You have seen the foreboding news out of Rio, be it political upheaval, pollution, the Zika virus, street crime, infrastructure issues or the state-sponsored doping of the Russian Olympic team. The months leading up to the Olympics are always fraught with negative news, but this has been different: The run-up to the Rio Games is easily the worst of the last 30 years.
The contrast, of course, is that this year’s Summer Olympics, which begin Aug. 5, offers the best collection of returning Olympic stars in decades, from Michael Phelps to Usain Bolt to Kerri Walsh to the U.S women’s basketball team and many more.
Last week, in an attempt to get some insight into covering one of the most extraordinary (for good and bad reasons) sporting events in years, I paneled a group of veteran Olympic journalists who will be covering the Rio Games.
• Nancy Armour, columnist, USA TODAY Sports. Rio will be Armour’s 11th Olympics. Her first were the Atlanta Games in 1996, and she has worked every Summer and Winter Games since.
• Bonnie Ford, senior writer, ESPN. This is Ford’s seventh Olympic Games as a journalist. Her first was Atlanta in 1996. During a freelancing hiatus, she worked for the Olympic News Service in Torino in 2006, running press operations at the women’s alpine ski venue.
• Matthew Futterman, senior special writer, Wall Street Journal. Rio will be Futterman’s fourth Olympics. Vancouver was his first.
• Tim Layden, senior writer, Sports Illustrated. Rio will be Layden’s 13th Olympic Games. The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona were the first Olympics he covered.
• Tariq Panja, sports reporter, Bloomberg News. This will be Panja’s second Olympics. He covered the London Games. Worth noting: He is based in Rio.
• Eddie Pells, national sports writer, Associated Press. Rio will be his ninth Olympics, counting summer and winter. His first was Sydney in 2000.
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. This is long, but I think it's worth your time if you want insight into how the Rio Games will be covered.
How would you describe your assignment for the Rio Olympics?
Armour: A little bit of everything—which I imagine is what most folks will say. I’ll be on gymnastics for most of the first week, but I’ll be bouncing around after that. I already know I’ll be covering Jordan Burroughs’s matches on Aug. 19 (he’s the defending Olympic champion at 74kg, and is trying to become the first American wrestler to win consecutive gold medals since 1992) and women’s triathlon, where Gwen Jorgensen is favored to give the U.S. its first gold in the sport, on the 20th. Beyond that, whatever pops up.
Ford: My schedule will be flexible, my roaming duties will include event coverage, straight news and columns/analysis and I expect to be on multiple platforms every day: Digital text and video, television and social media. I always have a master coverage plan and I’m always ready to abandon it depending on breaking news, trends and upsets. I expect to cover swimming, cycling and the women’s marathon. I've devoted a lot of time to open water safety and water quality issues over the last few years, so I’m very keen to cover the triathlon and open water races the second week and hope to check in on the sailing and rowing competitions. I follow athletes I’ve profiled and I try to see something new every Games. Twenty years ago, I went to judo in Atlanta and watched a North Korean teenager upset a Japanese woman who was a huge star. I was clueless about the technical part of the sport, but the emotion was incredible. I had to be talked into going to women’s boxing in London and ended up stumbling into Katie Taylor’s fight against a British boxer, Ireland versus England, and 10,000 people going completely nuts. It was one of the most memorable Olympic experiences I’ve ever had. Even after all these years, there are sports I haven’t seen. I’d like to get to water polo and an equestrian event in Rio, and I want to see track cycling in the much-maligned Velodrome. Having said all that, a lot of the most compelling stories in Rio are going to be off the fields of play and I’d like to have a shot at those as well. It’s impossible not to feel tugged in a million directions at the Olympics.
Futterman: I will cover a lot of swimming and track but also float around, try to cover the big stories and give the WSJ readers the 30,000-foot view of what it all means, keep a close eye on the medal count, the IOC and any big breaking news stories or scandals.
Layden: I’m part of a team of reporters for SI and SI.com. In the days before the Games and for roughly the first week of competition, I’ll bounce around a little, alternating between some quick feature pieces for SI.com and deadline coverage of some swimming, an event that I’ve covered in the past and wrote about some in the last year. That would also be for SI.com. There could be magazine duty. Everybody on the SI team is still trying to master the balance between providing content for a daily website and a weekly magazine at the same time. The Rio time zone, one hour ahead of the U.S. East Coast, adds to the complexity. Beginning on the second Friday of the Olympics, and through the end of the Games, I will be covering Track and Field, which is sort of a mini-beat for me. That, too, will involve a mix of deadline event stories, longer event stories and feature stories turned around quickly.
