journalism, sports

A quick bit of Icelandic history (or why I’m rooting against my ancestors)

My favorite bio is at Popdose: “Beau Dure learned everything he needs to know about life while stuffed into the overhead compartment of a bus while writing Enduring Spirit, a book about the Washington Spirit’s first season. … He’s best known for his decade at USA TODAY, where he wrote about Icelandic handball.”

Yes, covering Icelandic handball is one of my fondest memories of USA TODAY. I went out on my own accord to see them once, telling my editors they had the potential to be an interesting story.

Far more interesting than I thought …

What we thought before this game is just to do what our forefathers did. They at most endured, like, two or three days at home in peace, and then they had to destroy something. They had to go and fight war somewhere. They went with their boats and stuff like that, and we were just on our boats, destroying something. That’s how we went to the game, just to enjoy those 60 minutes like our (unintelligible) in life. That’s what you do. That’s what you live for.

I have no idea what I asked to get a quote like that from captain Olafur Stefansson. But the rest of the team was fun as well.

It doesn’t matter what time it is, the game starts at 6 in the morning in Iceland, and I think 80-90% of the nation was watching. That’s just typical when we are doing well, everybody follows us.

So said Robert Gunnarsson, a big bull of a central player about the Olympic quarterfinal victory I covered.

Others in the U.S. media, especially Washington Post writer Dan Steinberg, took notice. He and I were among the other American journalists present when Iceland won the biggest game in its history (until today), beating Spain 36-30 in the semifinals. We went to the mixed zone to meet the well-connected first lady of Iceland, Dorrit Moussaieff, who immediately ushered us past security onto the floor, claiming Dan was her husband. (I have no idea who I was supposed to be. Chief of staff? Special Icelandic security detail?)

Gunnarsson compared the game to 300, a movie in which he very easily could’ve been an extra. Gudjon Sigurdsson told me he’d happily play in a U.S. pro handball league if we ever formed one. (Why have we not done this?!)

Moussaieff was clearly the outgoing one between herself and her husband, president Olafur Grimsson, interjecting several times in his interview with us. She was perhaps the most convincing spokesperson for Icelandic tourism imaginable.

Grimsson took office in 1996 and was widowed in 1998. So you can imagine Moussaieff as Annette Bening in The American President, sans the controversy.

Even the best stories have some dark times, though, and Grimsson and Moussaieff are leaving office under a bit of a cloud. The Panama Papers had some sort of link to Icelandic politicians and to the Moussaieff family fortune, and though no one’s being prosecuted for any misdoing, Grimsson abandoned plans to stand for re-election. The next first lady of Iceland, oddly enough, is Canadian.

That election was held in the midst of the Next Great Icelandic Sporting Achievement. The country’s much heralded soccer program has made a nice run through Euro 2016 and toppled not-so-mighty England today to reach the quarterfinals against France.

Which brings us back to 2008 …

Yes, “Dure” is a French name. But I’m rooting for revenge.

journalism, personal, sports

Most popular stories of the year (among those I wrote)

After some year-end number-crunching, here’s what people read — and what they overlooked:

Top stories:

1. U.S. women rout New Zealand to reach quarterfinals. Not surprising in the sense that it’s Olympic women’s soccer, which accounts for most of these. Surprising in the sense that this was their least interesting game, and I covered it by TV and phone.

2. Weight lifted with U.S. soccer victory, gold. The biggest event I covered, and in re-reading it, I’m still happy with the story.

3. Liddell KO gives Evans shot at UFC light heavyweight title. We started covering MMA in earnest this year, and it paid off. This was the first UFC card I attended, and it was worth it.

4. UFC has fight on its hands against Elite XC. Funny to read that headline in retrospect, but this was a breakthrough story — my first cover story and, as far as I know, our first MMA cover story. A headache to write — try summing up a sport’s history and its current political/business in-fighting in one piece that isn’t a 10-page magazine spread — but worth the effort.

