Things I learned from my first Olympics

While London 2012 was my fourth international sporting event, it was my first Olympics. This was the big leagues. Being able to peek behind the curtain of something I’ve been obsessed with since childhood was certainly enlightening, to say the least. It all happened so fast I’m still trying to take it all in, but here are some things I learned from my three weeks as a journalist in London:

Don’t buy into hype.

How much grumbling did we hear going into the Olympics? Transport’s going to be terrible. The Opening Ceremony’s going to be terrible. The tourists will be terrible.

Well in the end, transport worked pretty darn well; people were incredibly friendly, spectators were respectful, and the entire city seemed to be under a blanket spell of happiness. And the Opening and Closing Ceremonies — well they were nontraditional, but still awesome. London surpassed all expectations, which goes to show that hype is just that, and preemptive negativity is unnecessary.

Journalists are surprisingly trusting.

Press tribunes at the Aquatics Center

Whenever I went to the press tribunes at a venue, I would find computers and kits left out (presumably to save the seat) for hours at a time. I mean, these were valuable pieces of tech — is there some Olympic journo code of honor I don’t know about?

The news is…twisted.

I mean, people know (or should know) that every piece ever produced has some sort of spin. But it was eye-opening to see it first-hand: the misquotes, the misleads, the gatekeeping, all in the name of selling the story. (None of them major, to be clear. But just enough to bother the OCD perfectionist in me.)

Always go to the press conferences.

It took me nearly a week to realize I was missing out on good stuff by skipping the press conferences. I was filing stories using only flash quotes (those given by an athlete right after they finish their event), but towards the end of the swimming finals I realized the press conferences not only got you much better quotes, but they also gave you a sense of the athlete, which can add to the story. Usain Bolt was confident and playful, and the way he constantly called himself a legend only cemented the idea further that he was one; another American athlete reacted quite negatively when asked a certain question one night, which made for a good angle. If you’re a journalist, don’t ever skip a chance to talk with subjects further.

Stars are human too.

Phelps, Lochte, Bolt — all normal guys deep down. Reading about the Olympics in years past, I’d see athletes as celebrities; when I met Tom Daley at my first event, I was totally starstruck. But when you’re up close and personal to them, day after day, you see they’re not some gods come down from Mount Olympus to be worshiped. They’re just normal people, flesh and blood.

Be nice to the volunteers.

I’ve been on that side, having gotten my start in this field by volunteering at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, and it’s unfortunate to see the way volunteers are sometimes treated by journalists at these events: they are taken for granted, asked to do things far beyond their scope, and expected to perform magic and fix everyone’s problems.

No, they can’t make 200 copies for you, and no, they can’t control when the next media bus will arrive. But they are working shifts just as long as yours, and solely because they want to help the cause without any monetary gain, so treat them with respect and remember to appreciate all that they do.

Simultaneous translation is MAGIC.

After being in press conferences where I’ve had to listen to simultaneous translation for Russian/Japanese/etc athletes and officials, I am SO impressed by translators. I can barely take in everything when I hear it in English (hence why we all have voice recorders, to be able to listen back a second or third time), never mind trying to take it in then immediately translate it into a second language.

Everything is branded.


Some journalists stand during the national anthems.

Others don’t. It’s interesting to observe — some nights I’d be in press tribunes where almost everyone stood during medal ceremonies; other nights I was just about the only one.

You learn to love the mascots.

Hugs and jumping high-fives with the winner of the 1500m — SO CUTE.

I was among the many who laughed at the London 2012 mascots when they were first revealed. But by the end of the Olympics, I was completely enamored with Wenlock. Sure he looks like a cyclops, but his energy was contagious and the way he ran with his tiny T-rex arms was ADORABLE.

You will get lots of free stuff. Pack accordingly.

Media backpack from the Main Press Center. Moleskine from Bayt Qatar. Swimsuit, cap, goggles from Speedo. Large bottles of Pantene products and an armful of cosmetics from the P&G Media Salon (because I was nice to them — proof it pays to be nice!)…You get a lot of stuff from these events. I didn’t even keep half of all the products I received and I still ended up leaving with two bags more than when I arrived. Leave room in the suitcase for the inevitable swag.

Book time off either before or after the Games to explore.

Because it’s silly to think you’ll have any free time during the Games.

Being an Olympic journalist is not unlike being a traveler

You lose track of what day it is. You start to wear the same clothes over and over (because laundry facilities aren’t always accessible). Everyone talks to each other because they’re in this unique shared experience, which automatically gives them something in common. You meet people from countries you’ve barely heard of. And just like the travel or expat bubbles, it’s an experience that can’t be replicated or described unless you’re there.

Pins are the currency of the Olympics.

Pin trading on the media high street

It’s incredibly annoying for the non-collector, because people start looking at you not as a serious journalist or photographer, but solely for what pins you can offer. It feels cheap. On the plus side, it’s a great conversation starter — I saw so many journos from different countries interacting from wanting to trade pins.

Everyone has a story to tell.

With thousands of athletes at the Olympics, most people follow the big names. But next time, try reading some of the smaller stories too.

