They dub it the greatest entry-level job in sports media. NBC Sports gives a handful of 20-somethings a cell phone, a credit card and a recorder and tells them to travel the world.
They are called Olympic researchers, charged with finding the stories before they become stories at the world's most comprehensive sporting event. Much of what you see on NBC's prime-time coverage of next year's Sochi Olympics was born this year from a fireside chat in a snowboarder's Breckenridge lodge or a rap with a ski jumper on an Austrian lift.
"11,000 athletes, 11,000 stories" said Joe Gesue, who joined NBC as an Olympic researcher in 1996 and is now the NBC Sports Group's Executive Editor.
ABC, not NBC, actually birthed the Olympic researcher position. The first was a man named Dick Ebersol for the 1968 Olympics. When Ebersol moved to NBC, the Olympic broadcast rights eventually followed him, and so did the job.
"It's non-stop," said NBC Olympics senior VP Peter Diamond, the only researcher for the 1976 Montreal and Innsbruck Games. "How do you know about ski jumping? The answer is you dive in and start talking to people."
Back then, it began with panning specialty publications for nuggets of information. There wasn't Google or Nexis or Twitter or Weibo. Diamond, a Track and Field News writer while at Yale, subscribed to L'Equipe, a French daily newspaper devoted to sports. He traveled to Bulgaria and gathered what notes he could at a gymnastics event, bound them and lugged them home from Europe in a suitcase, as long as it wasn't too heavy to fly. Fax machines weren't widespread yet.
The job has evolved, but many tenets endure. It is still, centrally, about curiosity. When a researcher is stumped, the reply remains, "I don't know, but I'll find out for you."
"The original idea behind the researcher's role is to humanize athletes and bring empathy to the viewer," said Alex Goldberger, 26, the senior member of the current Olympic researcher staff. "Similarly, if you take a sport where the U.S. audience is really not familiar, that's a sport [where] a researcher's work could be especially useful."
The crux of the job involves working on what are called "research manuals," five syllables usually followed by a researcher's large exhale and a lengthy explanation. There's one for every sport, that's 15 for Sochi. They can be up to 600 pages, though they are now electronic.
"They are the ultimate goal of what we do," researcher John Howe said. "If I were to hand you this book, you would know everything you need to know about ski jumping at the Olympics."
The manuals include rules of the sport, its complete Olympic and world championships history, records and rules or format changes since the previous Games' manual. That's the first half.
"And then the athlete bios," said Kristen Layden, a London Olympics researcher and the daughter of SI senior writer Tim Layden. "The most labor-intensive part."
The researchers travel to World Cups, world championships, Grand Prixs, whatever's necessary to collect primary-source information on the men and women who could turn into Olympic stars. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 interviews conducted per researcher in the year leading up to the Games.
There are three researchers today, just under a year out from the Sochi Olympics. Goldberger graduated from Yale in 2008, heard about the job from other Ivy Leaguers, was hired that summer and "my third week I boarded a flight to Beijing."
In London, his third Olympics, Goldberger was dispatched to Bob Costas and NBC's prime-time show, writing scripts, acting as a statistician and an all-around Olympics encyclopedia at the drop of a hat. He regularly met with Costas before broadcasts to go over the night's top storylines.
"I had worked on a few shows with Costas before, the Super Bowl, with an eye toward London," said Goldberger, born the same year as Costas' son, Keith. "By London I was comfortable enough to challenge him. He similarly trusted me enough."
Goldberger was joined by Amanda Doyle (Villanova '10), Howe (Amherst '11) and Layden (Williams College '10) on the London researcher crew.
Doyle's duties for Sochi are sliding sports (bobsled, luge, skeleton), long-track speedskating and biathlon. The admitted "shy child" set a personal record in November by interviewing 25 athletes in one day at a Lake Placid bobsled/skeleton World Cup.
"I lost my voice," said Doyle, an English lit major at Villanova. Her travel log this winter sports season also includes Calgary; Salt Lake City; Whistler, British Columbia; and Sochi.
Howe, a quarterback at Los Angeles' Harvard-Westlake High School, interned in Ebersol's office in summer 2010 and got a call from Gesue the following summer. He covered a fencing event at the New York Athletic Club in his first week.
The greatest part of the job, Howe said, is "watching the Olympics happen, seeing stories you've written about for months play out." In Howe's case, London gold-medal wrestler Jordan Burroughs, whom Howe first met trotting out of an arena in Istanbul to a bus for 10 minutes in 2011.
Layden is the only researcher who left the company after London (she said on positive terms) to pursue an entertainment career in Los Angeles. But not before she spent 26 straight days in Eastern Europe in summer 2011. She went from the rowing world championships in Bled, Slovenia, to the canoe slalom worlds in Bratislava, Slovakia, to the conclusion of the European basketball championships in Kaunas, Lithuania.
"It was a pretty eclectic mix of stuff," Layden said. "I was in the [basketball] stadium when Lithuania lost [on a late turnover that led to a Macedonia three-pointer], and they didn't qualify for the Olympics. They brought in like all the security from another arena to escort out the other team's fans because they were worried about rioting."
The job's obstacles have progressed over time, from deciphering foreign-language maps and notekeeping without the aid of the Internet to now keeping up with what's been reported by a worldwide-accessible news media and being careful with budgets.
"And burnout," Gesue said.
The researchers talk about all-nighters, airline gold status and waking up in hotel rooms not knowing which country they're in. That all changes when the Olympic flame is extinguished at the closing ceremony.
"I have so much information in my head that was so important three days ago, but now I have absolutely no need to know it," Layden said. "It's definitely a sort of disorienting feeling after you've immersed yourself in it for so long."