Vahe Gregorian

Rocking around the clock in Rio: All in a day’s work when it comes to covering the Olympics

The columnist/reporter, left, shares a break in the action at the Main Press Center in Rio with trusty companion David Eulitt of The Kansas City Star.
The columnist/reporter, left, shares a break in the action at the Main Press Center in Rio with trusty companion David Eulitt of The Kansas City Star. vgregorian@kcstar.com

A day in the life at the Rio Olympics — as ever at the Games an out-of-body experience:

Aug. 10, 12:05 a.m: Race-walked wrong way from gymnastics through Olympic Park to arrive at swimming moments after Michael Phelps won 20th gold medal, have germ of a story angle occur to me and about halfway through it. Think of anxiety-inducing line from old friend Randy Covitz: “But what’s your second paragraph?” Head to “mixed zone” area where athletes usually pass through for at-least brief comments following medal ceremony.

At times in the scrum it can be hand-to-hand combat trying to get close enough to sneak in a question, or at least hear answers. But quite often it’s amazing how comrades and even strangers contort to allow others closer or even will hold your tape recorder to get it in range.

12:20 a.m: With deadline clock ticking … a Phelps sighting. But it’s behind us all, where he is whisked through either for drug testing or exclusive NBC access or whatever. Have to send story in 40 minutes, decide best run back to media room and type more and hope can amplify with some last-second illumination from Phelps at press conference. Every sportswriter knows this exercise in no-good-solution. Twenty minutes later, run back out and learn presser is post-deadline. Oof. So … no quotes for you.

1:10 a.m.: Get cheese bread dinner from concession stand in media area, where young Brazilians who identify themselves as Junior and Bea are perpetually posted and tired but unfailingly eager to please. Hearing Bea’s name makes me smile, feel like it honors 20-year-old cat Beatrice my poor wife, Cindy, had to put to rest a few days back while I was here.

1:20 a.m.: Get e-mail from alert online reader … Covitz, who sees a typo (the word “sounds” instead of “sound”) in fourth graf of column I sent in from gymnastics earlier. Get corrected online but too late for paper. Argh.

1:30 a.m: Star photographer Dave Eulitt loads up his 875 pounds of gear that he never-ever complains about hauling, and we catch a bus to get to our 2 a.m. bus back to the hotel.

Media buses are our lifeline here. Generally, they leave with a certain precision from vast Media Transport Mall adjoining Main Press Center (MPC). But there is some strange X-factor by which you never know when they’re coming inbound even if theoretically they are on a regimented schedule. For instance, at least three times I’ve waited an hour or more for buses supposed to come every 15 minutes. On occasion you can take public transportation or cabs, but those add logistical variables and mystery that can make them a gamble.

Thankfully, the buses are comfortable and almost always have working Wifi. Unfortunately, roads are bumpy and routes winding and drivers tend to try to make up for being behind by putting pedal to metal, and suddenly we’re passengers in the movie “Speed” while trying to type. Have seldom ever felt sense of motion sickness in my life, but feel it about every time on these buses.

2:55 a.m: Bus stops near hotel after ride spent mostly thinking of beloved friend who died suddenly on Sunday and worrying about how her husband and daughters are coping.

3:10 a.m: Arrive back at our crib, the Majestic Rio Palace, a perhaps-overstated name. But it’s more than fine. As we do each night, Dave and I walked the few blocks from bus not feeling unsafe but still wary of sudden swarms of trouble we have read about. Get a little damp from rain but not unwelcome. Send memo to office looking at ideas for next few days, drift off around 3:40.

9:20 a.m.: Eyes burning some, get cleaned up, grab quick breakfast of bread and cheese and fruit and head to bus a bit later than should for noon news conference at MPC. Think of driving in KC, passing people waiting for buses and feel further sense of appreciation for how much easier life is for just having a car. Sit with Star and Mizzou alum Les Carpenter, now working for The Guardian. Solve a few world problems, enjoy a little gallows humor over whether or not it was a bullet (say passengers) or a rock (says Rio 2016) that hit a media bus the other day.

11:54 a.m.: Pull up at transportation hub, no wait at security line and breeze into U.S. wrestling press conference more than a minute early. Enjoy listening to remarkably thoughtful group, starting with women’s team (Haley Augello, Adeline Gray, Helen Maroulis and Elena Pirozhkova) and followed by men’s team highlighted by charismatic, philosophical 2012 Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs. Wait until afterward to speak with University of Missouri wrestler J’den Cox, who was reason I came. Love this guy: Smart, talented in so many different ways (including musically), always makes you think. From a couple months ago in Columbia, I’ve got almost two hours of interview tape of him to go through for a story I’ll do later, but figured would be good to catch up with him and get some fresh thoughts. After we spoke a while, put tape recorder aside and just chatted. He wanted to know what I’d been doing during the Games. During time we spoke, four or five journalists from all over the country stopped over to introduce themselves as Mizzou grads.

