(It’s an Olympic year. Spread the word. Phone it in, fax it, email it, tweet it…)
There was a perfectly good reason that an American colleague was unable to make a call from his cell phone during our early morning bus ride to cover the triathlon competition at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The gadget in that fellow’s hand, he realized after several exasperating moments, turned out to be the TV remote from his room in the press village. Where, of course, he had left his cell phone.
Such wacky moments routinely are visited upon Olympic journalists, most of them related to confusion—a by-product of information overload and the cycle of too much adrenaline and too little sleep—and the fundamental need for communication.
There is too much going on during the Olympics, at too many sites, to feel in complete control. And it may as well not be happening at all if reporters can’t get the word out to their reading, listening and watching customers.
It is no solace, furthermore, to know of far greater struggles in the pioneer days of sports journalism. There is no comparative happiness to be aware that, in 1847, the New York Herald had to employ pony-express riders to deliver, two days later, Joe Elliott’s story of a major prize fight from Harper’s Ferry, W.Va. Nor that, months after that, the Herald arranged to receive Elliott’s dispatch of a fight in Baltimore via Samuel Morse’s five-year-old telegraph. In 1899, the Herald paid Guglielmo Marconi a whopping $5,000 to transmit results of an America’s Cup yacht race on his new wireless from waters just off the New Jersey shore.
By the 21st Century, obviously, the existence of mobile phones and laptop computers, plus the dawning of WiFi availability, had made the relaying of information over great distances relatively easy and mighty quick. But the ink-stained wretches among us, advancing toward that scatterbrained not-a-cell-phone moment in Sydney, experienced our share of challenging days when tools of the trade included massive, first-generation portable computers slightly larger—and much heavier—than a newborn baby, and the endless craving for both a power outlet and a telephone land line.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when the small press room in nearby Mission Viejo was overwhelmed by newspaper people covering the women’s cycling road race, my colleague Joe Gergen had to go knocking on doors of local residents in quest of an available phone to link with his computer. (He was generously accommodated, evidence of the true Olympic spirit.)
We called one of the earliest of those so-called portable contraptions—the TeleRam Portabubble, circa 1980—a “machine.” As if it were something from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In order to convey a reporter’s well-chosen words via audible beeps of some sort, that appliance required that a telephone receiver be inserted into two holes atop the device. And held snugly in place for agonizing minutes, with the mere hope that the story was being successfully relayed. Among the Portabubble’s shortcomings, of which there were several, was its inability to function properly in a noisy place (such as a packed sports stadium filled with shouting spectators).
So a sentence originally input as “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” was likely to arrive at an editor’s far-away computer reading something like “Ofy idkem lmo utyew nyhe jhg zoim wla.” This required the already harried on-site journalist to retreat to a trusty portable typewriter—mine was a turquoise Smith-Corona, upon which compositions had been rendered in parking garages, deserted lockerrooms and airport terminals—to reproduce the original yarn, then dictate it by phone to a living person at the home office.
The completion of such dangling-over-the-abyss tasks could be exhilarating, what felt like the sportswriting equivalent of ascending Mount Everest.
At least the Portabubble was a giant leap forward from the first movable computerized writing apparatus I tested—very briefly—during Montreal’s world track championships in 1979. That mechanism had the display screen in the back, which required a small mirror and a vastly uncomfortable sitting position to view one’s own work.
After the Portabubble, the Tandy Radio Shack was smaller, lighter and more reliable, though its attached “acoustic cups” for docking the phone receiver also had issues and there still was no back-up battery power. There were tales of crowded press centers with all those Radio Shacks plugged into power strips in a tangle of wires, when one reporter would accidentally unplug a fellow scribe’s machine, wiping out everything he had written. On deadline. Naughty words ensued.
Anyway, though technology marched on, it was the experience of Olympic (and other international) reporters that it did not do so in a universal way. A pre-Olympic scouting trip to Barcelona, a year before the 1992 Games, revealed that the Spanish phone system was still measuring the length of a call with steady clicks—spaced only seconds apart—and that such clicks immediately shut down computer transmission. (Back to verbal dictation.)
Among Barcelona’s dramatic infrastructure advances, in time for its Olympics, was a state-of-the-art phone system. In fact, the ’92 Games hosts had a far better concept of messaging than did my editor, who issued beepers to staff members during those Olympics. The beepers served no purpose other than to interrupt reporters and send them in frenzied search of nearby phones, scrambling around scenic but steep Montjuic, to check in with that languishing editor, who regularly could be found with his feet up in the press center. “Oh,” he said on one occasion. “I was just testing to see if the beeper works.” After that, mine didn’t. I left it in a drawer.
The telephone situation in Seoul in 1988, equal to several Olympic host nations, was top-notch, but there were other communications hurdles inherent in the Games’ tangles of so many moving parts. The phone assigned to me in the main stadium was two rows away from my designated seat, and for some reason, it took a week to simply allow me to change seats.
In Nagano for the 1998 Winter Games, the big green phone boxes in the press center included a small display screen, on which a little cartoon woman would make a polite bow of thanks—“Arigatou”—as soon as the customer hung up. Sometimes, we bowed in return.
By then, cell phones had become de rigeur for any self-respecting journalist. We were beginning to float in cyberspace, starting to experience the incredible lightness of being able send information instantly, a nirvana of communication. No worries, as the laid-back Aussies constantly said during Sydney’s 2000 Games. Or maybe we were just feeling Olympic giddiness. (Where did I put my phone, anyway?)