Panja: The easiest way of describing my assignment at the Games is to say that I’m focusing on everything that’s happening off the track or field. There are likely to be several news stories that emerge during the event, and of course working for Bloomberg, I will be trying to follow the money.
Pells: Mainly covering track and field, with a steady dose of doping, USOC, IOC, 2024-bid related and other “newsy” things that come up.
What do you consider the most important story at the Rio Games and why?
Armour: The Russians. The IOC may have thought it was clearing things up by not imposing a blanket ban and leaving it up to each individual sport federation to decide who can and cannot compete. But all it did was turn it into a big mess and an even bigger talking point—if that’s possible for a country that had a doping program that covered almost all sports and was overseen by the Sports Ministry. Athletes are going to be scrambling to prove their eligibility, ISFs are going to be scrambling even harder to verify them and then an arbitrator will be scrambling to sign off on what they both said. In less than two weeks. I can’t even begin to imagine the stress the athletes are going to be under, trying to prepare for the biggest competition of their lives when they’re not even sure if they’ll be allowed to compete.
And once the Games begin, the Russians will be the equivalent of the problem child at the family reunion who causes conversations to stop and people to stare when they walk into a room. Every single Russian athlete is going to be viewed, if not with outright suspicion then skepticism, and the debate about whether they should even be there won’t end until the flame is out. When they medal, the first thought is going to be, Are they clean? This is a crisis for the IOC that goes beyond the Games themselves but, unfortunately, it’s also going to overshadow the Games.
Ford: Whether the Olympic system is viable as currently structured. There’s never been a lead-up like this and it has put the whole concept of the Games under pressure. Every single “pillar” of the Olympics has visible cracks: holding organizers to bid promises; the financial, environmental, infrastructure and social consequences for the host city; international sports governance; and anti-doping. That would be enough for any Games, but Rio’s situation has been exacerbated because of the economic crash, political instability and Zika. Bidders for future Games have dropped out, and we’re looking at a Winter Games in Beijing, which is not only incongruous but also underscores the fact that the 2008 Games didn’t make a dent in the human rights and pollution issues there. Athletes are starting to demand more input. I know people want to enjoy the competition, but I don’t think this is a Games where anyone will be able to bifurcate and pretend the Olympics is only what goes on between the lines.
Futterman: I think the Russian doping scandal has the potential to be an existential crisis for the Olympic movement. Tick off Russia too much and that country could disappear from the Games for years. Coddle Russia too much and who knows what the athletes might do to rebel, to say nothing of the damage this has and will do to the brand and the emotional connection people have to the Olympics and what they are supposed to stand for. Of course this all goes out the window if there is a terrorist attack. In that case, who will care about doping or sports?
Layden: I think there are two. 1) The Games themselves, Rio and Brazil. Can they pull this off? If things come off relatively cleanly, this angle will die. But if there are major problems, it will overwhelm the Games. 2) Doping. It feels as though we’ve reached peak doping, with track programs in Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica all under scrutiny for substandard anti-doping programs. I’m not sure there’s ever been more skepticism surrounding performance, and the ability to detect dopers, and I think you’ll hear about it almost every day of the Games.
Panja: Doping. Given what we’ve learned over the last few weeks about the alleged state-sponsored doping program in Russia, it’s vital to the future credibility of the Olympic movement that there is a rigorous, comprehensive and transparent anti-doping process at these games. The allegations are stunning and raise serious questions about the ability (and willingness) of sports bodies to combat what is an existential danger to them. The fact that the IOC has announced nearly 100 failed tests after reanalyzing samples from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 is extremely worrying.
Pells: Well, I guess you’d have to define what “important” really means, right? I think the average fan probably is burned out about doping, if he/she even cared in the first place. The average fan wants to watch some good games, races, gymnastics meets, etc., learn about some interesting personalities and a few tearjerkers. If they live in the US, they want to see the Americans kick butt. But I have to go back to the doping because I hear veiled threats out of Moscow about how the crackdown on Russia could be threatening the future of the Olympic movement. Then, the question becomes, is it as good a competition if one of the top countries, drug-addled as it may be, doesn't show up? Another way of looking at it: Would the season be as compelling if the NFL decided the Patriots were cheaters and made them serve a season-long ban? So, to me, the drug story is most important as much because of drugs as because it could shape the next 20 years of this movement and, conceivably, water it down or break it apart (And I’m not so sure that would be the worst thing in the world, by the way).
Who is the most compelling athlete at the Olympics and why?
