An excerpt from "The Winter Olympics: An Insider's Guide to the Legends, the Lore, and the Games" by Ron C. Judd, a Seattle Times staff reporter.
It’s 5 am, and the sun has not yet risen on Nagano, Japan.
I’m half asleep, which is a good thing, because full consciousness would only amplify the searing pain in my knees, wedged into the seatback in front of me on a bus designed for fourth graders.
It’s mid-February, 1998—almost halfway through the Nagano Olympic Games. I’m sick, having been assailed by some feverish bug that always seems to rage through the Olympic Village and media center at every such global gathering of tens of thousands of people working too long, sleeping too little, and stressing too much. I’m tired, having boarded this same bus four times in the past week to undertake the winding, three-hour journey to Hakuba, in the Japanese Alps, to cover a ski race that, in every instance, was canceled because of excess snow.
And I’m grumpy, fully immersed in the mid-Olympics fog that overtakes all Olympics journalists after more than a week of 20-hour days, nonstop deadlines, unsympathetic editors, and—let’s just come right out and say it—the entire European media corps, every member of which seems to be a chain smoker.
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Amidst all this, the idling bus, parked next to the apartment building serving as media housing, offers a rare cocoon of calm. Five or six dozen “ringheads,” as Olympic journalists call themselves, are sitting there, backpacks in their laps, trying to catch a few winks and silently wondering how those poor saps who boarded late are going to be able to stand in that skinny center aisle for the next three hours without dropping dead.
Breaking the silence, from the front row comes the surprisingly loud pshhht! of an aluminum can tab being pulled, then pushed back. Followed by a noisy, pronounced sluuuurp, the way someone might thirstily sip tea. And a glurg-glurg swallowing, capped off by a hefty sigh.
“Aaaah. Nothing like a hot can of coffee in the morning,” the faceless canned-coffee drinker deadpans to no one in particular.
At which point we all bust up, right there, on that cramped, smelly bus, parked in a rain squall in Nagano, in the middle of Japan, where you can, and often must, buy everything—everything—including your favorite piping-hot coffee drink, from a vending machine.
It was a moment of great levity, because in our journalistic stupor we all realized that each of us had been on the business end of the same can of coffee more times than we could count in the past days—and probably at many Olympics past. And with that small, shared indignity, a sense of camaraderie spread through the bus like roasted garlic wafting from an Italian restaurant. It made us all feel just a little bit more okay.
In my case, a whole lot of Olympic memories include public transport—the effectiveness of which, when you come right down to it, is really what defines the success or failure of any given Olympics. In simple terms: If you want to get up close and personal with Olympic glory, you’ve got to be able to get to the ice rink.
“What’s it like to cover the Games?” friends, colleagues, and students sometimes ask.
“You ride a lot of buses,” I’ll say.
The truth is, however, that covering the Olympics is any good journalist’s dream assignment. The palette of possible stories laid out before you every day is broad, diverse, and occasionally even magical. Good journalism, for all its acknowledged faults, is little more than good storytelling. And good stories are rife with drama. Few other assignments, short of war, perhaps, afford a dramatic stage as brightly lit as an Olympic Games.
Mixed in with that dream job, however, are frequent bouts of nightmare. Yes, great stories are there for the taking, any day and every day. But where do you start? You start the night before with the following day’s schedule, which you’re usually poring over with some colleagues, trying to do some basic triage. What to cover? If I take the bus to Hakuba to watch Hermann Maier ski the downhill, will I be back in time to watch Michelle Kwan skate? (Answer: No. I stayed in town—and missed Maier’s legendary ascent into orbit before he crashed spectacularly after flying 60 feet into the cold, thin air above Hakuba.)
