Life of a reporter in Sochi
Two days ago, I asked my Facebook friends what they would like to know about the Olympics and Sochi. Responses included:
- Do I feel safe? Yes. Security is tight but not oppressive.
- What's it like behind-the-scenes of the Today Show? I have no idea. I don't have broadcast accreditation.
- And is there a topless picture of Vladimir Putin in my hotel room? No, thank goodness.
Unfortunately, I cannot answer many of the questions because my accreditation as a print (website) journalist does not grant me access to the athletes except at the venues after they compete. And I am not accredited for the broadcast centers or the stands.
At the Olympics, the print media are considered a bit like the obnoxious cousins who have to be invited to the wedding. While we have great "seats" to each event, we are put off in the corner the rest of the time as if to say, "Please don't interact with the rest of the guests."
At the venues, we can watch the competitions and interview athletes from a barricaded area at the bottom of the stands called the mixed zone. It's a thin area cordoned off by barriers, and as my colleague Elliott Almond describes it, "when the athletes come through on the other side of the barrier, we are crushed into each other to ask questions." (And by the second week of the Games, when no one has had time to do laundry, the mixed zone can overwhelm the olfactory system.)
To reach the venues, we take specific media busses on which the public is not allowed. Security checks our accreditation as we get on and off the bus, and once on the bus, the door is taped closed only to be opened when we reach the venue. I suppose that we could take public transportation, but I would not know how or where to catch a bus or train.
Here in Sochi-as in London-media are housed in specific hotels (or, um, dorms) away from spectators, athletes' families, and particularly the athletes. Several of the media hotels are located on a mountainside that's only reachable by gondola (which I just learned stops running to repair "technical disasters" every night from 3 a.m. to 4:30 a.m.). It's as if we are quarantined. Fortunately, the mountainside hotels are lovely. Mine even comes with a man who introduced himself as my butler!
The athletes are housed in the Olympic Village-or in Sochi's case, Olympic Villages. No one is allowed in the villages without a guest pass. And journalists are only granted rare tours before the Games start. Ice skaters, curlers, speed skaters, and hockey players who compete at the coastal venues have their own coastal Olympic Village.
In the mountains, cross-country skiers and biathletes are housed in the "endurance village," a cluster of chalets at the Laura cross-country and biathlon venue. The rest of the skiers, snowboarders, lugers, bobsledders, etc., are housed on the other side of the steep mountain valley in Swiss-like chalets near the Rosa Khutor extreme park and alpine venue. Some athletes have their own housing though. The U.S. skiers are not staying in the Olympic Village. And some only move into the villages after they finish competing.
Athletes' friends and family are staying in many of the local hotels that aren't reserved for media, such as several hotels in the resort village of Rosa Khutor. Were it not for the Cyrillic letters on the signs, Rosa Khutor could pass for a mountain village in the Swiss Alps.
So I have no idea what the athletes are eating, but it has to be better than the gray vegetables swimming in grease that are served daily to the many "media lounges."
People have also asked me about the local reaction to the influx of tourists, and how the athletes are interacting with the locals. I wish I knew. The language barrier is huge here. Very few Russians speak English. In Europe, I can get by on English, French in the present tense, my two years of high school Latin, and a bit of gesticulating. Here, just saying hello is a mouthful-"zdravstvuitye." So I nod, smile a lot, and say "sa-SEE-ba" (thank you).
The workload of covering the Olympics also keeps us pesky journalists from bothering the locals. We arrive at the venues at least an hour before the competitions start-after a one-hour commute from our hotels. Once the competitions are over, the athletes first talk to the many rights-holding TV broadcasters. Then they are interviewed by rights-holding agencies (such as AP and Reuters). Up to two hours later, they drift into the mixed zone where the print journalists patiently wait.
Last night, Shaun White didn't make it into the mixed zone until 12:30 a.m. (men's halfpipe finished around 10 a.m.). After transcribing interviews and writing our stories, we often aren't in bed until 4 a.m. just to get up at 7 a.m. and do it all over again.
I wouldn't trade it for the world though. Interviewing athletes soon after they have either had the biggest moment in their athletic careers-or biggest heartbreak-is a privilege, especially for the athletes whom we have covered closely for years. Their journey has in many ways been our journey. And for that, I say "sa-SEE-ba."
PO Box 4508