Armour: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles are all worthy candidates. However, I’d go with gymnast Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan. She’s 41 in a sport where most women age out by their mid-20s, at the latest. And she’s not just hanging on because she’s the only gymnast from her country. She was fifth on vault in London, and second on the same event at the Asian Games in 2014. An honorable mention goes to the Refugee Team.
Ford: That’s like asking me the desert island music question. I’m unwilling to narrow it down. It’s always interesting to watch the athletes under the biggest spotlight—Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, the U.S. women’s soccer team and so forth—because the hardest thing to do in sports is what’s expected of you. But I like to slink off to the side and work some of the stories that aren’t as well-known outside of the hardcore fans for that sport. Leading up to the Games, I profiled cyclist Taylor Phinney, the son of two Olympians who came back from a truly horrific crash, and rugby sevens player Perry Baker, a former Division II football player who was working for a pest control company at this time two years ago and is a human highlight reel.
I’ve got more up my sleeve.
Futterman: Usain Bolt, because he’s the only one of the roughly 10,000 athletes who, when he walks into the Olympic Stadium, all 150,000 eyes will go to him. He’s the only athlete who got standing ovations in the dining hall in London. So even the Olympians are obsessed with him.
Layden: I’d like to say it’s Usain Bolt. Winning the 100 and 200 again would be historically ridiculous, he’s the most watchable Olympic athlete in my lifetime and I’ve spent enough time with Bolt that I like him. Ditto in many ways, Michael Phelps. But my answer is Caster Semenya, the 25-year-old South African runner. Semenya is hyperandrogenous, which means, in extremely simplified terms, that she produces more testosterone than most women. The IOC has provisionally rescinded the ceiling on testosterone levels (for two years) and Semenya has become almost unbeatable. She will be heavily favored to win both the 400 and 800 meters in Rio and could challenge records set by obviously drugged Eastern Bloc athletes from the 1980s. She will probably defeat beloved U.S. star Allyson Felix in the 400, and in the process she’s going to challenge perceptions on sex, gender and athletics in ways that many viewers, and possibly media, are not prepared for. And because she is in two events (and probably the 4X400-meter relay), she will be competing almost every day.
Panja: From a local perspective, it has to be Neymar. I’m not an advocate of soccer being part of the Olympics, but no event at these games will mean more to Brazil than the soccer competition. Brazil, the most successful team at the World Cup, has never won the Olympic soccer competition, and what makes matters worse is that neighbor Argentina has. If the team is to finally give the country the gold medal it craves, Neymar, its sole superstar, will have to shine. The Barcelona striker was ruled out of the World Cup semifinal through injury two years ago. The result: Brazil suffered the biggest humiliation in its sporting history, a 7–1 defeat on home soil to Germany. Seeing if Neymar can cope with the pressure and expectation heaped on his shoulders will be a compelling subplot of these Games.
Pells: Ibtihaj Muhammad, the U.S. fencer. Most of us know this story. She chose the sport because they allowed her to keep her head covered while she competed, which allowed her to respect her religion. She’s Muslim. [She’s] so well-spoken and so unafraid of talking about this issue during a very divisive time in our country. I loved this quote in a story I read about her: “I wasn’t going to allow other people’s misconceptions to change my journey.” Good for her.
On a percentage scale, how clean do you believe the athletes are at the Rio Olympics and why?
Armour: Tough question. I think doping is far more prevalent than anyone imagines or we’d like to admit, but percentage wise? Are you counting people who are taking things while they’re in Rio? Those who timed it so they’d be “clean” when they arrived? Those who cycled off weeks or months ago but are still enjoying the benefits of performance-enhancing drugs? I’ll go with 40% but would have no problem believing a number higher than that.
Ford: I quit playing that guessing game a long time ago. We’ll never know, really. The focus should be on whether the IOC’s anti-doping operation is being run ethically, efficiently and securely and is up to state-of-the-art scientific standards. Realizing that science is always behind doping methodology, the number of busts that have been made during the Games pales compared to the positives that are coming out of retests four and eight years later. Behind some percentage of those positives are stories of athletes who got robbed and can’t be made whole. We’ve just come to find out that the Sochi lab was a cartoon farce. The system is only as good as its weakest link. The Rio lab has been suspended three times in the last four years and was just reinstated. I understand that people want to know if what they’re watching is “legitimate,” and my answer to that is the athletes are only half of the equation—the minders have to be minded.
Futterman: It’s probably easier to answer the question as a percentage of event winners. There will be 306 of them. It’s probably not unreasonable to think that 10-20% of them will have taken a PED at some point. The overwhelming majority of participants don’t take anything because it won’t help.
