Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Games On: A Look Back at One Winter Olympic Game's Non-Medal Moments

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 6:57 PM

As the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games approach, memories of the five games I've worked came flooding back. And like most memories, those from my very first (winter 1980) Olympic Games are still the most vivid.

The 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics are best known to most Americans for the U.S hockey team's "miracle on ice" gold medal quest. Those who follow individual winter sports closely best remember the games for American speed skater Eric Heiden's (www.nytimes.com/2009/10/01/sports/01heidden) record five gold medals. Those of us who worked those games will always remember them for the lack of organization that led to chaos, gridlock, frayed nerves, and two long weeks.

Even before the competitions began, the Olympic bus system that was supposed to whisk people around venue-to-venue had become a disaster. It simply wasn't functioning. Spectators and reporters trying to get to the opening ceremonies had wait three to four hours to get a bus.

The story of how bad things were transportation wise in Lake Placid became front-page news and grist for the nightly television news shows.

Tempers flared and fights broke out at bus stops. And to make matters worse, there were dozens of vans running all over town empty. The vans belonged to ABC-TV (The official Games host country broadcast network) and even though they ran empty ninety percent of the time were off-limits to everyone but ABC staff.

The afternoon of the day the first events were scheduled, a frustrated mob of officials from various nations and the press corps reporters started giving the ABC-TV van drivers a hard time at the Press Center bus stop.

I was standing near one of the ABC vans when eight huge, mean looking Albanian Olympic team officials dressed in full-length fur coats and fur hats a la baddies in a James Bond movie bulldozed past me, knocked an ABC van driver out of the way and got into his van.

The driver began yelling and pleading with the Albanians who sat there in stony we-know-no-English silence.

The biggest and meanest looking Albanian (remember this was still the Soviet days and Cold War Communist paranoia still lurked in many minds) motioned to me and said: "you help us. We go Keene, New York."

I told the now near hysterical van driver, " you see those guys? If I were you, I'd take them to Keene."

"Keene," The driver squalled, "That's over a two-hour round trip and if I make it I'll lose my job."

The driver looked at his potential passengers and let out a defeated sigh as he decided it was a no-win situation. As he closed the van's side door the biggest and probably the meanest Albanian stopped him and said to me, "You come with us. We take you home."

I hoped that meant to where I was staying and not Keene, and sure enough fifteen minutes later I was waving goodbye to the fur clad Albanians on their way to Keene.

That's how the Games began. Two days I got another ABC-TV van ride, this one legitimate with two network's color commentators, Peter Graves and "Dandy" Don Meredith.

At the time, the former Dallas Cowboys quarterback was the toast of the network for his unscripted, and often off-color, commentator work on Monday Night Football.

In their infinite wisdom, ABC execs had decided to add Meredith to the Olympic broadcast team to bring in viewers who might not otherwise watch any Olympic coverage.

Meredith did bring in viewers and also make a lot of ridiculous on-air statements and observations about the athletes and the sports. Some of his poor performance was due to his lack of interest and background work, and some was due to the fact that he was hitting the juice pretty hard.

When the van arrived at ABC broadcast headquarters, Graves and I assisting the former Cowboy great out of the van and onto a snowmobile where he promptly passed out.

I snapped a few photographs of America's favorite football announcer and hoped I'd find a market for them. I didn't.

Meanwhile things were getting interesting back at the house I shared with an American ski writer and a contingent of Finnish ski and winter sports representatives.

The Finns had rented the house and added a first class sauna. As pre-Games training got underway, athletes from Finland, Sweden and the Soviet Union started coming to the house at all hours to take a sauna.

Their presence made some of my reporting work much easier as I could interview them, through the multi-lingual Finns who had rented the house, in an informal setting.

When I wasn't doing interviews, I was down at either the Kodak or Ilford photo labs checking on film since my primary job at the Games was to document much of it photographically for Ski magazine. Since Ski wouldn't use the images for some time, there was no real rush on them.

There was a second job taking images for Ski Racing's daily newspaper. Ski Racing ran black and whites so I'd shoot an event and then hustle down to the Ilford lab to sit to wait for negatives to be exposed. Then I'd pick what I thought best for printing and shipping across town to Ski Racing's presses.

It was nerve-racking work. An event might end at noon, then it'd take and hour to get to the lab, an hour wait and then fifteen minutes of picking images all to meet a 3 p.m. press deadline.