1:15 p.m.: Because of rain, little gridlocked over what to do next. Try to think every day of mix of what seem to be biggest U.S. stories and good local ones. Would love to do more international stories, but my scouting report isn’t good enough to be able to anticipate those moments as well as I wish I could. On this day, figured three things most in play: boxer Nico Hernandez of Wichita could become first USA boxer to clinch an Olympic medal since 2008 (after embarrassing U.S. shutout in London 2012) if he wins match; Blue Valley North’s Jack Sock scheduled in men’s doubles semifinal that would assure him a medal if he wins; Wellington, Mo., archer Zach Garrett, who won a silver medal in team competition earlier in the Games and is ranked third in the world, in qualifying rounds of individual competition. Ultimately took calculated chance Garrett would make it through to advance to Friday(luckily, he did), and when it became more apparent that rain could postpone Sock’s match figured best bet was head to boxing.

2:20 p.m.: A little window for a rare actual lunch instead of the omnipresent kibbee and cheese bread that seem to be only food available at various venues. Unlike other nine Olympics I’ve been to, the food opportunities are extremely limited in media biosphere. Normally, think 8-10 sorts of actual dining options and another 8-10 grab-and-go sorts for the thousands of us. That always included fast-and-easy McDonald’s, where after a few days at every Games I’d basically favor convenience over anything else and start conducting own “Super-Size Me” experiment. No McDonald’s at MPC here, alas, and only three media food-lines altogether. Usually, each takes at least 30 minutes to get through, even if just want to nab a pre-packaged sandwich.

But … there is a Courtyard by Marriott just outside security with a fine buffet, so off I went with former Star columnist Joe Posnanski. Always a lift to spend time with Joe, especially at the Olympics, where your friends are your greatest sustenance. We joke a lot about the oddity of covering the Games. Joe likes to tease me about how long it seems to take me to do things. Says never questions my courage to stand in the pocket … just that I might-ought to get rid of the ball quicker. I “brag” to him that other day I recognized trouble at line of scrimmage as stepped behind center and immediately threw ball away.

3:30 p.m.: Catch bus to boxing, which is outside the main Olympic park and takes 15-20 minutes. Seems to me it went back into the city some. Was disabused of this on Thursdayduring visit with Prairie Village’s Bill Hancock, as ever serving as a volunteer in the USOC office in the MPC. As told him where I’d been day before, Bill looked out window and suggested the boxing venue was building just out across the street. I scoffed, but … he was right. Would have walked if knew was a way.

3:50 p.m.: Walk into boxing venue with few U.S. media, including Yahoo combat sports guru, Kevin Iole. First time in years at boxing, fretted about unfamiliar ground. But Kevin graciously provided orientation, reminding that one of the great things in our business is the way people are so willing to share their knowledge.

5:15 p.m.: Hernandez begins fight with Ecuadorian, and by the time it ends it’s not at all clear to me he has won. Question existence as wait for verdict. He wins, and story prospect seems salvaged. Big moment for Wichita, big moment for USA Boxing, so call delightful USA Boxing president John Brown back in Shawnee. Helps the story along and great to talk again to such a good and engaging guy.

7:47 p.m.: Finished interviews and researching and going through notes, and tape. Type several sentences. Get up. Think of “That’s a show” line from Seinfeld. Body now needs kibbee and cheese bread and thimble-full of coffee in press room.

9:30-ish p.m: Finish story, see that Josh Prenot is a swimming silver medalist. Remember that he was born in Sedalia but never figured out how long there and knew he grew up in California. Have some fun on Twitter with that, then suddenly consumed with quest to find out how attached he was. Get to bus stop outside boxing, and a volunteer from West Virginia named Gene says the buses have stopped running. Gets on radio, which is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone able to radio to the bus nerve center, and gets no response. Says maybe the radios have stopped working, too. Ninety seconds later, a bus appears. I take it to MPC, go through security, immediately step on another bus and waltz into swimming press conference room a good five minutes before Prenot press conference. Maybe there’s a story here.

11:18 p.m.: Press conference begins with media from Kazakhstan cheering wildly as nation’s history-making first swimming gold medalist walks in. It is an odd thing for U.S. media to see this, because we are steeped in the mentality of no cheering in the press box and, frankly, never feel inclined. Not that you don’t appreciate what people accomplish or have favorites you like to see succeed, but your lens on all this is work. Just the same, I think most of us recognize that this is a cultural difference (many journalists from other countries wear the logos and colors of their nation) we just can’t understand but can appreciate that we don’t.

11:25 p.m.: Determined to find out Prenot relationship to Sedalia, decide don’t care about embarrassing myself and being the dope asking a “local” question. Turns out he was there for only months as what he called an “Air Force brat,” with a parent presumably stationed at Whiteman. But he’s happy to play along when tell him perhaps Sedalians may want to claim him: “I’ll take it,”’ he says, smiling. Not enough for a story but, hey, some fine Twitter-fodder.

12:20: Get some kibbee and cheese bread from Junior and Bea. Dave and I head to bus to the bus as Cindy calls. When tell her what doing, she laughs pretty hard, saying every time she calls I’m on a bus. Quite pleased to catch the 1 a.m. instead of the 2 a.m., slump into seat next to journalist from Kazakhstan who speaks English and is thrilled to speak about the swimming medal.

As two Vietnamese journalists had been a few days earlier after the nation’s first gold medal of any sort. And as I remember an Indian journalist being at the 2008 Beijing Games after the nation’s first individual gold.

So went just another day at the Olympics. For all the stress and times I mutter about it feeling impossible, maybe I wouldn’t really have it any other way.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

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