Layden: That depends on the sport. I’m fairly confident that archers and equestrian competitors are relatively clean (although there are probably drugs that would help in both sports, no joke). As you get into the sports involving explosive speed, power or endurance, the numbers go up. In my primary sport of Track and Field, Russia’s entire team was banned and Kenya, Ethiopia and Jamaica have had major issues. That’s four of the top five nations in the medal count since 1992. The coach of the best women’s middle distance runner in history (Jama Aden coaching Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba) was just arrested with a whole bunch of PEDs in his possession. Justin Gatlin of the U.S. could beat Usain Bolt in the 100 meters and he did four years for doping. I’m not sure track and field has ever been contested under harsher skepticism. If you want numbers, I would guess that more than half the Track and Field Olympians are clean, but that could be optimistic. If you examined only medalists, sadly, the number goes down. As for overall Games, it’s just very hard to say. The IOC has retested 1,243 samples from Beijing and London and found 98 positives. Make of that what you will. I have almost zero confidence in the doping control process.
Panja: I believe that the majority of athletes will be clean. But the revelations of the last few months give me enough doubt to perhaps question some of the super-human sporting feats that we are going to witness. As a sports fan, this is extremely sad. As far as a percentage is concerned, and based on the results of retests announced by the IOC, I fear at least 5% and perhaps as many as 10% of the athletes at the games may be using performance enhancing substances.
Pells: I’ll go with 70% clean, and a big chunk of those come from two subsets: 1)those who compete in sports in which doping wouldn’t make a big enough difference to be worth the risk and/or 2) those who compete for countries where state-of-the-art anti-doping systems are in place, which also means big-time out-of-competition testing exists. Don’t get me wrong; not everyone would be cheating if they had a way, or a reason. There are thousands of good, clean athletes out there who do things the right way because they want to, not because they have to. Still, 70% at the world’s highest-profile sports festival ain’t a great number. The two things I wish the general public understood better about drug testing: First, not testing positive at the Olympics or any other major competition means virtually nothing. When you’re in a spot where you know you’re going to be tested and you get caught anyway, you’re “just dummy,” as the [Head Ball Coach] would’ve said. Second, the anti-doping programs in place around the world vary so widely from country to country that it’s impossible for there to be a level playing field. Most athletes spend most of their time training and living in their own country, where they’re subject to whatever out-of-competition testing exists there. Well, if that country doesn't have any motivation or resources to catch cheating—Exhibit A, Russia, where the investigators say they actually devoted resources to promote it—then athletes can go along with their doping regimen, never have to worry about testing, get the stuff out of their system before Olympics or Worlds, get most of the benefits, test clean, then head home and crank it up again. Another way of looking at it: If American athletes who’ve been busted for doping over the past, say, 10 years, had been training in country X, Y or Z, I’d guess about half of them would never have gotten caught.
What question would you most like to ask the IOC president?
Armour: Why did you not do anything with the allegations against the Russians until May, when it was far too late to thoroughly investigate or develop a fair and reasoned response? These allegations go back years, and the first WADA report was out in November. As a follow-up, what are you going to do to ensure a debacle like this never happens again?
Ford: What is the single most pressing reform you want to see implemented post-Rio?
Futterman: Can you give me a tape of your recent conversations with Vladimir Putin?
Layden: Would you consider either A) A permanent home for the summer and winter Olympics or B) Spreading out future Olympic events over several locations, possibly in different countries? Perhaps this could halt the march of cities that are unable to host the Games without incurring uncorrectable debt, creating enduring scandal or engaging in human rights violations.
Panja: I would ask the IOC president if he feels the structure of sporting bodies today is fit for purpose. Most remain organized as though they were amateur clubs from times past. This, as we have seen with FIFA and the IAAF, can lead to the misappropriation of millions of dollars, corrupt practices and a collapse in public trust. Sport has a massive socio-economic function today, and I've seen little by way of leadership from the IOC to give me confidence that things are changing for the better. On a separate note, I’d like to know if the IOC regrets allowing golf to return to the games. Several of the senior players have made it pretty clear that they don't see the Olympics as a significant event for golf. All this does is diminish the standing of the Olympics.
Pells: First, truth serum. Then: “Given that Russia spent $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, do you think the IOC’s relationships with that country and its government hinder the committee’s ability to make objective decisions about that country's role in the Olympic movement? Especially in relation to the current doping scandal and promoting clean sports?''
What is the best sport/event to cover at a Summer Olympics and why?
Armour: Gymnastics is the sport I’ve covered at every Games, so I’m partial to that. But I’m also going to say modern pentathlon, which is this crazy, quirky event that, once you see it in person, is utterly captivating.