Kodak's color lab was located in the basement of the local high school whose upper two floors served as the pressroom. So you could take film in, drop it off, and then head upstairs to eat and lounge around the pressroom until your film was ready.

The main (upper) press room was linked by an enclosed skywalk to the ice rink. A reporter or photographer could walk over to catch a hockey game or figure skating and be back at work writing a story or going over film in a couple of minutes.

As the first week unfolded, all the big names in sports writing and sports photography showed up in the press room - icons like Jim Murray of the L.A. Times, Walter Looss of Sports Illustrated and Red Smith of The New York Times.

Smith was the recognized dean of American sportswriters and a legend in the newspaper business. I wanted to meet him so one day I ventured upstairs to the area where Times photographers told me he worked.

Sure enough, he was there - asleep, head down on his typewriter with a still smoldering cigar in an ashtray next to a glass half full of whiskey.

Perhaps the most memorable N.Y. Times moment came days later when my pal Glenn Jobe, a U.S. biathlete, was interviewed by a Times reporter.

Jobe, a California rancher's son, had a mischievous streak so when asked what type of rifle he used for biathlon, he told the earnest Times reporter: "It's some old can plinker I had laying around the ranch."

The next day, a short Times profile on Jobe dutifully reported the lanky Californian used an exotic, one-of-a-kind "Canplinker" rifle.

Most reporters weren't interested in can plinkers but in the developing Eric Heiden story. Wisconsin native Heiden was on track to win five gold medals, the most ever by an athlete in a winter Olympiad.

The speed skating oval was packed every time Heiden raced and the medal ceremonies the evening after each of his wins was a crush of people.

Figuring I needed to get to the medal ceremonies well ahead of time to get a good sightline for photographs of Heiden's fifth and final medal award, I arrived at the podium area an hour before the medal presentation.

I got a front row position in the photographer's area knowing that I would get the money shot. Minutes before the ceremony began four photographers from a Soviet bloc publication pushed their way through the crown of photographers and lifted me up off the snow and deposited me about twenty feet back from my prime photo location.

As they took over my place, it dawned on me that Darwinism applied to photographing big sports moments and that I need to develop sharp elbows and a menacing presence to survive.

The Games slogged towards the start of their second week with slightly improved bus service and more of a party atmosphere. Taking the edge off the daily pressure to get film out and deal with lack of sleep, bad food and crowds, the nightly press parties given by different countries winter sports federations began.

Norway kicked things off with a formal-coat and tie required-stiff evening. The food was OK, the after-dinner speeches long and clichéd.

Italy's big press bash was way different. Dress was casual and the food and wine incredible. Then came the dreaded speech time, only in this case a pleasant surprise.

The chairman of Italian Winter Sports Federation began his remarks with the usual stuff about being happy to be in Lake Placid, happy for his fellow countrymen, etc.

Then he got off on a tangent about his love for winter sport and how deeply sport had affected his life. The more animated he became the more emotional he became. He arrived at the end of his remarks with tears streaming down his face and his audience erupting in wild cheers.

Wow, how to top that? No way, so it was time to shift gears and start the party earlier. That meant Best visiting the cross-country waxing cabins early in the morning with Hans Tobler, president of the Swiss wax company Toko.

Tobler carried wax a large duffel bag I assumed was full was full of sample waxes. It wasn't.

And at every stop he'd chat with the wax technicians and then pull a bottle of brandy out of the duffel and present it to them. They would respond by offering us a cup of coffee with a splash of the amber liquid and the day was off to a boozy start and me wondering how the hell the wax masters ever got their work done.

At night the booze flowed freely at the Finlandia house where the vodka company of the same name welcomed one and all. One evening after being getting edged out for the gold medal in the closest individual cross-country ski race in history (the men's 15 kilometer), 6 foot 6 inch 220-pound Finn Juha Mieto raised a glass and said of his narrow defeat, "Well, at least I beat the Soviets."

The next morning, bleary-eyed and all, I accompanied former Swedish cross-country team member Jarl Svenson to the Swedish house.

It was like visiting a college frat house. At the breakfast table sat a lone person eating a bowl of Cheerios while a couple of guys sat around watching T.V in the living room.

