My mouth was agape. My eyes must have resembled a deers frozen-in-the-headlights
look. For one of the few times in my life, I genuinely was numbstruck
After a few ticks, my heart rate began its descent to normal and
blood began flowing again to my brain. I quickly decided this was
easily the highlight of my stint in Salt Lake City.
I was in the home of the Mormon religion for the Winter Olympics,
or, as the snobs would say, the Games of the 19th Winter Olympiad.
I had been recruited by the Olympic organizers to work in press
operations; my title was Venue Press Chief, which put me in charge
of handling the media at the Salt Lake Ice Sports Complex, the practice
rink for figure skating and short-track speedskating. I also pulled
some night shifts at the competition venue for those two sports.
Figure skating? Short-track speedskating? Yep. Anyone following
the Games (uppercase for formality to appease the snobs) knows those
two events drew more attention from the media for controversy than
any other events.
Were Canadas Jamie Sale and David Pelletier robbed of a gold
medal in pairs skating? Didnt matter. I was busy passing out
their flash quotes in the media workroom as reporters filed their
Was the United States Apolo Anton Ohno rightfully awarded
the gold medal in the 1,500-meter race after a South Korean competitor
was disqualified? Didnt matter. I was waiting to escort the
silver medalist to a press conference after the medal ceremony.
Not that I was blasé about seeing the Olympic athletes up
close, but my colleagues and I in press operations were going for
our own gold medalto deliver our best performances on the
largest stage we would ever work. After all, the Olympics are bigger
than any professional or college sporting event in the United States.
But there was one person who stopped me dead in my tracks. Michelle
Kwan? Bob Costas? Mitt Romney? Kevin Costner? A security guard with
a rifle? Actually, none of the above.
On a day off, I ventured out to the mens ice hockey competition
to watch the semifinals. After Team Canadas easy win over
Belarus, I headed backstage to see the players up close. A long,
narrow, dark corridor led from the ice to the backstage area where
television and newspaper reporters waited for post-game interviews.
I waited nonchalantly, not knowing the magnitude of what was in
Suddenly, from the dark, emerged a towering figure on skates. My
immediate reaction was no different from when I was 5 years old
and saw Santa Claus for the first time as a larger-than-life figure.
I craned my neck upward to look at the face of Mario Lemiuex as
he strolled right toward me.
Mario who? For those who are not familiar with ice hockey, Lemieux
is widely regarded as one of the five greatest hockey players of
all time. The National Hockey League guide lists Mario Lemiuex as
6-foot-4, but put him on skates with a helmet and he stands closer
to seven feet. So there before me was a giant, figuratively and
That, folks, was my most memorable moment of the Games (uppercase,
again). The lowlight was the controversy of the pairs skating, something
that was foreshadowed a couple nights earlier.
During dinner with several public relations professionals who have
worked numerous international figure skating events, I offered a
laypersons view on the scandal. Namely, that judging results
are predetermined by reputation and that only major spills can alter
the outcome. That if Kwan fell down three times, she would still
get at least a bronze medal because of her stature in the sport.
My dinner colleagues looked at me and let out knowing sighs to affirm
my opinion. All of them were Canadians. Little did they know.
Fortunately for the sport, Sarah Hughes restored some luster with
her dazzling, nothing-to-lose, gold medal performance on the last
day of figure skating competition. As for the favored Kwan, the
signs pointed to another heartbreak outcome.
During the two weeks, I had a chance to watch Kwan rehearse in
near seclusion. Her body language, from the time she walked into
the practice rink to the time she left, suggested someone in deep
focus with a singular objective: Gold, and nothing less.
But I sensed she was wound too tight. There was a feeling that
everything had to be just right; anything unexpected threw her off
her routine and left her rattled. Thats what happened the
day a couple of volunteers approached her for autographs and pictures.
Kwan signed one and then retreated back to the locker room where
she hid out for a couple hours until the volunteers and media had
The day before her short program, Kwan came out for practice in
a fancy, yellow dress, obviously to be worn in competition. Within
the first five minutes of her practice, Kwan fell down twice. She
immediately left the icea rarityand came back dressed
in her usual practice gear. We never saw the yellow dress again
in practice or competition.
As for those of us in press operations, our biggest challenge was
the language barrier. As I learned, short-track speedskating is
quite popular in European and Asian countries. Hence, a contingent
of Japanese reporters approached me after practice one day. One
member of the party knew enough English to mutter to me, Japan
coach, Japan coach, as he bowed in the traditional gesture
I understood their request, of course, but had no idea who the
Japan coach was or what he looked like. So I printed a copy of the
Japan team roster that listed the head coachs name. I wandered
to the locker room area looking for an elderly gentlemen wearing
clothing with the Japan logo or name.
I found someone who fit the bill, but he did not speak English,
so all I could do was say, Media. Media, media. No luck.
Then I remembered from my experience as a venue press chief at the
1996 Atlanta Games that a major Japan media outlet was Asahi TV.
So I exclaimed, Asahi. A look of recognition crossed
the mans face. He looked at me and said, No speak English.
English not good. He thought I was asking him to talk to American
Finally, through my persistencebecause I was not going anywherehe
reluctantly agreed to follow me, presumably to tell the reporters
himself that he did not speak English. Once he turned the corner
and saw the reporters were Japanese, he turned around and looked
at me with the broadest smile possible on his face.
I sighed in relief. Without knowing a word of Japanese, I had brought
together the two parties. Do you suppose Colin Powell has performed
such feat without the benefit of an interpreter?
In four years, the Winter Games light the fire in Torino, Italy.
Michelle Kwan says she may be there in another attempt to capture
the elusive gold. If the Olympic organizers again call me, Ill
be looking for my passport and making plane reservations.