Often, coverage choices are dictated by simple logistics. The daily challenge goes something like this: (1) Pick a sport, any sport. (2) Figure out how in the world you will get there under the constraints of the Olympics’ byzantine, baffling, and all-too-often ineffectual bus system. (3) Strategize about just how early you need to be at the chosen venue to get a decent seat in its cramped, overrun, temporary press center and hook your laptop up to AC power and internet connections before they’re all taken by someone else. (4) Make a test run and compile a mental map of a route from the arena, where the game or event is taking place, to the bowels of the venue to find the “mix zone,” a fenced-off area where competitors are interviewed, and then back into the press center to write and file your story or photos, usually on a tight deadline. (5) Pace yourself, knowing that you must get back to the main press center, regroup, and do it all over again—as many as three or four times a day, for the three-week duration of most Olympics.
If you play this game successfully, of course, the payoff can be tremendous. It is almost a given that, sooner or later, you’re going to see something great—perhaps even transcendent. The flip side? You’re going to miss about five other similarly grand moments, simply because you can be in only one place at one time—and most of us, about half the time, choose the wrong one. It’s the nature of the beast. And it is why, after more than a decade of covering the Olympics, I’ve come to greatly prefer the Winter Games.
It’s a matter of personal taste: Winter sports such as alpine and cross-country skiing are things that I actually do, from my home in the northwestern corner of the United States. But it’s also a matter of professional pragmatism: The Winter Games are much smaller than their summer counterpart. The entire schedule for the complete seventeen days fits on one sheet of paper—albeit one with type that grows harder and harder to read every time the torch is relit.
With fewer choices, the odds are that you’ll be there when, say, Kjetil André Aamodt of Norway closes out his spectacular career by becoming both the youngest and oldest man ever to win an alpine skiing gold medal. It’s simply more manageable.
This has been true of the Winter Games throughout history, until the recent shift to host cities that are major metropolitan areas. Most of the Winter Games up through Lillehammer in 1994 had a small-town, folksy feel. They were truly intimate events, the kind of scene where any of the 4,000 permanent residents of a small burg like Lake Placid, New York, could actually rub elbows with winter-sport legends such as Ingemar Stenmark or Eric Heiden at a local café. For that reason alone, the Winter Games, at least until recent years, have always brought their own unique, alpine-village charm.
Of course, such remote, high-altitude locales present their own challenges, some of which, through history, have threatened to bring the Games to a halt. Since their very beginning high in the Alps at Chamonix, the Winter Games seem to have carried a weather curse. Mountain towns that haven’t had a warm spell since Columbus sailed can be relied on to have one just in time for the Olympics, sending host nations into a frenzied panic and the schedule into complete disarray. It happens. You adjust. Once it all begins, and that runner touches off the cauldron in whatever inventive way the latest host city has devised to launch the Games, you’re quickly sucked into the maw of scheduling, harried transit, and fatigue. And as a journalist, you always seem to be about a half-day behind.
Complicating things further is the fact that there are two often wildly differing versions of reality during an Olympic Games: the one athletes and spectators see, feel, touch, taste, and smell—and the glossy, usually tape-delayed version you see back at home, on TV. Ever since the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, the first Olympics to be broadcast more or less in their entirety on television, the TV version—which those of us on the ground really have no access to—has largely set the agenda. It’s the one our editors—not to mention billions of global Olympic watchers—are plugged into. If a particular story—a figure skating judging scandal, say—dominates TV coverage, it quickly will dominate the lives of people at the Games themselves. At that point, our own version of what’s most important at the Olympics that day is essentially rendered moot. TV, in addition to paying most of the Olympics’ bills, also plots its story lines, simply because it is the prism through which most of the world experiences the Games.
In some cases, those story lines are obvious, and TV gets it right. It’s difficult even for grumpy cynics to argue, for example, with the made-for-TV grandeur of an Olympics opening or closing ceremony. I’ll make a confession here that I might not make on a crowded bus full of journalists: I’m a ceremony geek. To me, the pomp and pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies, while admittedly usually over the top, provides many of the more memorable moments at any Olympics, because they emphasize the Games’ great cultural melting pot.
