Notes on the note-takers

These Olympics have been smooth sailing so far, literally so for Greece’s newest gold medalists, sailors Emilia Tsoulfa and Sophia Bekatorou, gymnast Demosthenes Tampakos, race-walker Athanassia Tsoumeleka, but equally for all the organizers and the country. This has followed the first-week, tragedy-and-triumph combination wrought by the Thanou-Kenteris drug test mystery story that was topped, just hours later, by an opening ceremony widely hailed as the best ever. A third opening salvo came from Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos, who gave the world’s press a thorough and well-deserved tongue lashing for getting so down on the Greek Games before they had even begun, a rush to judgment based on the last-minute rush to finish everything, as well as the long delays just getting to the final stretch. Maybe it’s divine comeuppance, but the media has, itself, been on the receiving end of other such withering opinion as well, some, if not all, justified. Even in the flush of victory at Aghios Cosmas, Bekatorou and Tsoulfa could not resist poking at the media’s tendency to create instant heroes and cold-shoulder those considered has-beens or hopeless hopefuls (Bekatorou had been widely written off due to injury earlier this year.) And in the still-running and still-expanding story of drugs at the Games, including the sadder case of lifter Leonidis Sampanis, it is the media who often stand accused of following it to the exclusion of all else – including how well the Games are running – and hyping even that (drugs) story out of proportion. On Saturday evening, one channel showed a foreign athlete gushing about how perfect the Games were; on another, Greek journalists in a studio were shouting at each other about who was to blame for the drugs embarrassment. In pursuing the heart of their story, some in the media have taken the soul out of the Games. In this case, of course, it is the Greek media who are mainly zoned in. For the rest, it involves a few athletes and a coach, just an unfortunate and badly timed local angle on a huge and ongoing problem. A segmented mass Representatives of the media live in an Olympics bubble: They’re given huge, side-by-side workspaces at the International Broadcast Center (IBC) and Main Press Center (MPC), transported to venues in special coaches, housed (except those who choose otherwise), have use of a continually updated Intranet information service, fed start and result sheets and bottled water, given huge swathes of desk space at venues to work in, and can come in and out of events (except for some high-demand ones) at will. There is something unnatural about seeing masses of (mainly) men in shorts and T-shirts bent over laptops, working ferociously at appalling hours. In 2004, only one ingredient is missing: decent food, a richly ironic oversight in this land of varied and subtle if underappreciated cuisine. Beware underfed journalists. The Olympics are now a made-for-media event, with twice as many journalists as athletes; numbers alone mean they can’t be avoided. But given that what they were saying and writing before was so often so wrong, why should we pay attention to what they are saying or doing now? After all, under IOC rules, everybody is entitled to free access via TV to the Games, and they can see for themselves night and day. Even so, the throngs of media are hard to miss, those dog-tagged denizens of the print and visual worlds of ephemera that have taken over Athens in order to report for the folks back home from (but not really about) a quaint old land where people have strange accents and use funny money. Yet given the bewildering complexity of Olympic sport, they remain the filter for the public’s eyes and ears. It is comforting to use the pronoun «they,» or «we,» as if the media were a single mass. But journalists are keenly aware of pecking orders, especially involving themselves, and there is the huge distinction between the MPC, for print journalists, and the IBC, for television and radio. TV is king – specifically the so-called rights-holders, meaning they pay through the nose for their privileges – radio is queen, and newspapers, well, they just scramble. People accredited to the IBC have full run of the MPC facilities, but not vice versa; this has given the out-of-bounds IBC a sort of mystique, like it hides some beautiful secret, when, in reality, according to all reports, it’s just a cavernous place full of sound booths and cabling, and irritatingly cold to boot. Among accredited journalists there is a separate sub-hierarchy, which upholds itself via uncertain but rigid means, and which gives some people free run of the Games (not always deservedly) while restricting others. There are E passes, but also EP, Es, EPs, ET, Ec, Ex, and ENR ones, letters that matter far more than who you actually are. And then there is a separate mass of unaccredited people who hunt for stories on the side and must pay their way into any venue, but have a base at the far more stylish (and more centrally located) Zappeion Hall. They may be the luckier ones, with wide screens to watch the action, access to the Internet (which the MPC doesn’t provide), and no obligation to learn the finer