But this was not your typical frat house, as the guy at the breakfast table was none other than Ingemar Stenmark, arguably the greatest alpine ski racer ever, who grunted, by way of welcome something like, "Boy you guys are sure up early."

We were, and it was for me to photograph cross-country skier Thomas Wassberg with the gold medal he'd won by a nose over Finn Mieto the day before in the instantly famous men's 30-kilometer race.

We found Wassberg who when asked to produce and pose with the gold medal reached into his rear pocket of his jeans and extracted it, rumbled ribbon and all.

"That's just the way he is," Svenson said, "Laid back, not too pretentious."

Back at my Placid house, Svenson joined in what had now become known as the daily sauna contest. Athletes were challenging one another to see who could take the most heat. It was usually the Finns versus the Soviets in an unspoken battle for the rights to being the most sauna macho.

One afternoon as a thick steam vapor enveloped the sauna, American biathlete John Ruger crept off the sauna's lower bench and wriggled underneath it.

There he lay as the heat level rose and one by one the Soviets quit the sauna followed closely by the Finns. Then when all had vacated the sauna, Ruger crawled out from under the bench and strode triumphantly out of the sauna into a room of stunned sauna machos.

The sauna encounters wound down the evening before the final Games competition: The men's 50-kilometer cross-country race.

Rather than try to get a bus to the cross-country venue, I decided to hitchhike. I stuck my thumb out and was immediately picked up by three reporters for Sweden's Svenska Dagbladet daily newspaper.

As we drove to the venue they talked about how rough the past two weeks had been, how tired they'd become of all the pettiness of the security personnel, their lack of sleep and the inability to get decent food, etc and how, as a reward for delivering under such stress, that they had been given a week's vacation in the Caribbean by their publisher.

We rolled into the cross-country venue and were immediately hassled by a security guard asking for a parking permit and identification. That cut it. Without a word, the three Swedes piled out of the car and started moving menacingly toward the security guard.

The guard backpedaled for a few steps then turned and started running as fast as he could with the Swedes chasing him screaming like madmen.

As the security guard faded from view, the Swedes returned to the car and asked that I forgive them for their display brought on by, "How do you say it in English? " asked one, "Enough is enough?"

The race over I was going to hitch a ride home when a representative from Adidas-Germany asked if I would take photos of Soviet skier Alexander Tikanov who had won his fourth Olympic biathlon gold medal the day before.

That meant going over to the official Soviet house for a party honoring Tikanov. It also meant a ride to the party in an Adidas van stuffed with shoes and cross-country ski boots.

The man from Adidas-Germany drove, U.S. Adidas rep John Estle rode shotgun and I rode in the back with the shoes and boots.

Moving slowly out of the venue parking lot, the van was suddenly surrounded by a group of about forty Soviet spectators demanding free shoes and boots. They could not be not be dissuaded by the Adidas man despite his fluency in Russian.

When they started rocking the van, I got Estle to crawl into the back with me and on the count of three we kicked opened the van's rear doors and quickly jettisoned about three dozen boxes of shoes and boots which the mob descended on allowing us to escape.

It was an escape to Moscow and the big party meant lots vodka was in order and an insight into what wimps we Americans are when it comes to drinking.

All I remember is after a hour of warm-up boozing with the Soviets they were ready to get to the real partying while I found myself wobbly legged and delirious on the snow in front of the house with a couple of equally impaired American biathletes.

The next day a van was assigned to take a group of press people including me to Burlington, Vermont to get flights home.

It was a somber lot completely beaten down by two weeks of grueling work. Too many late nights, too many boozers and working under what often seemed like dire circumstances.

A pall hung over the ride until we entered passed a sign saying "Welcome to Vermont". Then a man sitting behind me asked the driver if he'd please pull over.

When the van rolled to a stop, the man asked that everyone join him outside on the roadside. We did.

Once assembled, he pointed to the Vermont welcome sign and screamed: "Don't you realize we're out of that hellhole of Lake Placid, that we're free people again, that the f_____g Olympics are over."

He then pulled a half dozen bottles of champagne from the backpack he was carrying and we all began to shout, hug, dance and drink. The Games were indeed over and what a relief.

So ended my 1980 Winter Olympic Games. By the way, I didn't see the famous USA-USSR "Miracle on Ice" game. I walked over and caught the first period and then headed back to work, only to have that interrupted by the mass press uproar that occurred two hours later when the game ended.

Hey, work came first.


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