Ford: I don’t have favorites, just some I know better than others.
Futterman: Men’s 100-meter final. Because of the sound of the silence right before the gun and the explosion right after it.
Layden: There are two kinds of events to cover at the Olympics: Big ones and little ones. The big ones are the 100 meters, Phelps’s races, gymnastics all-around, those sorts of things. There’s a significant “I was there” quality to these events, and you get to sit at your laptop and document history. But they’re also a lot like covering the Super Bowl or the World Series or the NBA Finals: Lots of journalists, all trying to eat from the same small bowl of information. Usain Bolt will win the 100 meters at 10:46 pm; he won’t be standing in front of me until midnight and I will have 100 friends and we will all be climbing on top of each other to hear the big man. It’s not fun (for Bolt, either). But you were there to see it, and write it.
The little ones are where you go somewhere far from the crowd and find a cool story and write it. A sculler who takes an unexpected bronze medal or a wrestler who just misses out on the gold that he’s been chasing for his entire life. This is rare because there is so much media at the Olympics, but maybe you get a chance to talk to an athlete, one-on-one and tell an untold story. This is a dodge, but at the best Olympics, you get a little of each.
Panja: Despite its problems, Track and Field remains the best sport to cover at the Games. On the days of major track finals there is a certain buzz that envelops the entire Olympic circus, that feeling that something special is about to happen. As a reporter there’s nothing better than covering moments like these. Super Saturday in London will live long in the memory!
Pells: Always love gymnastics. It’s a manageable number of people. There are always at least four or five compelling stories, and usually you spend enough time with the athletes, over the span of years, to get to know them fairly well. And though the once-in-a-lifetime element is evident in all Olympic sports, there is something particularly amazing about watching a woman on the razor-thin balance beam, or a guy on the high bar, with no margin for error, while they’re trying to make a dream come true, knowing they may not get that chance again.
What is the worst sport/event to cover at a Summer Olympics and why?
Armour: I’m not sure there is one.
Ford: Any event where the transit or the Wi-Fi doesn’t work.
Futterman: Sailing. How can it possibly be covered?
Layden: See previous question/answer.
Pells: Rhythmic gymnastics. Probably needs no further explanation. But these events also go really long. So, after the first five minutes of making snarky comments about the ribbon and the hula-hoop, you’ve got eight more hours of wondering about your career choices.
How would you rate your level of personal anxiety covering these Games?
Armour: Very low. Except for when I think about having to deal with the transportation/traffic. Then it’s a full-on panic. I was in Rio two years ago for the World Cup and, yes, there were issues. I had my iPhone ripped out of my hand in broad daylight, with people all around me. (A dumb move on my part to be carrying it in plain view in the first place.) By and large, however, the people of Brazil were incredibly warm and welcoming, and went out of their way to make sure I was enjoying their country and felt comfortable. I’m expecting a similar response during the Olympics. Will we need to be aware of our surroundings and be cautious about displaying valuables? Absolutely. But I’d say the same thing about most major cities.
Ford: Under control. There are different concerns going into every Games. It seems distant now, but I remember being on edge in the months leading up to Salt Lake City 2002, because 9/11 had just happened. I was nervous about Sochi, because I’d never been to Russia and there were serious security questions in the lead-up. I went to Rio twice last year on assignment and I feel oriented in terms of where events are in the city, and cognizant of what the logistical challenges will be—and I think they’ll be considerable. The main questions are basic: Will I be able to get from point A to point B on time? Will the Wi-Fi work? Understanding there’s always risk, can we do our jobs safely? I hope to be out and about and not cover these Games from the bubble of the Main Press Center and closed venues, but we won’t have the answers to those questions until we get on the ground.
Futterman: It’s pretty low. I have spent a lot of time in Rio and Brazil since 2013. It’s about my favorite place on earth. They may be the nicest, most welcoming, most helpful collection of people I have ever met. I was there in for six weeks for the World Cup in 2014. I don’t think I had a bad five minutes.
Layden: My anxiety is always high before any Olympics. Even if everything goes perfectly, it’s stressful work, basically 24/7 for the better part of three weeks, usually a long way from home. Food and sleep are unreliable. Tensions always escalate in the mixed zones (where a lot of reporting is done). It’s physically and mentally demanding, even in Sydney (2000) or Whistler (2010 Winter, which were spectacular). Obviously, all of that is heightened for the Rio Games. I’m not so much worried about contracting the Zika virus or getting mugged in broad daylight, although it wouldn’t be shocking if either of those things happened. I’m more concerned that with the financial and political uncertainty in Brazil and Rio, in particular, the Olympic infrastructure will collapse. Really, as a journalist, what you want most, besides the opportunity to write good stories, is for the buses to run on time, the food to be edible, the air conditioning in the hotel to work at least a little bit. Nobody wants to walk out of the track stadium at 2:30 in the morning and find no transportation back to the hotel. Journalists who cover the Games put themselves in the hands of the organizers. You just want the machinery of the Games to function; any glamour is absolutely a bonus.
