Peter Mansbridge - Monday Feb. 3, 2014 06:55

Covering the Olympics: Lessons learned

When the cauldron is lit in Sochi, all other issues 'seem to disappear'


The Olympic flame will light the Olympic Cauldron — officially, and not as test, as it is here — during the opening ceremony on February 7th in Sochi, Russia. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

I’ve been lucky enough to cover, first hand, almost every Olympic Games since the Seoul Games in South Korea in 1988. I say "almost" because I missed Barcelona in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 (CTV had the broadcast rights for those two Games). And I was literally on my way to the airport to cover the 2000 Sydney Games in Australia when a friend called with the news that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau was very close to death. As a national news organization we had to determine where, given both events, was the best place for me to be; I stayed in Canada.

But I was on location for all the others: Albertville, France, in 1992; Atlanta in 1996; Nagano, Japan in 1998; Salt Lake City in 2002; Athens in 2004; Turin, Italy in 2006; Beijing in 2008; Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012 (even though CTV again had the rights for those last two).

When I look back there are some similarities in the days and weeks of media coverage leading up to each of those Games. Months of athlete profiles and expectations slowly give way to two common themes: Will the host country be "ready" in all that that expression entails? And will security be so evident and oppressive that the athletes and their accomplishments become secondary?

Some reporters were so sure that Turin, for example, wouldn’t be ready in 2006 that I can recall one journalist. on my flight into the Olympic city from Frankfurt, pulling out her camera because she’d seen an Italian worker giving a fresh coat of paint to a wall in the welcoming area. "Haven’t they left things a little late?" she said.

Security has been a major concern since the Munich Massacre of 1972, but nerves were very much on edge and on display in Salt Lake City in 2002, just months after Sept. 11, in the hours before the start of those Games. I can remember crossing paths in a hallway on the top floor of the Olympic Stadium with FBI Director Robert Mueller about 30 minutes before the Opening Ceremony was to begin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone carrying more pressure and stress in the expression he was wearing on his face.

But at the end of the day, in my Olympic experiences at least, and with a few relatively minor exceptions, the venues have all been ready, security has been appropriate and effective, and even the weather, that other constant issue, has co-operated. It’s funny how the pre-Games stories often seem to disappear with the excitement of individual and team victory, and yes, the "agony" of defeat that so frequently grabs the attention and the emotions of a massive world audience.

'One of those extraordinary moments'

The Russians, I’m sure, are hoping the Sochi Games fits that same pattern in spite of the challenges we’ve already witnessed. Vladimir Putin was complaining to organizers barely a month ago that the stadium, where I’ll be on February 7th with Ron MacLean to broadcast the Opening Ceremony, wasn’t ready yet. But his greatest fear must be around security. Like Mueller before him, Putin will be feeling intense pressure in the final hours before that Ceremony begins, praying that nothing untoward happens. Nothing like the bloody incidents in nearby Volgograd just a few weeks ago.

Countries vie to host the Olympics and then spend billions preparing for them hoping to showcase their country in the most favourable of light. Some say all that money could be better spent on challenging a variety of international social and development issues facing the world at large, or the host country itself (Putin has many, from authoritarian rule, to the power of the Russian mafia to the international backlash against his anti-gay laws). Thousands of journalists come to watch and those same critics say all that media cash could be better used exposing problems in parts of the world rarely discussed. And that’s a legitimate argument.

But one thing is certain to happen that Friday night in Russia when the final flame is lit – the world will be watching. It’s one of those extraordinary moments when you know that around the globe, those with access to a video signal will be in sync, all watching the same very special moment in time. I’ve always found it to be one of the most powerful symbols of the Olympics. That in spite of all the bureaucracy, all the commercialism, and all the national hype, when those athletes circulate on the stadium floor — and in spite of their varied and conflicted pasts — they are suddenly seen together in celebration, excitement and expectation.

A moment where it seems the world can be one.

Watch Peter Mansbridge host The National from Sochi tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network or 10 p.m. ET on CBC Television.

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