Five Rings to Rule Them AllThis is the second Saturday of the Winter Olympics. This means that the sportswriters and broadcasters covering the event can no longer remember their lives before the Games began, and the notion that there is a future where the Games will not be taking place is simply inconceivable. Their lives have boiled down to a few essentials -- the bus schedule, their deadlines, the packets of notes that will allow them to spell Belariusian names correctly, and remembering to step carefully where it's icy.
My former colleagues deserve no sympathy, nor am I asking for any. Covering an Olympics is exhilarating. The hours are long, but so what? You're at the world festival of world championships, attempting to understand athletes from hundreds of countries and what they do and communicate your understanding to the best of your ability. Being surrounded by people who are all busting their ass to excel is good for you. Anyone who attends an Olympics in any capacity and isn't thereby motivated to do their utmost best in their chosen field of endeavor is a sorry soul indeed.
You are also almost certainly in a part of the world that doesn't suck to look at. Whistler is one of the world's most beautiful ski resorts, and there aren't many ugly ones in that competition. At Lillehammer in 1994, I ended a particularly long day of Tonya-Nancy madness by walking alone up a hill to my lodging at about 2 a.m., accompanied only by the Northern Lights. Wasn't a road trip to Buffalo in November, that's for sure.
What the Olympics are, however, is disorienting -- the most disorienting travel experience of my life, even when I covered one in Atlanta. It is difficult to find the words to express how enveloping the Olympic experience is once you get inside it. Another country doesn't do it justice -- you're living on another planet. It truly is what ESPN claims to be, all sports all the time, from waking up to dropping into a troubled sleep dreaming about the rules of archery or ice dancing.
There is no world, national or local news on Planet Olympus. There's agate results of a zillion sports instead. If there was one place on earth where people weren't talking about Tiger Woods yesterday, it was within the venues of the 2010 Winter Games. The non-Olympic time-space continuum becomes less and less of a factor in one's consciousness the longer one is at the Games. And that effect of separation from real life was just as pronounced in Atlanta as it was in Sydney, maybe more, because the city I no longer paid attention to was so familiar.
The closest real world experience I can compare to covering an Olympics is cramming for an exam in college. You get no sleep, while obsessing over facts and topics that will mean nothing the moment the event/exam is over. And all around you, people appear to be having the best party ever, while you drag yourself to the library/fencing venue, feverishly trying to memorize names, dates, rules, etc. Now imagine 17 days straight of exams.
Isolation and focus on one subject also makes you a little strange. If being surrounded by athletes for whom the Games are a supreme moment of importance in their lives for three weeks is inspirational, it also breeds a certain lack of perspective. Taking sides in an argument over how figure skating is scored is not something most people would do no matter how advanced their state of inebriation. But I would have written a column doing just that if I were in Vancouver. And no matter which side I took, I'm sure I would have been damn bitter about it.
There are sportswriters, not many but a few, who do NOTHING but cover Olympics and the Olympic sports in non-Olympic years. At least two or three of them aren't completely nuts, but they're a minority among their peers. That beat involves a lot of travel to nice places (the IOC holds no meetings in East St. Louis, Illinois) but I think bomb disposal duty would be better for one's long term mental health.
So I hope readers will understand that while the four Olympics I covered remain in my memory as the professional and personal highlights of my sportswriting career, with only Super Bowl XXXVI, the 2003 ALCS and the 2004 World Series matching them, part of those memories is how glad I was when each of those Olympics was over, and I heard the magic words "We're number one for takeoff." For one thing, I was tired. Weren't you tired, dear reader, after all the greatest experiences of your life were over?
And oddly enough, one of the happiest of my Olympic memories is of going back to work after a few days off. It felt so great, covering an event which WASN'T the most important moment in the lives of all concerned.
There's a lot to be said for the experience of just another ballgame.