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April 22, 2002

PR diplomacy in Salt Lake

John Arenberg is Emory sports information director


My mouth was agape. My eyes must have resembled a deer’s frozen-in-the-headlights look. For one of the few times in my life, I genuinely was numbstruck with awe.

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 Canada’s Jamie Sale and David Pelletier robbed of a gold medal in pairs skating? Didn’t matter. I was busy passing out their flash quotes in the media workroom as reporters filed their stories.

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? Didn’t 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 medal—to 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 men’s ice hockey competition to watch the semifinals. After Team Canada’s 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 store.

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 literally.

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 layperson’s 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. That’s 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 dispersed.

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 ice—a rarity—and 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 of respect.

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 coach’s 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 man’s face. He looked at me and said, “No speak English. English not good.” He thought I was asking him to talk to American reporters.

Finally, through my persistence—because I was not going anywhere—he 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, I’ll be looking for my passport and making plane reservations.