5. USA secures rematch with Brazil for gold. Not my favorite bit of writing this year, with a lead that seems a little disjointed upon re-reading it months later, but this was a vital game in Beijing.

6. Words heat up for colossal Shamrock-Slice showdown. Quotable guys, to say the least.

7. In year 1, Beckham on target for MLS.  Should’ve been higher. Exclusive interview with one of the world’s very biggest celebrities.

8. Russian Emelianenko brings big reputation to the States. Another exclusive with a big name, though not quite as big as Beckham. In Beckham’s case, I was literally alone with him — in Fedor’s case, we were talking by phone via translator.

9. Kai scores winner in extra time; U.S. women advance. Another big game in China, another one I covered by TV and phone.

10. UFC champion Couture has been MMA’s elder statesman. Another good exclusive interview, but I really didn’t have the time or space to do much with it.

13. Tiny Iceland on verge of handball glory, sans Bjork. Skipped a couple of routine MMA stories to dig up my best-read non-soccer story from China. Interesting numbers you can see here — no comments, 42 “recommends.” That’s unheard-of.

Here are the ones that, in my humble opinion, deserved a bit more interest.

American men’s soccer team settles for 2-2 draw with Netherlands. One of the best games I’ve ever seen.

Striking career for Fire’s Brian McBride. Cover story overshadowed by the World Series. There are some back stories behind this story that I won’t get into. They have nothing to do with Brian or the Fire, both of whom couldn’t have been more gracious.

Revenge not on Jackson’s mind in third bout vs. Silva. Must have been an early Christmas lull on the site, because this is an interesting guy.

Gold medalists return home as new pro league. Maybe the headline should’ve read, “Hey! More about Hope Solo!”

From bar fights to Vegas lights, Torres has striking career. One of the most exciting guys in MMA, and a great interview, too.

Last shot sinks American again. Just read it. Amazing turn of events, and the story turned out well. My story, that is — I’m not saying I wanted to see Matt Emmons miss. I actually remember gasping when I saw the score pop up.

U.S. women get team sabre bronze; Ukraine is upset winner. Emotional day in Beijing. Also one of the more interesting interview settings for me — Becca Ward was leaving Beijing the next day to go to freshman orientation at Duke, something I know a bit about it. I jokingly asked her why she’d do that, and she responded with a fantastic quote.

Crooning Crew fans band together in show of support. “Columbus ’til I die, Columbus ’til I die …”

American falters on badminton’s big stage. How often do you get a glimpse inside one of the biggest sports in Asia? IN Asia.

No Olympics in 2009, but I hope to get a few more interesting stories out of it.

journalism, personal

Journalism, cynicism and the Olympics

“The blues ain’t about feelin’ better. The blues are about making other people feel worse.” — Bleeding Gums Murphy

Journalists and blues musicians have a lot in common besides poor dental hygiene. We are all too often purveyors of misery, distilling our angst into 500-word stories instead of 12-bar blues songs.

That’s probably for the best. Otherwise, you’d have this …

Ohhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
I said ohhhh, my job is boring
No one here can think or speak
And if that ain’t bad enough, no
I hear we’re getting buyouts next week

A little venting is healthy. Mrs. MMM would say I do all too much. (Then again, I know far much more about her former co-workers than she does about the 10 people who have at least nominal authority to tell me what to do, so I’ve managed to hold something back.)

The danger strikes when we journalists get so wrapped up in our misery that we fail to open our eyes and see what’s actually around us. Our job is, after all, to tell people what we see. Isn’t it? Hang on — I’ll ask the 10 people … nah, they’re not around. We’ll stick with that assumption for now.

As you probably know or assumed from the lack of posts on this blog, I was in China for the Olympics. I can’t imagine anything that compares to the experience of covering the Olympics. You see the interplay of cultures, the mingling of different talents and the wonder of exotic locales both natural and man-made.

The downside is that you hang out with a lot of other journalists.

