February 04, 2014
/ by Laura Botham
Every two years the world comes together for what amounts to one of the largest media and sporting events worldwide, the Olympics. Each event brings with it excitement and wonder and offers a glimpse into cultures that you may otherwise not be exposed to.
The 2014 Winter Olympics will kick off this week in Sochi, Russia with the opening ceremonies on Feb. 7. The addition of 12 new events makes this the biggest winter games yet, and will fittingly take place in the largest country in the world. NBC Sports is promising unprecedented live streaming coverage by way of Facebook, and social media by athletes and spectators will bring the most eyes to these games of yet.
Along with teams of America’s best and brightest sports stars, most countries will send teams of its best reporters and analysts. Like the athletes competing, these journalists come from different backgrounds and each adds a unique voice to the Olympic coverage. For most of the world, these are the eyes through which they will experience the Olympic Games, and maybe for the very first time, a little slice of Russian culture.
Ato Boldon has been to the Olympics as both a broadcaster and a sprinter, winning four medals for his home country of Trinidad and Tobago. He first competed at the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain and returned in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Boldon has been broadcasting for ten years primarily as a track and field analyst. He will be reporting from the NBC Sports studio in Sochi alongside correspondents Mary Carillo, Cris Collinsworth and Bob Costas.
“There are few seasoned Olympic broadcasters whose Olympic careers were as recent as mine, I can relate to just about anything that can happen at an Olympiad because I have experienced the highs and lows as a competitor at four Olympic games, not to mention my two as a broadcaster as well,” Boldon said.
As with any event that draws this many people, security and safety are being closely scrutinized. With the history of boycotts, protests and even bombings during previous games, this should come as no surprise. In a press conference earlier this month, NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel described the security as unprecedented “in terms of the credentialing, surveillance and amount of resources that have been committed to this area.”
“Guests, spectators are credentialed. You don’t get into the Olympic park and you don’t get into an Olympic venue without what’s called a “Spectator Pass,” which is the equivalent of a credential – which means everybody has been issued one and has been background checked,” Zenkel explained during the conference.
All eyes have been on Russia the past few years since winning the bid, but there has been no shortage of news coverage depicting struggles with human rights and freedom of speech. As a result, there has been speculation about what the coming weeks will bring in Sochi, both on and off the ice.
Brett Forrest, who will be in Sochi covering cultural dispatches for ESPN The Magazine is familiar with the culture and politics of Russia, having lived there and spent time in Sochi. In addition to covering the culture, he will also be covering any social issues that arise.
“I think people will be surprised by the level of security, but this is something that we have to deal with nowadays at every major event. This will just be another level up,” he said.
He also noted that protests relating to both the anti-gay propaganda law passed earlier this year, and the Circassian diaspora and genocide in Sochi 150 years ago, are not only likely – but expected.
With the passing of the LGBT propaganda law in Russia and the U.S. sending a number of openly LGBT athletes and delegates, there is speculation about how LGBT issues will be covered and how athletes will be able to represent themselves.
GLAAD is urging media to cover these issues and many are proposing international protests of this and other issues including freedom of the press. Vladimir Putin notably eased the restrictions that he put on protests earlier this year, allowing a site for protests to occur.
“We are going into this being prepared for there to be other news. Whether it’s the politics of what’s going on in Russia or the politics of the athletes,” NPR reporter Sonari Glinton said.
“There’s an understanding that we are going to be under surveillance. But as a business reporter, I’m also really interested in cyber-attacks and phishing,” Glinton said. He further explained that foreign travel always demands caution when using credit cards and personal information, but with such a concentrated group of travelers in one area “there will be phishing attacks and these sorts of shenanigans; you just have to be careful.”
Glinton has covered the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations before, and is excited to have the opportunity to travel to Sochi. “It’s not even on the list of places that I thought I would go. I would also be interested in exploring the automobile industry here, and how differently stuff is done even in regards to emissions.”
The attention garnered by Russian journalists alleging intimidation and harassment implies some incongruity between the guarantees of the Olympic Charter and business as usual in Russia. It is true that much of the media in Russia is state controlled and freedom of the press doesn’t readily occur there. It has also been reported that it is common for local media to be censored and scrubbed of any content that may be embarrassing to the authorities.
“As a reporter in the U.S., rarely do you have to look over your shoulder. Rarely do you have to think about how your reporting will be received by the authorities. It doesn’t mean that you are physically at risk all the time, it just means that here is a great potential for some things to happen depending on what you’re writing about and what you’re saying about it,” Forrest said. “There are some fundamental differences. But let me add, it’s not as bleak of a picture as some people in the West want to believe.”
Forrest believes that most foreign journalists and broadcasters will likely not experience any pushback from the government but “if you choose to stray too far into some very sensitive issues-for example, you want to write about terrorism and get close to the issue-the authorities are probably going to be concerned.”
Boldon offered some helpful advice that should be common sense to seasoned travelers. “It is important to remember that you are guest in someone’s country. I always think it’s peculiar that people think that they should be able to go anywhere internationally and act according to their customs or laws at home,” he said. “I have a high regard for that, as someone who has lived in a place other than the place in which I was born, for 25 years.”
Likewise, when you welcome someone into your home, you generally try to make sure they have a good time, make them comfortable and put on a show. This will be no different as Russia hosts the Olympics.
“A lot of people will be surprised. They’ll see a very modern face. They’ll see people that are really proud of their country. They’ll see people that are putting in lot of effort to put on a great show,” Forrest predicted.
“That’s the whole point of these games for Russia. That’s why they wanted them so badly. That’s why they spent so much money on them – they want to try to change global perception.”
The spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies promise to be impressive and memorable. The media is prepared to cover the Russian culture and the sporting events in an unprecedented breadth. And all over the world, families and friends will gather to cheer on their country’s athletes who have worked long and hard hours to become the very best at what they do.
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