There are a group of people who spend their life seeking the constant change and irregular adrenaline rush of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. These are ‘Olympic nomads’ and no sooner does one Games finish, than they are already moving home and signing contracts for the next one.
London 2012 was my first taste of living the Olympic and Paralympic lifestyle, joining the Press Operations Team and transforming from media manager to journalist in the space of just a few weeks.
There were some 25,800 accredited media during London 2012; more than twice the number of competing athletes. Around 5,800 of them were housed in the hangar-like Main Press Centre (MPC) on the Olympic Park in Stratford. The remainder spent their time moving from the work rooms, tribunes and media conference areas of specific venues, or living out of hotel rooms around the UK and using the massive Info+ media database to download results, biographies and a host of other Games information.
It’s difficult to comprehend the scale of organisation required for the media alone. Huge handbooks of travel information, hotel locations, press attaché contact numbers and team liaison details were produced, along with glossy, sport-specific brochures from the sport federations. Some of the larger teams provided their own comprehensive media guides, with sport terminology – particularly for the paralympics – and detailed biographies of each team member.
View from the top table
During the Olympics, I was tasked with managing and facilitating media conferences held in the Basketball Arena. Media training – including how to run media conferences – is part of my ‘normal’ business. But, it’s still hard to prepare for six daily media conferences, only reducing over last two days when the medal games were played. By the end of two weeks, with the help of an extremely competent and hard-working team of volunteers, I had chaired 72 conferences, sometimes with more than 100 international media in the room.
Some challenges were expected: coaches, and occasionally players, behaving like divas; language and interpretation spats; maintaining a semblance of order when one country’s media were on deadline while the other was working to a different beat and quite happy to ask long, meandering questions. The post-conference huddles with some teams – particularly China and the USA – were also impressive.
Other issues surprised me. For instance, the need to inspect athletes and coaches before allowing them into the media conference room, to ensure any visible clothing logos were the correct size and they weren’t wearing logo-embossed contact lenses (yes, seriously). Thankfully, it wasn’t an issue – I was none too keen having to tell a 7’ 3” NBA superhero to remove his designer shades.
There was the attention to detail of conference room layout, right down to the alternating ice-cold Powerade and Coke bottles on the top table with labels facing outwards – the ‘Look of Success’ according to our sponsors.
There were also moments of pure entertainment, which could only come from building a rapport with coaches, players and the specialist media. Pronunciation of difficult names, players swapped at the last minute and wrongly introduced, banter between myself, journalists and coaches and even postponing a conference while we all sat and watched Usain Bolt destroy his own Olympic record in the 100m final.
Then, of course, there was the Bolt-mimicking invasion of my conference room by eight of the Swedish women’s handball team. Yeah, well, it was a tough job but…
Perhaps most revealing was the behaviour of the media themselves. Overall, we developed a good rapport – particularly with the specialists – who were supportive, usually friendly and used to working with the teams and the media conference format. In return, I was often able to give them the opening question or other props.
However, the high profile events put a strain on everyone. Although media accreditation gave access to any venue at any time, for track and field, swimming and cycling certain events (like the men’s 100m final, or Phelps’ last race) were deemed ‘High Demand’ and even the media had to apply for tickets. Not so the first couple of basketball games involving the men’s USA team.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve behaved badly as a journalist in my time, but watching professional hacks having to be physically restrained by security while we battled to identify the ‘workers’ from the ‘freeloaders’ was something of an eye-opener.
I still ponder the number of journalists arriving with just minutes to go before tip-off and being shocked to find the 350+ media seats already taken. Then there was the BBC radio presenter, surrounded by a bevvy of self-important producers, who was suddenly ‘working’ on basketball despite the words “lay-up” and “in the paint” never having crossed his lips in his many illustrious years of broadcasting and ignoring the fact that Five Live’s sports specialist, Chris Mitchell, had already been seated and commentating for the past two hours before the game.
Gamekeeper turned poacher
Olympics over, next up the Paralympics. I upped sticks, trekked across the grassy knoll of Park Live, through the wild meadows by the River Lea and re-pitched my tent in the offices of Paralympic News Service (PNS) at the Stadium. A PNS bib, a notepad and dictaphone and the transformation from media manager to journalist was complete.
Suddenly, my accreditation was going to allow me to go anywhere I wanted and no jumped-up security guard or media team leader was going to stop me. Hang on: this sounds horribly familiar.
The role of a Flash Quotes Reporter was to have athletes’ comments posted to the Info+ database in 15 minutes, including transcription (often with the help of an interpreter) and the quotes being passing by at least three subs and an Editor. With anything up to 25 events being held in the Stadium during a three hour session, ‘intense’ doesn’t come close to describing the task of keeping track of the action, identifying the correct athletes walking or rolling through the mixed zone, asking enough questions of interest about themselves and their event to gain a few decent quotes and inputting them into the system in a way that met an extremely exacting house style.
That week and a half was, as one of the Press Ops team described it, “an experience of the purest form of journalism”. Raw, un-PR’d, adrenaline-filled emotion delivered straight to the camera lens, microphone or shorthand page by the world’s elite impaired athletes. It certainly didn’t get any more raw than Oscar Pistorius’ outburst about the length of Brazilian Alan Oliviera’s blades after the South African’s shock defeat in the 200m final. Naturally, I wasn’t on shift that night!
But I had my fair share of ‘scoops’: an allegation of ‘technical doping’ by one athlete; being involved in coining the phrase “Thriller Thursday”, which even gained a mention on BBC’s coverage of the Athlete’s parade; kneeling trackside, under the Channel 4 camera, to grab the first quotes from Pistorius and GBR’s David Weir after gold medal winning performances. As a journalist, particularly a former sports broadcaster, life doesn’t get any better.
Apart from the teamwork engendered by the PNS Reporters – covering each other, helping to fill the gaps or simply being a copy typist – perhaps the most affirming aspect was the positive dynamic of the media pack. Sure, they all had agendas and wanted to get their own questions answered, but everyone respected each other’s need to work.
I became reliant on Mohamed from one of the Iranian news outlets for interpretation with their very successful field athletes. In return, I gave him quotes if he was late in getting to the Mixed Zone. There was Marjie – the Australian Press Attache and journalist – who helped me deliver some great quotes from some very talented athletes and a wonderful Ukranian journalist without whom I would have missed vital medal-winner’s quotes. On balance, the global media’s performance reflected the positivity that marked the whole of the Olympic and Paralympic games. From a PR perspective, it was a singular transformation from pre-Games cynicism to post-event triumph.
In recent years, I have worked with PR students in the early stages of their careers. My opening gambit is usually that, as a communications professional, you are in an extremely privileged position with access to people and places that many can only dream of. I’m also old-school enough to believe that any involvement in media relations requires first-hand knowledge and experience of how the media works.
Without question, London 2012 was one of the most challenging and, at times, draining experiences of my working career. But my over-riding feeling was one of privilege to have been a very small cog in the massive Olympic communications machine, whilst at the same time receiving the very best in personal development. Maybe I could even be tempted to join the happy band of Olympic nomads: next up, Rio.
Peter Brill is managing director of Net.Mentor, a specialist editorial and communications consultancy based in the UK. His career encompasses public relations, professional PR education and media roles, with expertise in radio and sports journalism. Peter can be found in LinkedIn and followed on Twitter at @Brill_Mentor.
Credit: In conference image – Mansoor Ahmed.