I met a few people in China that you may have heard of, and many of them are disarmingly nice and refreshingly open to far-reaching discussions. I talked about gender roles and cynicism with Mechelle Voepel, whose work you may have seen around the Web. I shared a table tennis mixed zone interview with two other journalists and quickly realized that the polite guy asking most of the questions was Mitch Albom.

Others, well, not so much. Some people simply dwell in a realm of negativity, barely looking at the sports spectacle in front of them while waiting for something to tear down. Surrounded by a massive festival of interesting people from around the world, they prefer to chat with each other about how stupid everything is.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Olympics. A lot of Big Companies pay a lot of money to have a presence at the Games. These Games were in China, so the holier-than-thou “how dare people enjoy themselves in light of the poverty in much of the country and the policies on Darfur and Tibet” column was in vogue.

But when you’re immersed in the Games, you have to have thick blinders to miss the other half of the story. I wish I could’ve asked the journalists from Kazakhstan why they were laughing. I knew why the Aussies were laughing — if you want a party, you follow either the Aussies or the Dutch.

Then the athletes are such remarkable stories. You find people who dedicate themselves to something obscure like modern pentathlon in the hopes of getting to this stage. Then you interview a 16-year-old with precocious wit who explains why she kissed her horse and a 40-year-old in her third Olympic sport explaining how she didn’t quit when her wayward fencing took her out of medal contention with several hours to go.

Sure, I failed to mention China’s politics in that story. But I haven’t read anything along the lines of “Brett Favre, competing in a country that has decrepit, half-demolished housing along the main train line in Baltimore and has a president who certainly isn’t popular with the Dutch journalists, signed with the Jets today.” (Yes, the Dutch journalists were eager to share their opinions.)

I don’t mean to take a completely relativist point of view here. No country is perfect, but some certainly have bigger problems than others. It’s just that there’s so much more to life than the vagaries of the power elite. Why not take time to learn about a fencer who has come up agonizingly short in past Olympic competition but won a silver medal two days before he started business school? Why not marvel at the shooter who made an astounding mistake to let a medal slip through his grasp, then met the love of his life as a Czech shooter came up to offer sympathy?

On the flip side of the sports politics coin is unabashed provincialism. As much as I love the BBC in so many way, their live commentary was hysterically over the top in boosting the sports in which “Team GB” was faring well and cutting down others. “Why have TWO forms of volleyball?” harrumphed one commenter whose words were deemed worthy of the general discussion. No one seemed to mind all the various permutations of riding a bicycle in circles that made Bradley Wiggins the Michael Phelps of Britain.

Outside the velodrome, some Olympic experiences can indeed be frustrating. I’ve already shared my experience on an overnight train with a teeming mass of humanity and rubbish, having been shooed away from the media bus I was supposed to take. And I can see how the sense of adventure I get when stepping into a taxi with no communicated certainty of arriving anywhere my destination would fade after it happens 10-15 times.

But if you’ve grown tired of the overall experience, there’s a very simple solution. Stay home.

That usually won’t happen because, as my blues song hinted above, journalists are quick to complain but hesitant to do anything to solve the problem. Many people who find themselves forced to look for new employment are pleasantly surprised by what they find. Taking that first step, though, is a mental block, particularly when you don’t understand the forces that are changing the industry.

Consider this blog, chronicling the difficulties of one media company as if those difficulties were confined to that media company. All he succeeds in doing is driving down morale among people who were already grumpy in the first place. I’ve met this blogger, and I can offer an analogy for his comprehension of the business: If he were analyzing the Washington Capitals’ ouster from the NHL playoffs, he’d likely say the Caps were at a disadvantage because their playing surface is covered with ice.

Cynicism is one common theme in all the problems listed above. Yet that cynicism is so pervasive because it’s so convenient. Once journalists find a convenient frame for a story, it’s hard to shake them out of it. That could be the BBC’s UK-up, US-down motif. It could be the insistence on viewing the Olympics as a mere exercise of political and corporate power, even if the Athletes’ Village and the arenas reflect a different reality.