Panja: Having lived in Rio for much of the past three years, my level of anxiety is not especially high. There are obvious issues that come with hosting the Games in this part of the world, but I feel I’m generally accustomed to any difficulties that may arise. One area of concern is over the quality of the infrastructure that has been built ahead of the Games. The collapse in April of a newly built and popular bike path, that led to two people falling to their deaths, was a particular wakeup call. The structure, built as part of the mayor’s Olympic legacy program, fell apart after being hit by a wave. It’s fair to say that doesn’t inspire much confidence when it comes to the critical subway extension that’s crucial to the ferrying Olympic fans from one side of the city to the other. The subway is due to open just days before the opening ceremony.
Pells: Spinal Tap reference: “This one goes to 11.” But keep in mind, my normal mode for an Olympics is at about a “9” anyway. Most of my angst has to do with figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B once I get there. One of my favorite things the IOC does is they publish, literally, a 200-page manual describing all the transportation options. You pretty much need a PhD to get through it. Usually, though, by Day 3 or so, I've figured out something that works, and I’m happier. In Russia a few years ago, me and a few colleagues got on a bus that, for two straight weeks, had gone about 10 blocks down the street to where we were staying in the mountains and dropped us off there. Something changed over the last few days. The bus zoomed straight past our stop, all the way down to the airport in Sochi. We begged the driver to stop. He said he didn't understand English. So, we had to get off that bus at the airport, get on another and head back into the mountains. What should’ve taken five minutes took two hours. It was, like, Day 15 of the Olympics, our day was over and we barely cared at that point.
How much, if at all, did you consider not covering these Games due to health or other concerns in Brazil?
Armour: It never crossed my mind.
Ford: Never considered it. If I thought that way, I would have covered zero Olympics. (If I were contemplating pregnancy, I’d probably feel differently.) It’s hard to be away from home and family that long, but that’s true no matter where the Games are.
Futterman: Not much at all. I'm 46. My wife is 49. We have three kids. So that ship has sort of sailed. But 15 years ago I would have been giving a much different answer.
Layden: Not much, possibly foolishly so. Regarding the Zika virus, the odds of contracting it are very low and even if you contract it, the odds of getting extremely sick are also low. Women of child-bearing age are at higher risk; our children are grown. Other concerns? Yes. As I mentioned in a previous answer, there are genuine concerns about day-to-day safety. Having covered so many Olympics, I’ve probably fallen into the trap of assuming that things will just work out. They worked out in Athens and Beijing and London and my hotel room had a toilet in Sochi. But I do think there is a possibility that everything won’t just work out in Rio. That would be exciting to cover, too, I imagine. But it’s also possible that we’ll all come home thinking these would have been a good Olympics to skip.
Panja: I had no concerns.
Pells: A bit. Personal security concerns worry me more than Zika. Then again, at the Athens Olympics, security concerned me greatly. In Beijing, getting sick because of the pollution (which happened) and getting lost concerned me greatly. I could go on. The most troubling thing about Zika, to me, is that it’s been discovered relatively recently, and I’m not sure we’ve learned everything we need to know about it. Personal security—getting mugged, pickpocketed, etc.—is a legit worry.
Should these Olympics be contested in Rio. If yes, why? If no, why?
Armour: I support the IOC’s commitment to spreading the Olympics around. The most powerful aspect of Rio’s bid presentation was when it put up a map with lights showing all of the host cities, and the continents of South America and Africa were completely dark. That said, it was completely irresponsible to put the Games in Rio NOW. This is the third major international sporting event in Brazil in the last decade, following the Pan Am Games in 2007 and the World Cup in 2014. That would be a strain for most countries, let alone one that is still developing and needs massive investments just in infrastructure (roads, transportation systems).
Yes, Rio had a robust economy when it was awarded the Games in 2009. But there still should have been significant concerns given the amount of capital and construction required to pull an Olympics off, to say nothing of improvements needed in basic services—security, clean water. When you consider the other events Brazil had already taken on, the IOC should have recognized this was going to be too much of a challenge and asked it to bid again at a later date.
