was able to stay somewhat grounded. Everywhere they scanned you with metal detectors. Beijing was militaristic, and the staff at the hotel was uncomfortably stiff. How do you get through it? Lots of sleep, and friends.

When I said I was sorry to a young Kenyan who had lost his boxing match he shrugged and replied “Someone has to win and someone has to lose,” he said as we waited outside of the souvenir shop in the village. Inside a coach explained how kids are tracked into sports: “If a kid is climbing all over the furniture, direct her to gymnastics,” she told me. A large man who turned out to be the head of the Algerian swimming federation smiled cheerfully and explained that the this Olympics had been “a start.”

For me, too, I guess.