Some folks blow the ceremonies off; journalists watch the TV feedback at the press center and write about it as if they’d been right in its midst. It’s a lot easier that way, frankly (again, transport and logistics). Not me. I want to be there, to live it and feel it, even if that means, as it did in Salt Lake City, fighting through crowds to get to the press center, where I sat, fingers completely frozen from being out in the 20-degree weather for three hours, and attempted to write a coherent story for page one of the next day’s paper, in about 15 minutes.
Afterward, I remember feeling the way I do after every Olympics: exhausted, wrung out, used up—and buzzed.
Why? The Olympics is unlike anything else out there. It is a rare moment in time when all the people of the world come together as one to do something besides attempt to kill one another. The planet stops, at least for a second, and turns its focus on one place, one competition, for three medals. Gold, silver, bronze.
It is that complicated and that simple and, when it all works as well as it can, that beautiful.
From an inside perspective, inside the arenas, inside the locker rooms, inside the offices and ceremonies and what passes as media housing, the Olympics are a lot like they must seem from the outside. Just extremely amplified. The lows—the backstabbing between national federations, the politics, the sponsor money-grubbing, the insane caste system in which Olympic Family are treated like royalty while local residents of the host city are snubbed or even physically relocated—seem even lower from up close.
But the highs—Croatian skier Janica Kostelić persevering to become the greatest female alpine skier in Olympic history in spite of growing up in a nation, Croatia, that had no ski team and barely had a country—are that much higher when the stars are right there, within your reach, where you can see their tears and feel their exultation.
There’s no way to truly describe how it feels to stand there as history unfolds. I will go to my grave remembering the clock ticking down to zero on the first-ever women’s gold medal hockey game, where the United States edged out Canada for the gold medal in 1998. Athletes from both teams—they had and still have a rivalry that borders on hate—dropped gloves and sticks and hugged one another, reveling in the historic significance. For once, it wasn’t about who won. It was about female hockey players who had dared to dream, all those years, on playgrounds and ice rinks around the world. They had arrived. Arrivals are great stories. We all stood there and watched, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. That’s what makes it all worthwhile. Deadlines be damned; this is history, and if you don’t pause to soak it all up, you’re either dead or a fool.
Covering the Olympics is a special privilege, and no matter how much we media people gripe about schedules and deadlines, deep down, each of us ringheads knows it and embraces it. The Olympics can be maddening. But when the magic happens and you’re close enough to reach out and touch it, it’s very real.
That, in fact, was a large part of the motivation for this book. As an Olympics observer, I am far from an expert on the Games, past or present. I’m just a guy who happened to be lucky enough to fall into a job that takes me on a worldwide tour in pursuit of the flame every two years. I was fortunate enough at one point, in fact, to carry the flame, on the torch relay for the 2002 Salt Lake Games. It moved me, and some part of me will always feel the heat from that flame held high above my head.
It sounds corny, but if you’re there, you understand. My hope for this book is to take you there, for a few moments, a few hours, or a few days, and help you draw closer to the true meaning of that flame, to help you get a better sense of what the Games represent.
One way to do that is to mine the Olympics’ rich past. Another is to flesh out the rules, skills, equipment, and field of play to help you better understand—and, I hope, more fully enjoy—the Games in the present. Yet another is to bring to life some of the Winter Games’ greatest stars—larger-than-life legends of the ice and snow.
I’ve endeavored to do all of that in this book, mixing my own firsthand knowledge of the modern Winter Olympics with archival knowledge of Games past. I believe a full grounding in the often folksy, occasionally zany, always heartwarming roots of the Winter Games is particularly relevant now, as we stand on the cusp of the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada, the largest metropolitan area ever to host a Winter Olympics and clearly the most diverse, globally focused city ever to take on the task.
The world has high hopes for the Sea to Sky Games, as they’re known in British Columbia. As do I. The Games are literally right up the road from my home in the Pacific Northwest. They are, likewise, a short hop away for most Americans. So my parting advice would be this: If you can, go. Find a way to fight through the maddening allocation process and get tickets. You’re not likely to be disappointed. You might make for yourself a lifetime memory. And if you can’t go? Watch, read, listen, enjoy. Soak it up from home. The Olympics are a grand excuse for broadening ourselves, standing back and dropping the stock report and glimpsing, just for a moment, how we relate to, and fit in with, the rest of the world.
