Only two days to go until Friday's Opening Ceremony and everything seems to be falling into place. Workers are still sprucing up the area outside the Olympic stadium and I'm sure everything is going to go well.
This is my 9th Olympics--the first four (1964-1976) were as a member of Track and Field News' Tours and this is my 5th as a member of NBC's production crew (1988-2004, I missed 1980-1984). I've been hooked on the Games ever since that first day of competition in Tokyo 40 years ago when I watched Billy Mills run that incredible last lap and win the gold medal in the 10,000-meters. And I was sitting next to Cordner Nelson, the co-founder of Track and Field News, and his late wife, Mary, who were to become my friends and two of my favorite people in the sport. I remember thinking, "This is pretty cool-I think I'll do this again!".
But, to be honest, I didn't have the "Olympic Spirit" as I prepared for this trip. I guess it was a combination of dreading the long working days ahead, the incessant drug stories coming out of the Olympic Trials, the workload facing me when I returned, and the uncertain state of world affairsthat made me wish I could stay home.
Things started to get better after arriving at JFK Airport a week ago today. NBC had arranged a charter flight to Athens and there were a couple of hours to kill in Delta's Lounge, which was reserved for NBC's Olympic employees.
As connecting flights started to arrive in NY, familiar faces started to filter in--a combination of NBC staffers and "free-lancers", that hearty group of self-employed workers that is the lifeblood of the TV industry when it comes to major events like the Olympics. The first one I ran into was Matt Devlin, a newcomer to the group, who will be doing the play-by-play for the High Definition TV coverage of T&F (along with Frank Zarnowski and Dan O'Brien). He's new to the sport, but he's a quick study and NBA fans familiar with his voice know that he will do a good job in Athens.
Hugs and memories were shared as people who had worked with every network in the business were now under NBC's umbrella for the next month. There was still plenty of time before the flight when I decided to head to the gate, but then old friends Dwight Stones and TNT's Craig Sager walked in and I, of course, had to share a beer or two with them.
It was finally time to board and the 8-1/2 hour flight went by very quickly as the "party" and conversations continued through the night and over the Atlantic. (I can never sleep on planes, anyway).
When we arrived in Athens the next morning, most people got their official Olympic credential right at the aiprort and headed to the comfort of their respective hotels. Dwight and I had some pre-travel paperwork problems, so we had to go the Main Acrreditation Center to get ours. That process went smoothly, but we were held up waiting for two other people who went off to take care of other matters. To kill time, we decided to go the nearby NBC complex within the IBC (International Broadcast Center). As the name implies, this is where all of the world's televison and radio stations set up their equipment that will help them broadcast from the various venues around the city.
This is a huge complex, and NBC's share is comparable to that of a small neighborhood, complete with unique street signs (all of a Greek nature). It will take at least three trips before I feel I know my way around. The building is also right next to the Main Press Center and only a 15-minute walk from the Olympic Stadium. We picked up our cell phones and paid a visit to the Research room, where we ran into Shawn Price and Nicole Nazzaro, the two T&F specialists.
Our business at the IBC completed, we finally head to the Ledra Marriott, one of many hotels that NBC is using during the Games. Check-in goes smoothly, and we head up to our rooms, reminding each other to stay awake as late as possible to ward off jet-lag. As Dwight and I get off the elevator, we notice that we're on the same floor as the hotel's open-air bar/restaurant/pool. We nod approvingly and I jokingly say, "Now we'll find out that we have a view of the Acropolis from our room". Sure enough, even though it took some neck-craning, there it was off to the right--Athens' most famous landmark.
The other T&F announcers arrive at various times during the day--Carol Lewis, Marty Liquori, and Lewis Johnson coming in from Zurich, where they spent some time talking to athletes who were getting ready for the Weltklasse meet, and Tom Hammond, whose trip from Lexington, Kentucky, didn't go so well after weather-related delays caused him to fly in through Paris.
I spent most of Friday getting familiar with NBC's compound at the stadium and checking out the announce booth that will be our home during the T&F competition. The announcers were attending an all-day seminar at the Marriott which stressed the NBC guidlelines that would be used during the Olympic coverage.