Ford: Too late to debate that now. It’s show time. I hope Rio comes out of this without even more serious problems than it already has. I hope these three weeks lead to a hard examination of the scale of this event. I hope athletes and fans stay safe.
Futterman: Yes, because hopefully the IOC will learn that expecting and demanding so much from a country with so many other urgent needs isn’t good for anyone.
Layden: The snarky answer is, ask me on Monday, Aug. 22. Maybe somehow Rio can make this work. The more serious answer is, of course not. Brazil is in economic ruin, human beings have been displaced, thousands of athletes, media and fans are arriving and potentially putting their lives in danger. All for a sporting event? How absurd is that.
Panja: Given the amount of investment Rio has made, I guess the Olympics should be held here. If we could go back in time, I’d say no. Though, the city’s mayor continues to tout that the majority of the billions of dollars spent on the Games are from private sources, the public purse has still dispensed significant sums. Rio and Brazil have other, far more essential spending needs than setting the city up for a three-week sporting jamboree.
Pells: Nope. They should be in Chicago. But the IOC consists of a large block of Europeans who don’t much care for the U.S. That sentiment was raging in 2009, when these Games were awarded. That’s one truth. The other truth is that the IOC wanted to “open up South” and bring the Games to a place they’d never been before. It would help Brazil and grow the Olympics and blah, blah, blah. Back in 2009, the worldwide economy was tanking but things in Brazil weren’t as bad, so I guess it’s possible to envision how someone might have thought this could work. But they ignored the underlying economic imbalances there and downplayed the odds that the economy wouldn’t stay good forever. What I find most troubling is the amount of money this country has spent to put on this event, and the World Cup, when set against the poverty and miserable living conditions that are not being addressed. I read that fewer than half the country’s households are hooked up to sewage mains. And we’re holding a big, billion-dollar party here? Then, there’s the ultimate flaw of the IOC bidding process. They hold all the power during the process, but once the Games are awarded, all the power goes to the city. So, the promises about cleaning up the harbor and helping out the poor and getting things built on time ... all that goes out the window because what’s the IOC going to do six months before the Games start? Move ’em? Not possible. So, bottom line, these poor rowers and sailors will be competing in human waste, everyone's security is probably more at risk than it should be, transport could be terrible and there's a ton of angst and anxiety in the lead-up to what's supposed to be a true celebration. But, hey, NBC will have some terrific aerial footage and a bunch of IOC members (and, yes, sports writers) finally get to make that big trip to Brazil.... On a more positive note, there’s always angst in the build-up to the Olympics, and the stories usually end up being about the wonderful, uplifting performances, not all the problems. I hope and believe that will be the case here.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. For the first time in its 22-year history, HBO’s Real Sports will examine a single topic on its show. On Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, Real Sports will air an 80-minute show to examine the powerful and largely unchecked International Olympic Committee.
“What initially started out as a 20-minute segment on the International Olympic Committee for our July show developed into a much larger story as we peeled back the many layers of the story,” said Gregory Domino, an HBO Sports spokesperson. “As the investigation took shape and we realized the complexities of the world’s most powerful sports organization, we felt it was necessary to provide viewers a larger and more comprehensive portrait of the IOC. This special is going to play like a documentary, consisting of six parts within the roughly 80-minute presentation.”
Domino said Real Sports producers and reporters conducted months of interviews, spanning nine countries. As part of the show, host Bryant Gumbel reported from Europe on the long history of allegations of ethical and legal violations from IOC members; correspondent Jon Frankel reported from Rio, the site of this year’s Summer Games; correspondent Bernard Goldberg reported from Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Games; and producer-correspondent David Scott reported from Beijing to investigate the cost of the 2008 Summer Games and explore the charges by some that the IOC was in partnership with China’s Communist Party. The producers for the special include Nick Dolin, Josh Fine, Tim Walker and Scott.
Said Domino: “We wanted to be as thorough and complete as possible to present the global perspective behind the IOC’s process, from the cities bidding to host the Games, to the monumental demands placed on the host markets, to the political landscape.
I haven’t seen the show but this has great promise given the subject and the history of Real Sports. Here’s a preview:
2. Last Thursday, ESPN and the ACC announced plans for a digital network that will launch next month as well as a dedicated cable channel that will launch in 2019. The league also extended its rights deal with ESPN through 2035–36. SI’s Andy Staples spoke with those involved in the deal and has an excellent story on it. The Raleigh News and Observer broke down what is being promised for the channel.