If you can find that moment and drink in that view, the Olympics will have been a success. And if this book helps push you closer to that viewpoint, I’ll consider it a worthy endeavor as well.
A Brief Guide to the Guide
This book began with a simple goal: Assemble a compendium of knowledge about the Winter Olympics to help the average person better understand the Games. Whether you’ll be watching in person or via broadcast, or just discussing the topic with friends, the information and stories compiled here will help you become conversant in any Winter Olympics sport. It’s designed to give the casual fan of the Winter Games a broader context of the event throughout history, and fill in those knowledge gaps—how many jumps does a ski jumper take during the Nordic combined?—that we all have, particularly for sports most of us see only once every four years.
The material also is, I hope, interesting enough on its face—given all the lore, mystery, and fascinating backdrops of the Games—to be a worthwhile read, even for the decidedly non-Olympiphile.
Either way, this guide is organized in a way that makes it easy to skip around to something that piques your interest.
Sport by Sport
The book is organized by sporting event, grouped into ice sports and snow sports. Individual chapters describe individual pursuits—hockey, speedskating, cross-country skiing, and the like. Each chapter begins with an overview of the sport, often including an anecdote from my personal experience at the Olympics or compelling stories from Games past that illustrate the character of each given sport.
The “Spectator’s Guide” sections are a simple introduction to the sport: how it’s competed, on what field of play, with what equipment, how one wins, and so on. Few people really know all the rules of the events they see so infrequently. And even those of us who witness them more often usually benefit from a refresher course.
History’s Hits and Misses
Each Spectator’s Guide is followed by a “History’s Hits & Misses” section, a grab bag of great exploits, notable flops, unforgettable moments, and trivia from the annals of the sport in question. It’s sort of the CliffsNotes on the subject, the basic boilerplate history any educated Olympic fan needs to know.
Each chapter also features the “Record Book,” a section describing prominent medalists in the sport. Note that I make no attempt here to include all medalists in a sport. Other published works, most notably David Wallechinsky’s indispensable The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, do that and more, listing the top finishers in each event for the entirety of the Games’ history. Instead, I have attempted here to summarize, listing interesting trends (such as the Soviet Union’s decades-long lock on the gold medal in pairs figure skating, or Canada’s early dominance in ice hockey). I also have endeavored to single out prominent medalists, especially those with long Olympic careers and noteworthy medal hauls. Lastly, I’ve attempted to list all of the North American medalists for each sport. This is not intended as a slight on other deserving medalists; it’s simply a reflection of the primary audience for this book: North Americans.
Each chapter concludes with the section “Next Stop,” describing the venue where that sport will take place for the Vancouver 2010 Games. In some cases, these sections include detailed reviews of the actual field of play from athletes who have participated in test events at the venues (most of which are new). When appropriate, I’ve also included information on how to use the venue—for your own figure skating turns or weekend mogul attempts—when and if it’s open and available for public use.
Legends of the Sport and Olympic Flashbacks
Interspersed throughout the book are two other features: “Legend of the Sport” pieces highlight an athlete whose Olympic Games performance truly qualifies him or her as legendary. The title is not bestowed lightly; you have to have done something remarkable to earn the label. Note that several of the newer sports don’t include a “legend” because, frankly, I don’t believe they’ve been around long enough for any athlete to have earned the title. “Olympic Flashbacks” are moment-in-time glimpses of my reporting of the Games. Each is a column filed from the Winter Olympics and published in the following day’s Seattle Times as part of my general Olympic beat reporting. I reproduce them here because they say, in a manner more fresh and of-the-moment, more about an event than I could ever hope to say by re-creating it from memory. They are some of my favorite pieces filed from the Winter Olympics.