The Weltklasse meet in Zurich was being held that night, but the hotel's TV system didn't have the station that was going to have live coverage. The crack NBC Research department came up with two local Irish Pubs (is there any major city in the world that DOESN'T have an Irish pub?) that could show the meet, but it was, after all, Friday night and the music would be loud and the places packed. Our group decided instead to have a nice dinner at one of the many sidewalk restaurants in the nearby Plaka district. It seems you can't go too far in Athens without stumbling onto some amazing landmark and this setting was no different. We were eating a mere 20 feet from the Tower of the Winds. Rather than me trying to describe it, check out this link.
Back at the Marriott, Dwight, Carol, and myself settled in to watch the delayed broadcast of Zurich in the lobby bar, which was soon closing (they let us keep the TV on). The show didn't start until 12:45am and wouldn't end until almost 4am, but it was fun watching it without knowing the results. During the women's 1500, we were trying to figure out where the American women, who were still trying to get the Olympic "A" standard, were in the back of the pack. We were hootin' and hollerin' as it looked like one or more might get it, then had to explain to the amused stragglers in the lobby why we were getting so excited. The highlight of the show was the men's 1500, again cheering as if we were in the stands in Zurich as Bernard Lagat beat the great El Guerrouj in an epic race.
On Saturday, I sat with Tom Hammond as he "voiced-over" features on Felix Sanchez, Ana Guevara, Tom Pappas, Surreya Ayhan (knowing that it would probably never air after her withdrawal from the Games), Stacy Dragila, and Maurice Greene.
Saturday night saw another group dinner, this time at Zorba's in Pyraeus(sp?). Our table was two feet from the water and waiters had to dodge an endless parade of cars and scooters as they brought food from across the street at the indoor portion of the restaurant. The setting was perfect and it was a good occasion to celebrate Carol's birthday a day early.
All this time I was having trouble getting my laptop configured by the NBC tech crew so that I could get online (cheaply) from my hotel room, where I planned to do most of my pre-competition preparation. It took the better part of three days and the combined brain power of three computer experts to finally get me up to speed, but now I didn't have any excuses for not working!
If I still needed a boost to my Olympic spirit, I got it on Sunday night when I attended a rehearsal for the Opening Ceremony. Many of my track friends come to the Olympics to see a great track meet, but I'm not a happy camper unless I get my Opening "fix". To me, it still expresses the hope that people can come together from all corners of the world in a peaceful setting and share a common bond. I know it's getting more difficult to hang on to that concept, but one can still dream, right?
If the rehearsal is any indication, this could be one of best Opening Ceremonies in history. And it's only fitting, since Athens is where all this started. I won't give away any secrets, but be sure to watch NBC's coverage on Friday night. As one of my many "perks" on this trip, I'll be watching from the booth where Katie Couric and Bob Costas will be hosting the show. I'll be working as a "spotter" for one of the cameramen, trying to pick out the likes of a Maurice Greene or a Stacy Dragila as the athletes march into the stadium.
The hotel is now in a "locked-down" mode, which means security is very strict and only people with NBC credentials can get in. Most of us have been through this before at other major events, so we accept the occasional delay with patience and a necessary sense of humor.
Some of the daily moments are what make trips like this memorable. The bus ride to and from the IBC/venue takes us past the stadium used for the 1896 Olympics--that never gets old. It will be used this time for the finish of both marathons.
A stroll down my hotel hallway takes me to that outdoor restaurant, which affords a much better view of the Acropolis, especially at night when it's lit up. This is also where the NBC folks socialize after a hard day at work (really, some people do work hard here).
And, through the magic of modern technology, we can now watch regular NBC programming on the hotel TV. Kind of wierd watching Jay Leno at 7am, but there are no commercials. Of course, there's always South Park in Greek!
The rest of the T&F crew is starting to arrive. Tom Jennings (the first agent in the sport), who will work with Dwight on the field events, got in on Monday, while David Monti (Race Results Weekly), who will help prepare info on the longer running (and walking) events, arrived on Saturday with his wife, Jane, who is also part of our group. Now if I can just get "specialists" to work on the hurdles and relays, I might really be able to enjoy the meet(-:).
That's all for now--feel free to send your comments (good and bad).
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org