LONDON CALLING: He’s reported on the Olympics and Tour de France and been sports editor of a national newspaper, but at the London Games, CHARLIE BURGESS was a Games Maker. This is his account of life in the Mixed Zone
The first question everyone who is not in the trade asked when they heard I had got a job as a volunteer “flash quotes reporter” at the Olympic Stadium was: Will you get to meet Usain Bolt?
I got close – along with a couple of hundred of other hacks, as we squeezed into the mixed zone in the tunnel beyond the finish line down which every athlete is obliged to go. To be precise I ended up “interviewing” a loud speaker which was relaying his voice along with many others who held their recorders up to it, while behind us Bolt was spouting his legendary lines.
I missed seeing his 100 metres bolt live by a shade over 10 seconds. Here is how. One of our other jobs for the Olympic News Service, as well as getting a flash quote from every gold, silver and bronze medallist in the mixed zone, was to listen in to quotes being given to the broadcasters out in the stadium. No questions, just a crouch down out of shot, beside the BBC, NBC or the lads and lasses from the Olympic Broadcasting Service.
I thought I had timed my run perfectly to be out there when Bolt went into his pre-match Vaudeville routines. One of the best views in the house, just beside the BBC’s brilliant trackside reporter Phil Jones.
And then Ezekiel Sodding Kemboi, gold medal winner in the 3,000m steeplechase, had to choose that moment to walk past Phil and Phil, ever the pro, stopped him for a quote which I took down and then had to run back to file.
Thus I watched the 100m final on the telly in the mixed zone.
Phil has been criticised in some quarters for his touchy-feely manner with the athletes. As he pointed out to me he gets hold of them to make sure they are in shot and because sometimes, exhausted after their Olympic efforts, they are a bit wobbly.
We were a mixed crew including a journalism student from John O’Groats (he says he will never go back), two former PE teachers from Lancashire, a young Brazilian whose cousin won a silver medal in the pool, Garry Jenkins, the journalist and author of the fantastic book about the 1970 Brazilian World Cup Winners, The Beautiful Team and a journalist taking his holiday from his real job on a local evening paper who was camping at nearby Eton Manor Rugby Club for a tenner a night. By all accounts the club’s bar was the volunteers’ equivalent of the Athletes’ Village.
And there was me, a recovering journalist who reported one Olympics, Los Angeles in 1984, for The Guardian along with John Rodda, Frank Keating and John Samuel, the sports editor.
Those two weeks, along with the previous three when I had covered the Tour de France, had been part of the best summer of my life.
So now here I was, nearly 30 years later, doing it for nothing and having to wear a ridiculous uniform which I have described as making you feel like a refugee from Billy Smart’s circus but on reflection looks like you have just been auditioning for the part of Buttons in a provinical panto.
I was interviewed last year along with all the other 70,000 Games Makers and was interviewed at the Excel. When asked what inspired me about the Olympics, I had to tell them it was seeing Seb Coe and Daley Thompson win their medals in LA live. I remember at the time pinching myself as Coe and Cram came round that final bend thinking how blessed I was to be watching this – with the Guardian paying me to be there (though I do remember I had the cheapest seat on the plane, one which did not recline, right at the back in front of the lavs).
So I got the job for this year and we practised at the British University Championships at the stadium on a wet May weekend with a handful of spectators rattling around. Our team leader was the indefatigable Mairi Irvine, who managed to keep her calm both then and through the whole of the Games.
Ah yes – the real thing. As the thousands of fans poured in for the first session into a transformed and buzzing atmosphere, four of us spent an hour and a half stapling start sheets together. Where we were based the copying machines, their badges taped over because they were not official sponsors (I peeked, they were Xerox) did not have a staple device. Olympic stapling – that’s one for Rio. I’m up for it.
As the Games wore on, there were a few familiar faces – Neil Wilson, who had been on The Independent when it was launched, Richard Williams of The Guardian and Jim Lawton and David Walsh among many – still giants in the so-called shallow end.
It is not until you view it all slightly from the outside that your realise how tribal most of our reporting is. The hacks hunted in national packs so a French athlete would ignore the IOC-accredited international agency men at the start of the tunnel (who we were allowed to join in their pen) and make a bee line for the French journalists further inside.
As we were impartial we had to go where the medals were and not bother with a British athlete who had finished fifth. We had a German speaker (a Swede who was an athletic statto), a Russian speaker and access to other interpreters. Chinese was the biggest problem – and we often had to wait for the official media conferences to get their quotes translated. Most of the athletes on the international circuit had at least a smattering of English.
Late in the evening with newspaper deadlines approaching people became tetchy as sometime the winners and other medallists could be detained for up to an hour by the broadcasters before they made it to the mixed zone. That is where our early quotes from the telly people outside might have helped.
It wasn’t just the press we were helping. One night the Minister for Sport for the Dominican Republic used my charger to fire up his Blackberry so that Felix Sanchez could receive the grateful thanks of his country’s president for his victory in the 400m hurdles. I left them huddled in the zone waiting for the connection.
Sanchez is to all intents and purposes an American but he flies for the Dominican Republic because that is where his parents were born. He was the one who cried buckets on the podium for his dead grandmother whose picture had had in his racing vest. He had explained that to the NBC man (and unwittingly to me) soon after his victory.
I worked nine days, mostly doing the evening shift. We got there early and were divided into three teams, one covering the broadcasters and the others “in the zone”. We were then briefed by two experienced and unflappable athletics journalists, Matt Brown and Phil Minshull, on who to look out for. They provided the previews, biogs and straight reports and sometimes acted as subs before our quotes were sent back to the ONS HQ in the Main Press Centre.
Our team arrangement usually lasted for an hour or two before we were just going wherever the next medallist was easiest to get. Has anyone seen the French pole vaulter? What’s his name? Scramble through the start list. Make sure you don’t mix him up with the German who came second. Anyone any idea what he looks like? Hope he has a French flag round his neck. And if in doubt just check with the French hacks that they are talking to the winner.
The only time I almost came unstuck was when listening to a Belgian middle-distance runner called Borlee. Athletics journalists will know that there are two of them – identical twins, Kevin and Jonathan, and that they sprint 400m.
I had a ball.
- Charlie Burgess was The Independent‘s first sports editor. He is now a media advisor and very amateur magician
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