A 20-year Olympic absence and no Rio regrets

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: The Games may be coming, but RANDALL NORTHAM has no great hankering to be working at 2016’s ‘Greatest Show On Earth’

You can always tell when the Olympics are starting. The Village isn’t ready, the stadiums are going to fall down, the buses haven’t started running. No one mentions the “Ring of Steel” any more, although that story got The Star’s Kevin Francis and me out of a hole when we arrived in Japan in 1988 after a 23-hour flight. Our papers wanted a story straight away.

Rio's ready for the Olympic Games
Rio’s ready for the Olympic Games

These days, security being tight is not news.

A lot of old friends are already over in Rio, working for the Olympic News Service, which is good for them but bad for our industry.

John Wragg, for instance, who took over from me as Daily Express athletics correspondent, is there for the ONS. It will be his seventh summer Olympics. Apparently John’s volunteered to cover the beach volleyball tournament. I hear that the Daily Express isn’t sending any one to cover the Olympic Games this time.

Neil Wilson will also be in Rio. He’s covered every Games since 1896, or so it seems, and it’s thanks to him that I went to my first – Moscow in 1980. Neil left the United Newspapers sports desk in London and I jumped into his chair even though it meant taking a 75 per cent drop in earnings from running a freelance agency in Manchester – such was the lure of the Olympics then.

But will I miss not being in Rio? The answer is a firm no, just like I didn’t miss being in Sydney, Athens, Beijing or London. Atlanta in 1996 spoiled the Olympic dream for me.

Atlanta 20 years ago is generally recognised as the worst modern Games. The bus journey to our hotel for Neil Allen and me was so long we thought we were in Nevada, not Georgia.

The bus from the main athletics stadium took us through poor neighbourhoods with people sat on their porches staring sullenly at us as we drove by. The casual racism among the helpers in the press box was shocking.

So no thanks, no more.

I did get a twinge when 2012 came around and thought about trying to rustle up some accreditation for the athletics, through the books I publish. But the first day of the athletics in 2012 put paid to that. The first morning of the track and field was always one of my favourite Olympic moments. The 100-metre sprinters would prowl around, getting their heats out of the way, and the thought of what is about to unfold over the next week is delicious. But in London the stadium, instead of containing ten or so thousand, was packed. Which was great, but what an awful crowd. They didn’t seem to know what was going on.

The ticketing arrangements were dreadful. In my view genuine athletics fans, the ones who go to world and European championships, ought to have got first refusal. Instead, people who went just for the occasion and not for the sport filled the stands. Someone who had tickets for the VIP section told me that the people around him hardly watched the track, they were too busy taking photos of the famous.

Someone else who works for a printer I use told me he’d taken his son and was lucky enough to get tickets for the men’s 100 metres final. I didn’t realise he was an athletics fan, I said. He wasn’t. First time he’d been to a track meeting, he said. And that’s just not fair.

News story takeaway: Malcolm Cooper in 1988
News story takeaway: Malcolm Cooper in 1988

Atlanta was my fourth Olympics and I suppose if I’d carried on I’d be on nine this year. Doing something like covering the shooting for the ONS, because papers can’t staff the Games properly any more.

I did cover the shooting in Seoul in 1988. The athletics hadn’t started and the Express bullied me into going to watch people lying down and pointing a rifle at a target I could hardly see. It was tedious but we did win a gold, thanks to the late Malcolm Cooper.

His wife Sarah gave us a semblance of a story other than the winning of the medal. Malcolm, she said, couldn’t walk down the road in Switzerland without being mobbed. Whereas on the Isle of Wight, where they lived, he’d only been asked for his autograph once, and that was when he was in the queue at his local Chinese takeaway. A modest story, but one which juxtaposed Cooper being at the height of his powers with what happens when your sport doesn’t usually get on the back pages.

The Express sports desk woke me at 2am – the concept of a time difference was beyond them – with a query on my copy. They wanted to ask the name of the Chinese restaurant and the man who asked for the autograph, because the features department wanted to interview him!

I’ll leave you with a Facebook post from John Wragg in Rio: “OK. Well the day started like this. Up early to get the media bus to the main media centre to catch another bus to the Maracanã, where the volleyball venue is. It was due 8.20am. Waited. Waited. And asked what was happening.

“‘No bus, now won’t start until July 29’. That’s helpful. How do I get there then? Bus to Rio Down Town Hub, walk in 90-degree heat, Metro to Maracanã, then walk. Two hours later got there. Staff brilliant there (Helena thank you) got some work done, had good look round, lunch, got updated on training schedule, set off back at 3.15pm. Got back to Media Village apartment at 7pm after two-hour bus journey (plus Metro, walk etc). Cold Chopp beer and pizza then as a reward for a long day – but that’s the Olympics for ya.

“Worst moment? On the subway when a young man offered me his seat. Felt very old.”

Nope, shan’t miss it, although I will watch the athletics on television. All I ask the BBC is that you give us the viewers a feed of the live action without commentary. I want the action and the atmosphere, but not the inanities. Yes, I know you have to cater for everyone and not for people like me who started covering athletics 50 years ago and have picked up a smattering of expertise in that time.

But please do my TV a favour. It doesn’t like having things thrown at it.


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