The author before tackling the Beijing velodrome. (Photo courtesy of Deborah Charles)
I’m not an Olympic athlete. But for half an hour in Beijing, I got to act like one.
I was in China’s capital to cover the 2008 Olympics. An avid cyclist, I had lots of experience on a road bike. But I had never ridden in a velodrome — a steeply-banked indoor track — and I didn’t really understand how a bike could stay upright in the curves.
So an amused U.S. cycling team lent me a bike — and some advice — to help me find out.
I donned my cycling kit and looked up at the steep, 45-degree banks of the track. Other journalists were milling about the press section where I had been sitting a few minutes before.
I just hoped I wouldn’t make a fool of myself in front of them or the USA Cycling officials down on the track.
The U.S. coach ran alongside me as I familiarized myself with the single-gear bicycle. Then I eased onto the track, slowly at first, steadied by a mechanic before he released me to ride on my own.
I glided along the straightaway of the 250-meter track, generating enough speed to climb the bank. I let out a scream as I hurtled down the abrupt curve, already going faster than I was used to.
Caught between excitement and fright, I had a tiny sense of what the cyclists feel as they race around the track.
Just tell the world something interesting.
For athletes and coaches, making the Olympic team is the culmination of hard work and strong performances. It’s much the same for journalists. Being chosen to cover the Olympic Games is a huge honor, and the six Olympics I covered were among the highlights of my journalism career.
I was sweating through a typical day in Rangoon, Burma, when I learned via fax from London that I had been selected to cover my first Olympics — the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
Anything but a sports reporter, I was a Reuters correspondent based in Bangkok, covering mainly politics. But I had raised my hand to cover sporting events since arriving in Asia. Apparently the Sports desk in London had noticed.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
When I got to Nagano, I was terrified — and under-dressed. In Bangkok, I certainly didn’t need winter clothes, so I had scrounged together what I could and decided hiking boots would do for footwear.
Wrong, as I quickly learned standing for hours in the snow watching freestyle skiing.
Before my first assignment in Nagano, Paul Radford, who was directing the Reuters team, took time over coffee to ease my fears. It was okay that I did not know much about the technical aspects of the sports I would cover, he said. Just tell the world something interesting about the athletes behind the medals.
That was great advice. It was the early days of the Internet, so I had to scramble to learn what I could about curling and freestyle skiing — my beats. But I knew how to write about people and how to ask questions.
The snowboarders were lots of fun.
In Nagano and during the five other Games I covered — Salt Lake City, Athens, Beijing, Vancouver and Sochi — I always followed Paul’s advice. I studied my assigned sports to write accurately about them, but I made sure to learn something unique about the athletes and what they had gone through to get there.
Some had overcome injury, beating the odds to win a medal. Misty May, a U.S. beach volleyball player, sprinkled her mother’s ashes on the court after winning gold in Athens. Snowboarders in Vancouver dedicated their runs to a teammate who had suffered a brain injury in a horrific crash just before the Olympics.
I was surprised how “normal” Olympics athletes were. With few exceptions, they weren’t arrogant. The snowboarders, especially, were lots of fun. They taught me a whole new vocabulary and after training runs patiently answered my questions about the types of tricks they did.
I generally had plenty of time to chat with athletes. When leaving a competition area, an athlete has to walk past the press, a kind of gauntlet called the “mixed zone”. This lets you to get a quick quote or sound bite before the official press conference. The challenge is to ask questions that tease out an interesting or notable quote.
Over the years, I was happy to see more and more women filling out the Olympics media corps. At Nagano, I was one of a just a few women working for Reuters. By the time I worked for the Olympic News Service in Sochi, there were more women than men on my team covering snowboarding.
I’m proud to have been one of the few women when male reporters dominated coverage of the Olympics. But what was really rewarding to me was that I made it repeatedly to the “team” covering one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, and worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires. She is former Senior Managing Editor at Devex, a news organization focused on global development, and is currently consulting for the World Bank.