points of eventing, repechage or coxless fours. Even if you can’t tell a press tribune from a mixed zone, it is easy enough for a viewer at home to see the bewildering battery of cameras, flashbulbs and long-armed microphones that greets any newly crowned victor. These crowd the entrance to a long tunnel, «mixed zone» being a metaphor for a jostling, chaotic, artificially lit, charmless place where you risk serious damage from getting beaned by a meter-long telephoto lens, and where normally hard-bitten journalists fawn over teenage gymnasts, scribbling illegible notes and taking boilerplate quotes. At press conferences it’s a bit more civil, either seeing athletes at venues recounting victory and loss, or at the MPC, with its fold-down, fully wired seats with multi-channel translations. The locales may differ, but the function is the same: to bring you the Games, somehow. Those running deadlines; city simply backdrop Covering it all involves waiting as well as rushing. The Kenteris-Thanou case, of course, dragged on for days. Even when a decision was to be announced, at a Wednesday press conference, it was postponed from the morning, set for 2 p.m., delayed to 2.20, then 2.30, then 3 p.m. With an amphitheater full of journalists already fretting about deadlines and with a story still hanging, I wondered how many hundreds of busy man-hours had been lost or wasted, and how many ulcers incubated, in that interlude. The Olympics have a strict calendar and timetable, but the effect of these varies enormously depending on the audience. The earth being round, different people serve audiences in different time zones. North Americans have it easiest in reporting these Games, the luxury of a time lag; even 10 p.m. Athens time is just midafternoon on the US East Coast, where most of the media powerhouses are headquartered, including the granddaddy of them all, NBC, which divvied up around $1 billion for exclusive US coverage. For East Asians, it’s quite hopeless, as early evening here is after midnight back home, too late for tomorrow’s papers. It may not even matter much; more and more are following the Games electronically anyway, especially in the technologically savvy Asian countries. For locals here, the situation is the diciest of all. They are not only charged with getting the stories (and getting them right, for they’re right on the doorstep), which includes not just getting and analyzing the latest results, but whipping serviceable copy out and getting it to tired and harassed editors stuck in the office and who, themselves, have tired and harassed printers breathing down their necks. And with 10,000 athletes’ names (much less their stories) to get right, the possibilities for gaffes are frighteningly wide. The soleless character of a deadline determines not just when you write or how much, but what. The Games happen so fast that yesterday morning’s developments are old news; those from two days ago are fit for the archives. This requires some calculated risk-taking that can backfire. Last week I was following two female Greek athletes, advancing nicely against the competition. I duly wrote up their progress in getting to the elimination round, thinking that if they won medals, we would immediately need to know the context, how they got there. The trouble was that there was no «gap day,» meaning that Tuesday’s qualification led straight to Wednesday’s medal round. So much for the homework; in the event (and in their events), both fell short, leaving a potentially interesting development that never materialized. It was not just end of story; it was no story at all, and I had to eat crow by trying to stay a step ahead. These Games may have history and be making it, but you don’t want your own work to become history before it’s even done. And Greece itself has changed focus even as the focus has shifted from Greece. For so long it was THE Olympics story as the country raced to prepare. Now that they’re done, the country is little more than a cardboard cutout backdrop for many. Even for (and, being generous, excepting) those few journalists who went to Olympia to cover the only event staged there, the shot put last Wednesday, the combination of lost sleep, long hours under the August sun, punishing deadline and long return bus ride can’t have left much energy to really reflect on what it all meant. For many, a sense of history means remembering the 1992 Barcelona Games. Most journalist chatter has Plaka mainly targeted for its bars; few can be bothered to ascend the Acropolis, now stunningly lit at night. The fact is that the media came for the Olympics, a rotating extravaganza whose organization is strictly governed, protected, and stage-managed (though not, of course, what happens in the arena); Greece is merely the midwife. It was nice to pretend otherwise, but also pointless. The hardworking host country is only in the news when something goes wrong. Let’s hope it doesn’t. At the Olympics as elsewhere, the media coverage keeps the Games alive and interesting, while the media is both pampered and kept at arm’s length, a necessity to some and a necessary evil to others in what remains the ultimate public event.

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