Take Felix Sanchez, winner of the 400m hurdles: In 2008, on the morning of his event in Beijing, he learned that his grandmother died. He didn’t do well but promised to win a gold medal for her one day. Four years later, after crossing the finish line in first place, he pulled out a photo of his grandmother that he had been running with under his bib and kissed it repeatedly; as he stood on the podium to accept his gold, a light rain started to fall, and he sobbed throughout the whole medal ceremony.

It was one of the most emotional moments I saw at the Olympics, and I feel so much richer for having heard his story.

Don’t ever forget how lucky you are.

When I received my ticket for the Opening Ceremony, I was ecstatic. When I went to my first press conference with celebrity athletes, I was admittedly a little excited. I went to nearly every Swimming and Athletics final. By the end though, I had come to expect the tickets and was annoyed when press conferences would run long (like Bolt’s usually did).

When watching the Olympics becomes your job, and you have to constantly be searching for your angle and your next story, you forget how incredibly lucky you are to have free access to every event, vantage points and inside information the general public doesn’t get; not to mention the ability to interact with the athletes.

The way you view the Olympics will completely change.

And not just because of the constant glow of the laptops in the press tribunes.

Everything became a story. Whats the angle here? What’s this person’s background? Why should we care? Is there controversy we can bring up? When you’re covering an event, you can never truly just enjoy watching it. I learned this right off the bat from the Opening Ceremony — even though it was unfolding just a few meters in front of me, I spent most of the ceremony flipping through the media guide and writing my piece.

Fun fact: none of the journos around me watched the Parade of Nations. We were all too busy fact-checking, editing photos, and trying to get our stories as close to finished as possible so they could be filed immediately once the ceremony was over.

It’s also easy to forget the whole world is involved — I was surprised to see photos or status updates of my friends watching events in Paris or in China, because I was so engrossed in what was happening around me in London, I’d forgotten the Olympics were being broadcast around the world. It was crazy to think what I was seeing live in Olympic Stadium, millions of people were watching in homes and bars from South America to Eastern Europe as well.

Sleep is for the weak.

Seriously. If the 60-year old vets can hack 16-hour days, every day, for three weeks — then you can too.

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  1. I’m glad you had such a great experience. I really enjoyed reading about it! The pin thing reminds me of my synchronized skating days. Every club had a pin and at competitions we’d go around trading for pins from around the country. It was a fun way to build a sense of camaraderie!

    • I didn’t know they had the pin culture in individual sports too! It definitely brings people together — small but mighty.

  2. I LOVED this inside look at the Olympics, Edna! I was an avid watcher from my couch but there’s no way I would’ve known about swag & pin trading! You are right – you are so lucky to be able to have experienced London 2012. Are you on your way to Rio?

  3. Great lessons, Edna! Thanks for sharing your insider’s perspective. I know I usually tend to forget what kind of work goes into reporting events like these, where people want up-to-the-minute information. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to watch much of the Olympics this year due to travel, but my friend & I (whose boyfriend actually was on Team USA) did get to watch the Opening Ceremonies. I love your photo of all the laptop screens, it really seems to capture the work you guys were doing!

    • Yeah, it’s intense and an impressively large collective effort to get up-to-the-minute info. And I loved looking at all the screens around me — not your average stadium view.

  4. This was certainly the experience of a lifetime and you have some fantastic takeaways here! Excited to see where the world takes you next.

    • Thanks Lindsey — I’m excited to see where I go next, too. Every year seems to bring a new surprise.

  5. Wow, this was such a fascinating read! Thanks for posting it, it’s so interesting to hear what really goes on behind the scenes. What a cool thing to be able to have done. You must be exhausted after all that!

    • The first day after it was over, I slept for 18 hours. So…yeah, just a little bit, haha.

  6. I didn’t have any clue what this might be like before I read this post – how cool to get an inside look! Great that people turned out to be pretty friendly and trusting, too.

  7. I love this insider’s look into what goes on at the Olympics. I especially enjoyed your photos of journalists hard at work during the games, and all of the little tidbits (being nice to the volunteers is very important!)

    I’d love to be a simultaneous translator! I can already simultaneously translate from Spanish into English, with only about a 1 – 2 second delay. English to Spanish is a bit more difficult for me to do simultaneously as I’m a few more seconds behind and at times doubtful of specific vocabulary, but I’m getting there! :)

  8. How amazing that you’ve had this experience!!! Thanks for sharing the nuggets of information with us.

  9. Katherina says:

    Hi Edna! I just found out about your blog and am loving it. I’m actually taking the step into sport event management (from finance – where I’ve been for the past 4 years…) and simply love reading about the insight on such big events. I’m living in London (I’m an expat, too) and have been to the Olympics, but only experienced them as a spectator. I’ve also started out my career by volunteering in events… And my big dream is to work at the America’s Cup!!

    • Thanks Katherina — I actually volunteered at the World Sailing Championships last year in Perth, which was a cool experience. I know very little about sailing, but I could see how excited the people who did were about being there!

  10. So fun to see the Olympics from another perspective, albeit behind a laptop at times. In San Diego, they played a story on the news about a man that always goes to the Olympic host city to collect and trade pins. He isn’t even interested in going to any events. He had a special vest that he would wear full of them.

    • Yes, they were all over the place! There were so many they’d actually line up against the wall outside the Athletes’ Village/Media Entrance. They’d sit there all day, trading pins — they all had vests, hats, and boards upon boards of pins!