At the head of our troops in Lake Placid is the veteran SI writer and editor Bob Ottum, and for the first time in three Winter Olympics one of his troops is Ottum himself. After 10 years as a senior editor, assigning stories to, and editing the copy of, writers, he recently went back to the old Royal full time. While editing, Ottum felt he was "secretly still a writer." Secretly? You couldn't miss an occasional irrepressible Ottumism bubbling up through a piece of copy, to say nothing of the fact that the man was writing book after book—six at last count, four written while he was not being a writer. Editing was fulfilling, even fun sometimes, but "there was a growing restlessness," he says. "You realize that there are a lot of things you still want to say." And so, knotting another of his dashing bandannas around his throat and tugging on his warm, if ludicrous, moon boots, off he treks to still another Olympic venue.
Ottum, 54, joined SI in 1964, on St. Patrick's Day, to cover motor sports and winter sports in season and write personality pieces in between. In 1969 he became an editor, and his first assignment in the field was the world ski championships in Val Gardena, Italy. He has been our winter sports editor ever since, overseeing coverage of both the Sapporo (1972) and Innsbruck (1976) Winter Olympics before Lake Placid, as well as editing other sports such as boxing and sailing.
At Lake Placid, Ottum's corps includes William Oscar Johnson, E. M. Swift, Anita Verschoth, Linda Marsch and a team of six photographers. As a writer he is covering figure skating, bobsled and luge, and whatever else he can get his down-filled mittens on. The logistics of managing SI's lodgings and a marvelously beat-up old silver Air-stream house trailer parked across from the Olympic Arena, from which much of the writers' copy is transmitted to our New York City offices, are complex, but then, Ottum has been down that road before.
He says, "There's nothing quite like being an editor in the field, where you have a staff that is always harried—and often stranded in snowbanks. You have to be housemother, sidewalk psychiatrist, camp counselor, dispenser of advice and aspirin—and coffee maker in the morning."
February 25, 1980
As generally happens when one rents quarters normally inhabited by others, some members of the staff drew the kids' bedrooms and have been hunched over writing stories on toy desks and sleeping in what seem to be toy beds. The 131-pound Ottum does not require a Papa Bear-size bed, but he does usually put away three squares—except at Olympic time. "I lost eight pounds at Innsbruck four years ago because of nervous tension," he says. "I'm a cinch to break that record this time around."
On the basis of this week's Olympic coverage, however, we can honestly say that Ottum's loss is our gain.