One of my lifelong dreams as a TV producer was to work an Olympics. When I lived in Chicago, I had the opportunity to freelance for ESPN covering the Chicago Bulls during their championship runs, going into the locker room, having a pre-game dinner with Phil Jackson, all sorts of once in a lifetime opportunities. I had worked sidelines at NFL games too but hadn’t worked an Olympics.
When my hometown of Atlanta hosted the 1996 games, it was time for me to come home and I actually moved here permanently at that time. By this point in my career, I had made the transition to brand journalism instead of the regular kind, and that meant covering the games from the perspective of sponsors like VISA, various pharma and health brands, as well as sports marketing icons like Nike and Gatorade. I expected this to be one of the highlights of my career and it was to some extent, but honestly the spectator experience was far superior to the work experience. Also, the great thing about being a brand journalist instead of a regular one is you can skip right past stories like the Olympic Park bombing and on to the fluff and positive news.
The Olympics was everything I had wanted it to be and honestly so much so, I never felt I had to do it again (or really wanted to). I have lots of friends currently working in Rio and although I envy them at some level, at another level I’m perfectly glad to enjoy the Games as a spectator and a fan as opposed to having to worry about all the logistics involved. (I also lived in Rio as a child, so I feel I have been there and done that part too. Brazil is a great country and it will be a great Games, but if you have seen the sausage made up close and personal you don’t need to see it again). It will be a complete mess—but the Olympics always is, no matter where it is taking place in the world. (In Atlanta someone had the bright idea to hire bus drivers who were unfamiliar with the city and this was well before GPS devices).
It’s a very special thing to attend the Olympics as a spectator. If you get a jump on tickets like I did in Atlanta, you may find yourself at major events like boxing with better seats than Sugar Ray Leonard, or than Muhammad Ali’s seats at Olympic basketball. Not only did it turn out I was sitting in front of Ali, I just happened to be there when he received a replacement Gold Medal (he threw his original Gold Medal from the Rome Games into the Ohio river to as a civil rights protest). That was certainly memorable. He also couldn’t have been a nicer, friendlier person.
Working the Olympics is a whole other challenge. Fortunately in Atlanta, there was no language barrier—in Rio, everyone will be brushing up on their mostly non-existent Portuguese. It’s not a language most of us Americans are very familiar with. Not that the average American is multi-lingual, but Portuguese would not be high on the list of the bilinguals here. You can use some Spanish in Brazil, but where I lived, the average person was as likely to speak German or Italian as English. I am no linguist, but from my knowledge of Spanish it honestly seems closer to Italian than Portuguese. Let’s put it that way, I found it much easier to get around in Italy than I did Brazil. Of course, French is the official second language of the Games, and I don’t recall knowing many Brazilians who spoke French, although because of the melting pot culture, it wasn’t unusual, particularly in Sao Paolo to find someone that spoke five or six languages, as Sao Paolo is definitely one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world and compares actually very favorably to New York, in my opinion. The bottom line is that if you are working in another country, you need to have a working knowledge of the primary language and beyond that, Brazil is one of those countries where it helps to know the way things work.
The unexpected surprise to me of being so close to the Atlanta Games, was discovering the Paralympics. A good friend of mine was involved in marketing the Paralympics, and after the circus that is the Olympics left town, she encouraged me to get involved. I honestly had no real knowledge of the Paralympics so it was an interesting education and quickly became a favorite sporting event of mine, which will be the subject of a future blog.