2a.An excellent question asked by CBS Sports columnist Jon Solomon in this strong piece, “Would there even be an ACC Network if ESPN didn’t reportedly owe the conference $45 million by July 1 if there was no ACC Network agreement?” Solomon reported the ACC and ESPN dodged that question last Thursday over a report last spring from Raycom announcer Wes Durham. “We enter into this agreement excited and happy to do it,” ESPN president John Skipper told Solomon and reporters. “I’m definitely not going to comment on finances.”
2b. I’m skeptical that an ACC Network will get major traction nationally. As Solomon writes, the ACC has teams in nine states (some heavily populated) that total about 29 million cable and satellite subscribers. The list of schools carries great cachet regionally, but two factors go against the network: Cord-cutting will continue to reduce the number of cable subscribers, and college basketball (this conference’s strength) has not proven to be a driver of national demand beyond March Madness. We’ll see where things are in 2019.
2c. Holly Rowe is one of the best people at ESPN. Pass along your good thoughts for her as she battles cancer publicly with fight and good cheer:
3. Episode 67 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins.
In this episode, Jenkins discusses how she finds stories, what made her book collaborator, Pat Summitt, an interesting subject, spending time with Summitt before she passed, writing for an audience that includes generals, spies and Congress, why she opted not to take the television path as her former Post colleagues Tony Kornhesier and Michael Wilbon did, her relationship with Lance Armstrong and how she feels about Armstrong’s lies, interviewing with Joe Paterno and the legacy of the former Penn State coach, whether she is optimistic women will find jobs as sports columnists heading forward, advice from her father, the legendary writer Dan Jenkins, and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Fascinating piece by Joel Curry: The Inside Story of how Shaq left the Magic in 1996.
• From The MIT Technology Review: A Full Scale of Olympic Financial Disasters Revealed.
• Outside The Lines reporters T.J. Quinn, producer Simon Baumgart and coordinating producer Tim Hays spent a year examining the case of a Dallas basketball player who pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
• And here’s the impact of their reporting.
• This AFP piece will interest those who love sports photography.
• The Nation asks, “Why don’t more people watch women’s sports?”
• Interesting story from Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber about two generations of Russian Olympic heartbreak.
• ESPN’s Tommy Tomlinson profiled the remarkable Ichiro Suzuki.
• The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan on ex-Clinton spin man, Joe Lockhart, Roger Goodell’s new image rehabber.
• ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh on why NBA bigs can’t make free throws.
• This piece for The Undefeated by Karen Good Marable on Mississippi majorettes was excellent.
Non sports pieces of note:
• From Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: “How’s Amanda?”—a story of truth, lies and an American addiction.
• The New Yorker had an interesting examination of casual sex.
• A woman loses five-figure ring in the Mediterranean. Hires 75-year-old diver to find it. He does. Great story.
• Via The Guardian: An incredible, horrific story from Argentina’s Dirty War period.
• Here’s an excerpt from James Andrew Miller’s upcoming book on CAA.
• Via Jenny Boyan: Losing Hearing, and Finding Compassion.
• Five years ago, a remarkable 9-year-old girl named Rachel lost her life. Her death changed 100,000 lives.
• Via The Washington Post: The Fall of Roger Ailes.
• Via The Washingtonian: What really happened at Politico.
• Via NYT Magazine: How Donald Trump picked his running mate.
• From Jane Mayer of The New Yorker: Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All.
• NYT reporters went on ridealongs with police officers in 10 departments across the U.S.
5. The NBC Sports Group says it will air 106 NHL regular-season games during the 2016–17 season—the most ever across NBC Sports Group heading into a season—including 14 games on NBC and 92 games on NBCSN. The opening night doubleheader on Oct. 12 on NBCSN features the Blackhawks-Blues at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the Kings-Sharks at 10:30 p.m. ET.
5a. Per Austin Karp: ABC drew 5.6 million viewers for The ESPYs, down 28% from last year's 7.75 million viewers, which was the first year ABC carried the event and featured Caitlyn Jenner accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
5b. NBC drew 4.9 million viewers for the final round of the British Open, the best British Open final round number since 2009 when the tournament drew 5.55 million viewers on ABC.
5c. Turner Sports and ESPN issued statements supporting the NBA’s decision to relocate the 2017 NBA All Star Game away from North Carolina. As for this writing: CBS Sports, ESPN, Fox Sports and NBC have not issued statements on upcoming events contested in North Carolina including the ACC Football championship (aired by ESPN), the 2017 NASCAR Sprint Cup race (Fox and NBC) and the 2017 PGA Championship (CBS).
5d. Prayers to the family Susanne Hilgefort, MLB’s senior director of broadcasting business affairs, who was one of three passengers, along with her husband, Michael Mydlarz, who died in a small plane crash on Saturday near Albany, N.Y. She was 48.