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Park City, Utah, hosts America’s Opening, World Cup skiing’s annual kickoff, this Nov. 16-19. In a pre-Olympic year, the races will also be a significant feeding frenzy for the press, with journalists scrambling to find their story lines for the season and for the 2002 Games. I’ve experienced the event from both sides of the press barrier, trying to make a story as an athlete and trying to get the story as a journalist. I can tell you without hesitation which role was more fun, and it did not involve a tape recorder.
Athletes are conditioned to be wary of the press. But I’d always liked the gaggle of reporters hanging around the finish corral. They’re a cynical bunch, particularly astute at heckling, and I usually appreciated their uncensored commentary. If I’d been more newsworthy, I might have learned to keep a professional distance. But as it was, orchestrated press relations were not of utmost concern to me.
From watching them, I expected reporting on ski races to be a piece of cake, especially with my knowledge of the athletes, the sport and the venues. But I soon learned that being an insider can be both a blessing and a burden.
The finish-line interview is a case in point. From my own experience, I knew athletes stealthily evade reporters in the finish, so my instinct was to give them some space. I hoped to allow the defeated a moment of recovery, and offer the victor a more pointed question than, ‘How do you feel?’ But I soon learned that respect and hesitation get you nowhere in the pits.
The press pit¿the area at the finish between the spectators and the athletes¿is fairly civil at North American races, but in Europe it is a roiling mass of journalists on tight daily deadlines brandishing tape recorders, barking questions and scrambling for pole position. Television journalists get top priority in the pit. However, Steve Porino, who reports for NBC and ESPN, assures me that a camera holds no guarantee of respect from the impatient European press. “I can’t tell you how many times during an interview I’ve heard them chanting, ‘You are not live! You are not live!'” he recalls.
Once released from the inner sanctum of TV interviews the athletes are commandeered by their team press directors. Guys like Manfred Kimel¿aka the Austrian pit-bull¿corral them towards journalists who deliver the most exposure. In the media food chain, I¿a female American, writing at the time for the weekly Ski Racing Magazine¿did not even warrant a pitbull’s snarl.
My first European pit experience was in Bormio, Italy, at the World Cup Finals in 1996. Skiing’s self-proclaimed “Messiah,” Alberto Tomba, was on home turf having already won the World Cup title. The entire finish arena devolved into a partitionless Tomba-rumble. I’d have come up completely dry were it not for the Italian AP correspondent, a former Canadian racer and friend who shouted translated fragments of quotes back to me as Tomba pushed through the crowds.
Lacking the chutzpah for the finish-line interview, I used the post-race press conference as a fallback. Even when sedate their content is suspect. All the World Cup press conferences are emceed and embellished by one guy, who translates the French, German, Italian and English answers on the fly, unencumbered by any standard for accuracy. The result is a sort of Esperanto of sports, a universal language nobody understands.
One telling example was in 1997, when Marc Girardelli retired at the World Championships in Sestriere, Italy. His parting words¿when translated from German to English to French to Italian¿ranged anywhere from two to three times longer than the original. Clearly to all present, especially Girardelli himself, who speaks all of those languages fluently, much was lost¿and even more added¿in the translation.
Loose translations aren’t the only challenges of accurate reporting. The press tends to rely on a framework for their stories andd fit athletes into pre-scripted roles. Every champion is hardworking, every underdog goodhearted, every comeback incredible, every injury career threatening and every rivalry bitter. As an athlete you know this simply isn’t true, but as a journalist you sometimes have to buy into the fact that the storyline is in place before the race is run.
Indeed, part of the struggle for the athlete-turned-journalist is retaining credibility with the athletes while meeting the expectations of a journalist. Inevitably the job requires negative judgments that feel like betrayals.
Late at night, when writing about the American results and wondering how many gentle ways there were to say “sucked,” I had to remind myself of the one thing I wish the press understood. As frustrating as it is to cover poor results, it is exponentially more frustrating to produce them. Or, worse yet, to be defined by them.As a 21-year-old in my first Olympics, I was feeling pretty good about my ninth place finish¿until it became universally known as “the best the U.S. could muster.” Later, my fourth in the Vail World Cup downhill the year after knee surgery was notable because “the Americans couldn’t manage a spot on the podium.” When I finally did make the podium in Japan, no American press was around to record it. The fact that most references to my individual triumphs were as benchmarks for American incompetence was not a self-esteem builder. From that perspective, I can’t blame athletes and coaches for their reticence towards the press.
With a little help gaining insight to the sport and its players, the press would be equipped to focus more on individual performances. Historically the U.S. Ski team has been coy with the press, courting attention yet being overprotective of the athletes, who are typically quite willing to talk. One USA Today reporter trying to get through the Iron Curtain press department to profile Daron Rahlves in Nagano lamented that it was easier to get an interview with Michael Jordan. Journalists who sense a snub do whatever it takes for their assignment and no more, thereby perpetuating the cycle of bad or no press.
Having no heat in the pits and getting questionable accuracy at the press conferences made me appreciate the virtues of writing for a weekly publication, namely the option to lift quotes from the dailies. That freed me up to utilize my two core skills¿skiing and chatting. By going mobile I could sweep all manner of sources¿athletes, coaches, course workers and service reps. Reporters in the pit and the press room undoubtedly mined deeper for their nuggets, but I panned more territory.
For the record, I did get my 15 seconds of fame in the pressroom. After Tomba had won the second of his two gold medals at the World Championships in Spain, he was mobbed at a standing-room-only press conference. While answering the first question, he looked into the crowd and caught my eye, interrupting himself to say, “Hey! How are you? Nice to see you.”
Everyone else’s look seemed to say, “Who are you, weekly girl?” And to all of them I’d respond: “I’m the best former-U.S.-skier-turned-journalist with a roommate Tomba wanted to date that this press room could muster.”
Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her previous Racer eX columns in the Racer eX archives.