Frames make stories predictable and therefore easy to write. A danger all journalists face is applying those frames to even the most mundane stories.

One day in a previous job, we were discussing coverage plans as a hurricane was about to strike the coast not too far away from us. Someone eagerly went through our plan and how it would follow the hurricane’s track from Town A to Town B. I quickly interjected that hurricanes were rarely so predictable (especially 10-15 years ago) — I had once been in Virginia Beach waiting for a hurricane that basically changed its mind and headed out to sea. A few moments of silence followed then, “So it’s NOT going to hit Town B?”

The pervading frame on political stories is conflict, often portrayed in sports metaphors. That’s why you may have read that Sarah Palin came out swinging, landed jabs, hit a home run and caught Obama leg before wicket. (OK, sorry, the Aussie influence creeped in again.)

We’re only human, and we’re all tempted to fall back on simple frames of reference. Political commentary, particularly in a busy world with a short attention span, is stuck in a red-blue dichotomy that fits well with the people who want to spend their days yelling at each on Web sites. These are often the same people who react to journalism layoffs and staff cuts by assuming it’s because the news organization is “too liberal.” If only they knew that people are far more likely to cancel their subscriptions because the delivery person keeps tossing the paper in the bird bath or, heaven forbid, they took Mary Worth off the funny pages. (Or that the assumptions of political bias are far, far more complicated than they’re assuming. Start here if you’re curious.)

But here’s the good news: There’s hope. Readers will, with only a little plodding, pick up on interesting stories like the Iceland handball saga (part 1, part 2).

We often beat ourselves up in journalism because we can’t attract young readers. The key isn’t writing about whatever MTV is airing these days instead of videos. The key is looking through young eyes.

So here’s the New Rule (apologies to Bill Maher): Check your cynicism at the door. Or check out.

journalism, personal, videos

Videos from China

Since I’ve been slack about sharing my experiences since returning, having Twittered and blogged them in vivid detail while over there, here are a few videos to show what I couldn’t possibly describe.

Here’s the light show all around the main venues at night.
Light show at the Olympics
@ Yahoo! Video

Here’s the trip up to the Great Wall, with a view of the trip down:
Riding up to and down from the Wall
@ Yahoo! Video

And then there’s the hockey venue, where tons of people in the familiar volunteer shirts apparently rehearsed something with the mascots:
Kung Fu Fighting in Beijing
@ Yahoo! Video

journalism, personal, videos

China beat: Handball, war, sanitation, etc.

In covering Iceland’s handball team today, I got this quote:

What we thought before this game is just to do what our forefathers did. They at most endured, like, two or three days at home in peace, and then they had to destroy something. They had to go and fight war somewhere. They went with their boats and stuff like that, and we were just on our boats, destroying something. That’s how we went to the game, just to enjoy those 60 minutes like our (unintelligible) in life. That’s what you do. That’s what you live for.

I didn’t use it because I had no idea what he was talking about. Maybe Monty Python’s Njorl’s Saga sketch?

Someone else suggested Bjork’s Earth Intruders video:

No, that didn’t help. And the goalkeeper isn’t a Bjork fan, anyway.

BBC readers are obsessed with the way the U.S. media order their medals table, insisting countries should be listed according to gold medals rather than totals.

Naturally, the assumption is not that this is simply a discrepancy in long-standing conventions, such as the differences between “cookie” and “biscuit” or the American stubbornness in resisting the metric system. The assumption is that we all used to list the medals sorted by golds, then changed when China surged to a commanding lead in that category.

Imagine my shock when someone dug up the USA TODAY medal count from Athens, from the stat feed whose specs I helped write, and we had it listed by gold medals. My guess is that we once gave readers the chance to sort it as they saw fit, and that functionality disappeared over one of the multitude of server migrations over the years.

Whatever the explanation, I’m sure it has no chance of being accepted by the folks who were hyping the 200 meters as a showdown between Usain Bolt and Christian Malcolm.

