Olympic Diary: Surviving the Media Crush

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For every single athlete competing here there are four members of the press who are eager to get the story back to their even more eager editors. According to the IOC there are 2,527 athletes here at the Games, and 8,418 people covering them — a spectacularly imbalanced figure that's merely disconcerting until you find yourself face to face with the media mob. Then it's terrifying.

Here's the scene: The interview area of the Utah Olympic Oval, downstairs from the speedskating rink, where the press waits for athletes and coaches to emerge from their events and talk (or not) to waiting reporters, producers and broadcasters. A metal barrier stands between the reporters and the competitors' pathway — a separation that just barely keeps athletes from being mauled. If there ever was such a thing as decorum among the press, it's shot to hell the minute a hot interview subject comes into the room.

It's just after the first round of the men's 500m speedskating; Jeremy Wotherspoon, the Canadian favorite and front-runner for gold, has just lost everything by tripping on his skate two seconds into the race. Reporters, particularly those writing for a Canadian audience, are hotly debating whether Jeremy will talk. "I heard he's not talking to anyone until tomorrow," one Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter announces. "That's crap," mutters his colleague. "Can he even do that to us?" We all pace back and forth, arguing over whether poor Jeremy will inflict this insult.

Suddenly, a murmur starts near the athletes' entrance, sweeping through the press corps as it turns into a roar. "Casey's here!" This is Casey FitzRandolph, the American who's currently in first place, and who also happens to be one of Wotherspoon's best friends. Just as he stops directly across the barrier from me, I notice that FitzRandolph looks pretty dejected for someone who's got a good chance of winning a medal.

And that's pretty much the last rational thought I have for a good ten Minutes. Before I can catch a breath, I'm smashed up against the metal barrier with eight ski-jacketed arms and elbows waving microphones and tape recorders reaching past me to get to Casey. I try to get away from the crush, which you'd think would make other people happy since it would provide a new front-row audience with FitzRandolph, but I can't leave move. In a daze, it occurs to me that I am now being more intimate with 20 total strangers than I would be except after the most successful of first dates.

When someone's microrecorder clips my right ear rather painfully, I finally decide I've had enough, so I shove, as violently as I possibly can, against the human wall. It gives slightly, just enough to allow me to slither to freedom. As I burst out of the crowd, I hear someone saying, "You think this is bad, wait till the finals tomorrow..."

I am suddenly quite grateful that I'm scheduled to cover skiing tomorrow.

Still, I can't help thinking that perhaps it's rather encouraging that so many reporters want a piece of the action surrounding these largely ignored sports — action usually reserved for multimillionaire superstars of basketball, football and baseball. In the end, despite scaring the heck out of diminutive reporters like myself, the crush of attention focused ever so briefly on these athletes is a very good thing, turning focus away from the hyper-commercial and tightly controlled world of the money sports, and toward Olympians who may very well have just one moment when they are the best interview in town.