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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 27, 2008 11:18 AM

A look back at Beijing -- and forward to Vancouver

Posted by Ron Judd

Just a few thoughts on the passing of the Beijing Games, mostly from a remote-coverage standpoint.

First, many thanks to all of you who have written to express your thoughts -- these have been overwhelmingly encouraging -- about having a home-based columnist covering the Games from a "local," ie, broadcast-based, standpoint.

I started this project by noting that it had been a decade since I had actually watched an Olympics on TV, having covered the last five in person. That proved to be something of a revelatory experience both for me and my wife, Emjay, herself an experienced Olympics journalist.

Our first reaction: With the many-networks approach of NBC, and the good fortune of living in a television market within reach of CBC, we saw a lot more Olympic sports at home than we would attending a typical Olympics in person. That's simply a matter of logistics: You can only take so many buses to so many places in the course of a day when you're on the ground at the Games, even if that day stretches into 20 hours.

From that standpoint, it was a blast. I took in wonderful action sports I'd never seen before. I pitched one of them, team handball, to readers early on as a great game that absolutely deserves a comeback in the U.S., where the program languished, and no team was qualified for Beijing.

Surprisingly, that lament would prove to be one of the most read/discussed topics on this blog. And, I'm happy to report, several efforts at establishing a team handball program in the Seattle area have resulted because of it. People have been exchanging contact info here , and should feel free to continue to do so, not to mention keeping us all posted on progress. Also, I was informed yesterday that a new web site has been launched.

That was cool, and unexpected.

Also unexpected was the fact that a whimsical post I made early in the Games about the version of the Star Spangled Banner being played during medal ceremonies at the Water Cube would become a source of ongoing, national debate among musical scholars. No joke. See for yourself on this thread.

Similarly unexpected was the blog post/column that drew by far the biggest reaction -- online, at least -- of any Olympic story we ran from Beijing. That was my description of watching, on cable TV, the heartfelt moment when German heavyweight weightlifter Matthias Steiner won the gold medal for Germany after dedicating the pursuit to his late wife, who had died in a car crash the year before.

The column drew scores of reader responses, and remained at the top of the newspaper's online "most read" and "most e-mailed" list for a couple of days.

What's significant about that, I think, is what it represents in modern-journalistic terms. I wrote the column from home, watching on cable TV an event that had already happened (although not by much) in Beijing. Even more amazing is the fact that the broadcast was being described by commentators nowhere near China, but in an NBC studio in New York City -- actually a revamped portion of the center stage for "Saturday Night Live."

NBC called many of its daytime-broadcast events from this virtual-reality center, where broadcasters had access to live digital pictures and sounds from the scene. (A New York Times feature on the setup can be found here.)

I was extremely wary of that arrangement when first reading about it, but over the course of the Olympics, found it to be perfectly workable, and hardly a distraction at all in terms of viewing. The key, I think, was that the network was up front about it, instructing commentators to make it clear they were working from New York, and not trying to fool anyone.

Such was the case with the weightlifting broadcast. The NY-broadcast connnection, in fact, was so far in the back of my mind by the time I wrote about it that I didn't even mention it in my column.

That fact was appreciated by the broadcast producers, who saw the column online and sent thanks for not letting the remote-broadcast angle interrupt from what they agreed was a fantastic, heartwarming sports story that felt emotionally powerful to them, as well, even in a studio half a world away.

Jenny Nickel, the segment producer, said in an e-mail:

" I've seen 40 Indy 500's including producing many of those speical days in May and three of the closest finishes in history; produced rowing in Sydney, and have watched every Olympics and Wide World of Sports as a tyke on the old black and white in the basement.

What Steiner accomplished was huge ... but so gut-wrenching and bittersweeet. On the January day when he got his German citizenship, he went to Suzanne's grave. No 24 year old should have to take that kind of mental hardship and personal loss - his lovely wife. She had just started a savings account for their hopeful flights to and from Beijing. No wonder he went ape crazy on the platform.

In our temporary and very comfortable announce booths on the Saturday Night Live studio floor -- we had a glass wall between announcers and me. I was in tears, Shane (Hamman, color commentator) was messed up, and God bless Pete (Pranica, play-by-play announcer) -- he kept it together and called a very special moment of Olympic history."

And so you had Olympic moments being transmitted from Beijing to New York, reassembled with commentary and retransmitted across America, into a living room where it was reabsorbed, re-commented-upon, and retransmitted to newsprint readership in Western Washington and online readership around the globe.

It's all sort of amazing, when you think about it. And the truth is, if I had been at the Olympics, the chances I would have actually been able to make it to weightlifting to see the event in person would have been slim to none.

The over-arching point: The Olympics, for all their follies, continue to create compelling moments that transcend not only all borders, but all media transmission forms.

It was great to be part of that.

The long-term implications, from a journalistic standpoint, are interesting. I believe there's no substitute for "boots-on-the-ground," if you will, at an Olympics. But I also believe there now is a significant need for an additional live, local voice calling some of the action, commenting on it, and responding to it in "real time" for local television viewers. Having an editorial voice to share the pain and delight from a local context, both in terms of time zone and viewing method, seemed valuable to a lot of people.

If nothing else, having access to the East Coast feed of NBC's daily programming (thank you, KING, for the waiver) allowed us to preview what would come on later, via tape delay, into local living rooms. That also allowed us to post, real-time, results for people who didn't want to wait three hours. (As to those of you complaining about "spoiling" events: If you don't want to know what's going on in the world, what are you doing cruising around a news site on the Internet in the first place?")

Running this blog through the Beijing Games also affirmed one other belief I hold true: That there is immense interest throughout the country, and particularly in the Northwest, in the Vancouver/Whistler Winter Games of 2010, which now lie only 17 months and change up the road. As I wrote in Monday's paper, the real buildup begins in a matter of weeks.

In October, the winter-before cycle begins, with a full slate of World Cup test events at venues in Vancouver and Whistler. We'll do our best to take you along to as many of those as possible, and keep you abreast of Olympic news, great and small, in this space all the way through that waiting period.

Thanks again for reading and sticking with us.

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.