I love the BBC, but anyone from the UK who thinks Americans are the most provincial jerks in the world should take a look at the Beeb’s Olympics coverage. Yikes.

I also love Olympic News Service, which sends hordes of fresh-faced young folks to the venues to collect “flash quotes” from athletes.

You’re generally not going to get controversial material from these quotes, though. They have notepads and not tape recorders, and a 21-year-old generally isn’t going to trust his or her scribbled notes if anyone questions the quote’s accuracy. Also, the quote-taker might not be a native speaker of whatever language the athlete’s speaking.

So if you see someone in a mixed zone ranting as follows:

I was robbed. That ref was clearly watching beach volleyball instead of us. Yeah, my opponent played well, but he also took out a small knife and slashed my knee open right in front of the ref! I can’t believe this crap. I’m going back to the Olympic Village to count my blessings that he didn’t end my career, and you’d better believe I’m going to trash some rooms.

You’ll get this quote.

My opponent played well. I’m going back to the Olympic Village to count my blessings.

So I was surprised to see this from fourth-place high jumper Stefan Holm of Sweden:

I had a bit of luck four years ago in Athens, but shit happens.

ONS might be getting a little punchy near the end of the Games, as are many of us.

Speaking of sanitation, here’s a little sign to remind the media that plumbing in Beijing ain’t what they might be used to back home:

Off to catch the bus back to get a good night’s sleep, believe it or not.

journalism, personal

Chinese transit and toilets

By now you’ve probably read my account of kidnapping and hitchhiking in Qinhuangdao. OK, that’s a little too dramatic, but it was a harrowing experience. Nothing like staying up all night after you’ve arrived 12 time zones from home.

The only other problem with the efficient transit system: The buses run painfully slow. Supposedly, that’s for our own safety. As we all know, slower doesn’t equal safer, particularly when you’re changing lanes on a freeway. Today, on the way to the badminton venue, our bus driver attempted to merge through several lanes to the “Olympic” lane, drawing frantic honks from the short-fused drivers here. Then, about a mile later, she had to work her way back through all the lanes to exit. Flooring it in the right lane would’ve been much less frightening.

Just a random photo of a Wal-Mart (look for the blue sign)
Just a random photo of a Wal-Mart (look for the blue sign)

At the badminton venue, I encountered my first “squat” toilet. I remember reading about these, but I figured I wouldn’t see one unless I wandered off somewhere to an old building. Nope — there it was, right there in the spanking-new Beijing University of Technology gymnasium (not to be confused with the Beijing Science and Technology University gymnasium, as an Irish reporter did today before realizing badminton had no weight classes, or the Beijing Institute of Technology gymnasium). It looks like a toilet except that the seat is level with the floor. Fortunately, I didn’t have to use it, nor did I remember my camera.

Back in Qinhuangdao, the closest restroom to the media tribune (“press row,” in U.S. terms, though it’s several rows) was unisex. Stalls and urinals, thankfully with large dividers. The staff put up a sign asking people to close the doors behind them. The sign was ignored.

The media center is no better. The restrooms nearest us are on a corridor. The doors are never closed. Then people stop to chat in the corridor, though it’s narrow, smelly and offers a view of people zipping up.

We could put up a sign, but the media center offers more proof that journalists can’t read. The waste bins are all in pairs — one recyclable, one “other waste.” You certainly couldn’t tell a difference from looking at the bins.

The Aussies have found a better use for the corridor, at least. Here’s an impromptu cricket match:

Aussie cricket
Aussie cricket

Generally, though, I have few complaints. The people are so friendly that the journalists are reflexively suspicious of them. The food is OK, though I’m starting to shy away from all meat that isn’t at McDonald’s. And today, I interviewed three badminton players — a shy American, a charming Canadian and an excitable Irishman.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Tianjin for more soccer. It’ll be a successful day if I arrive back in Beijing anywhere close to the correct time.