RIO DE JANEIRO – There was another bus to catch, and this one was going to be easy because I was leaving Carioca Arena 1, the basketball venue, and I knew my way out, or so I thought. The internal bus that looped within Olympic Park, the one that would lead me to the bus to the hotel, was just steps away and…
“Here,” a voice said.
The voice was calling toward me with more and more urgency. It had to be calling toward me because there were only two of us there. One of us was in military uniform, holding a gun.
The soldier whistled again and again to get my attention until I realized what was happening. In my haste, I had made a wrong turn and I was about to hurry right into a fence. When I turned to say obrigado – thank you – I saw something that I had not seen in Rio. I saw the soldier smile.
He may have been smiling because he had just discovered the underpublicized part of his responsibility was to prevent a clueless journalist from face-planting himself into a fence. But he was smiling.
From the first few moments after our arrival in Brazil – can it be three weeks ago? – the first impression was how grim the soldiers looked. The ones in London four years ago had been the most cheerful people I had ever seen holding automatic weapons. They would chat up a young person with a backpack, asking how his day was going, while another officer with a bomb-sniffing dog would approach from the rear. The dog would sign off, the soldiers would say have a nice day, and that was that.
The cheerfulness of London was replaced at the start by a grimness here, reinforced by all the unsmiling soldiers in jeeps and trucks and even tanks, a tableau that New York Times columnist Michael Powell described when he wrote of the scene at Olympic Stadium: “The aesthetic was Early Coup d’Etat.”
During the weeks and months of preparation, the purchase of industrial-strength insect repellent, the purchase and careful hiding of debit cards and the packing of all those long-sleeve shirts, I had not stopped to think about the possibility of laughter and fond memories.
My favorite day was last Thursday, not for anything that you would have seen on television. There are the pretty pictures on the screen, and then there is the real Olympic experience, with endless logistical challenges and jostling in mixed zones to speak with athletes, and volunteers who try to explain a missing bus at 1 a.m.
Thursday was special because it presented evidence of the professionalism and resolve of Rebecca Harris and Frank Gogola, the IUPUI students who were selected to write stories for the United States Olympic Committee website and USA Daily, the digital newsletter. They had been advised – warned might be a better word — that covering the Olympic Games was sort of like 16 consecutive days of final examinations, except that on some of those days you may not know the subject or even where the final will take place. Becky had that experience Thursday, after taking two buses to Maracanazinho, the celebrated home of volleyball, to cover the United States women in a semifinal match.
She arrived early enough to get a great seat in the press tribune. She set up her computer and was about to have lunch when an email arrived that said she was needed to cover diving instead. That meant an hour-long bus ride to the area she had just left.
There are celebrated journalists I know, friends of mine, who would have responded to such a request by throwing a cell phone against a wall.
Becky did not flinch. She did not even frown. She sent an email that read, “Sounds good!” and packed up her things, and headed for the bus to diving.
Late that night, in a work room in the bowels of Olympic Stadium, Frank finished a story about the U.S. winning gold and silver in the shot put. It was 11:37 p.m., at the end of a long day, when he sent the story for editing. The trip from the stadium back to the hotel would be a two-bus journey, and his quick work put him in position to catch a bus soon.
But as I began to make a few small changes, I noticed Frank had continued to type. He had been thinking about a quote that originally appeared in the middle of his story. Ryan Crouser, the gold-medal winner who had set an Olympic record, described how he had studied the previous record throw more times than he could count. Two bus rides from sleep, as midnight approached, Frank had a better idea. He asked if he could try a different approach. Of course he could. He sent it at 11:52 p.m., and here is how it turned out:
RIO DE JANEIRO – Ryan Crouser had seen the throw thousands of times. The exact number escapes him, but the image of the throw is imprinted in his memory.
The throw is East German Ulf Timmermann’s record shot put toss of 22.47 meters on Sept. 23, 1988, four years before Crouser was born. He has watched replays of that shot so many times that he used to base his technique off of it.
Thursday, Crouser broke Timmermann’s Olympic record with throw of 22.52 meters to win a gold medal in the men’s shot put at Olympic Stadium.
“I’ve watched [Timmermann’s] throw probably 10,000 times,” Crouser said. “I thought that was one of the most beautiful throws I had ever seen. To break that record at the Olympics is truly special.”
The first version, careful and concise, would have helped Frank catch a bus. The revised version helped the readers of USA Daily better appreciate the special context of a record-setting moment.
Frank had refused to settle, even when the exhaustion kept saying it was time to go.
Becky had refused to allow inconvenience – the media’s enduring Olympic event – to affect her day.
Those are the stories I will be sure to tell when those phone calls come from editors or producers that are about to make a hire.
The stories will explain in detail why Frank and Becky are no longer student assistants. They are journalists, every bit as much as the ones that sat nearby with points of reference dating back to Los Angeles in ’84 or even Montreal in ’76. They have officially become a very tough act to follow, and they will make me apologize, in advance, to the students that might be headed to Tokyo, a captive audience on a lengthy flight four years down the road, forced to hear all about the achievements of Becky and Frank, Becky and Frank, Becky and Frank…
I smile when I think of those achievements, and I find myself saying the word I have said over and over, to so many people, for the last three weeks: Obrigado. Muito Obrigado.
— Malcolm Moran | @malcolm_moran