Win a medal. Now what? Welcome to the mixed zone.
When Julia Mancuso skied to the bottom of the Franz's Run at Whistler Creekside Thursday afternoon, she looked at the scoreboard, saw herself in first, fell to the ground and began kicking her skis in celebration. She then skied off course through a gate, ensured of a medal.
Then her day truly began.
The shots on television of almost any medal winner at these Vancouver Olympics are of exultation, maybe some tears, definitely broad smiles. But those shots are only snippets of what happens after a medal-winning performance. Welcome to the mixed zone.
The Olympics not only bring together athletes and fans from all over the world, but reporters from every corner, too. At any Olympic venue, reporters are confined to an area, separate from the athletes, called the mixed zone. And it is a trip through the mixed zone that can actually be more tiring than an athletic event.
Take Alpine skiing. When a potential medal winners finish their race, they head off to a side area at the base of the course, waiting to see if they end up on the podium. Once the top 30 skiers -- the only ones with a real chance to win -- are through, the medals are all but secured. Let the interviews begin!
Each athlete must walk through a fenced-off corridor, with reporters stationed safely on the other side. The first portion is the broadcast mixed-zone. When you see those quick, postrace interviews on NBC, they're from NBC's position in the broadcast mixed zone -- the third spot, behind the Olympics rights holder from the host nation (in this case, CTV) and then something called the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS), which gathers feeds that can be used by any rights holders.
So three quick interviews, then done, right? Uh, no. Just getting started.
There are 22 television rights holders. So after Lindsey Vonn, for instance, won her gold medal in the women's downhill on Wednesday, and NBC's cameras captured the moment when Vonn found her husband, Thomas, there was much more to come. Yes, those would be OBS workers lurking in the background. The reason: Get the crying over with, Lindsey. You've got 19 more interviews to go.
Actually, that's not true either. Nineteen more interviews would be a breeze. Those are just the television stops -- at the national rights holders for Germany, Austria, Switzerland (which wants answers in three languages, if possible), Great Britain, Slovenia, even Australia, which doesn't have a skier on the hill. Try mustering that same, sobbing emotion after you have heard the same question 22 times. Each television station is supposed to take 30 seconds, maybe a minute. I'm not saying this time gets abused by, say, NBC from time to time. But imagine the difficulty organizers would have cutting off an interview in the interest of time. (You think, for instance, NBC's going to ask Julia Mancuso two questions about her second medal just so they can be polite to TV Norway? Or that Bode Miller's going to cut off one of his rambling answers so he can move on to Italy's question?)
(Oh, and forget that Vonn did her interviews standing. In her ski boot. On her bruised right shin. Which was, as she said Thursday, "killing me.")
Okay, now a chance to rest? Again, no. Next up: Six dedicated radio positions, broadcasters from various countries that have paid for the right to carry the Olympics -- and, therefore, have the right to ask questions of the athletes. Yes, they're almost certainly the same questions -- "Lindsey! How does it feel? How is your shin?" -- but they are their questions that will be broadcast on their air nonetheless.
(Keep in mind that humble scribes like yours truly are still waiting to talk to the athletes at this point. Just sayin'.)
Then, at some point as the final skiers are finishing their races, officials snag the medal-winning athletes from the mixed zone so they can get prepared for the medal ceremony. Wait, did I say medal ceremony? I meant flower ceremony. Olympic medals are no longer handed out at the venues for most events. Rather, the athletes are introduced on a podium and handed flowers. Plastic flowers, from what I could tell from Mancuso's bouquet yesterday, but flowers all the same. There is no national anthem played. That comes later in the evening -- did we mention this was a long day? -- at, in the case of the Alpine sports, a place called Medals Plaza in Whistler Village.
Vonn's Wednesday night, after she won her first Olympic medal, "was crazy," according to her husband, Thomas Vonn.
"It was fantastic," he said. "It was very draining just going from first thing in the morning till I'd say about 11 o'clock at night. There wasn't much rest, but she was ready to go [Thursday in the super combined]....It was basically press to press to press."
Oh yeah. The press. Back to the mountain. When the flower ceremony is over, the athletes return to hell -- er, the mixed zone. They finish whatever broadcast interviews they haven't done yet (remember, there are 28 dedicated spots). Then they move to the den of iniquity that is the ENG pen. "ENG" stands for "electronic news gathering," and this fenced-off area, on a given day, could hold two or three dozen microphone-toting heathens who are rights holders. (Remember, if you don't hold the rights, you can't shoot video here, which is why you don't see one-on-one interviews from any venues on ESPN.) The ENG folks may be from a local NBC affiliate in the United States or a magazine show on one of the Austrian television stations or what have you. At any rate, it's another stop.
Next up: The wire services, who have the distinction of being stop number 30. (Vonn, the other day, bolted out of the mixed zone and basically Lambeau Leaped into her family in the crowd. But for most athletes, they haven't yet had the chance yet to celebrate with their people. Amazing.) The Associated Press, Reuters, the Canadian Press -- those large news-gathering organizations that serve many outlets have their own small pen, and they get the athletes just before (drumroll, please)...
The Press! Yes, ladies and gentleman, we lowlifes from The Washington Post, Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times -- and any other U.S. or foreign newspaper or magazine -- still remain. In general, if an American athlete wins a medal, he or she will spend five or seven minutes with those of us standing in the snow. That group, on the Wednesday of the women's downhill, was perhaps 60 or 70 American journalists strong, with columnists (don't get me started) and others making the trek up from Vancouver to chart Vonn's big day.
By Thursday, the press mixed zone was so icy we were about to take a pool as to which reporter would fall first, thus wiping out half the herd. Many of the athletes know many of the journalists in this pen, so it can be pretty relaxed. But by this point, the raw emotion is almost certainly gone. Vonn, by her own admission, bawled her way through her first several interviews Wednesday. By the time she came to us, she had to describe said bawling.
(This is not, by the way, meant as a complaint that we, Keepers of the Printed Word, are last. It is, though, an illustration of what the athletes go through.)
So with all that done, let's go inside. Time for the press conference! Why, after all this, would a press conference be necessary, you ask? This is the official event, where there is a translator up front. English is the official language of the Olympics (it replaced French several years ago), so any answers given in, say, Swedish will be translated into English, and answers given in English can be translated into French if anyone in the room needs that, too.
Monday, after Miller won bronze in the men's downhill, the first three questions at the press conference were from Americans, directed at Miller. The press manager, seated at the dais, then tried to encourage questions for Didier Defago of Switzerland and Aksel Lund Svindal from Norway -- you know, the guys who actually beat Miller. When Svindal accepted a question, Miller stood up. "Okay, I'm going," he said, and he shook hands with Defago.
It was two hours after the race. Miller had been subjected to questions almost constantly throughout that time. He was about to head from the mountain to a press conference at the main Whistler media center, so that journalists who had been covering other events in the mountains -- sliding sports or Nordic skiing -- could get their questions in as well.
And when Miller left, a small group of American journalists (including me) headed out the door after him. "Bode, another question?"
Miller stopped on the pavement on the side of the hill, took a breath and patiently provided some of his best answers of the day.
February 19, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
Categories: Press Center , Skiing , Television , Vancouver 2010
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