Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Great moments and guffaws at the Games

HAVING covered a few Olympic and Commonwealth Games around the world in the 1970s and '80s, I'm not a great fan of them anymore.
Why is that, you wonder? That's simple! Covering those Games was bloody hard work for a journalist - that is if you take your job seriously.
If you're serious about your job you just never get time off to have a decent look at the foreign cities and countries you are in.
The last Olympics I covered was in Los Angeles in 1984, just when portable computers were starting to come in. Mine was a dirty big machine with a tiny screen. It was so big it wouldn't fit in an aeroplane overhead locker nor could you slide it under your seat. So you had to make sure you got a seat beside the plane's door so you could rest it against that.
How did it work? Well, when you'd finished typing your story, you had to be near a telephone, force the phone's big round ear-piece and mouth-piece into two big round rubber containers on the machine, dial your office computer number back in Australia, press a couple of more buttons, cross your fingers and hope to hell it was working.
Before computers came in you had to ring through the local switchboard of whatever country you were in, hoping they could speak English, and read your story to a copytaker sitting at a typewriter in the office back home.
Ah! Those were the days - I think - or maybe they weren't.
But as hard as it was under the pressure of covering major sporting events, there were always some very interesting events away from the sport itself ... and always a few laughs.
One of the most interesting things I saw off the track and out of the pool happened at the opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
As you know the Olympics opens with a local hero carrying the torch up to the Olympic flame and lighting it and someone saying:
"Let the Games begin."
Well, when the bloke carrying the torch ran into the packed Moscow stadium the first thought that crossed my mind, and the minds of the other 100,000 people in the stadium, was: How the bloody hell is that bloke going to get through the crowds of seated spectators right up there to light the Olympic flame about 100 metres up the packed stands to the highest point in the stadium?
The question became even more worrying as he ran around the track, holding the torch high, and everyone there looked for the way up to the main Olympic cauldron atop the stadium.
But about three-quarters of the way around the track he handed the torch to the final runner, who simply ran off the track and into the first row of spectators. It turned out they were special Russian spectators, who had many hours of training before the Games,  and they simply held stout boards above their heads and formed a beautifully steady and solid V-shaped path right up to the cauldron. Absolutely staggering!
The run up over the crowd was so steady you would swear the torch carrier had been running up a concrete staircase. It was amazing and sent the crowd into wild cheering. I don't often cheer, but I joined them.
Here is a Youtube clip of the famous run:

A couple of days before that amazing performance there was another very interesting off-track performance at a very angry press conference in a huge hall with about 1000 journalists packed in.
You probably recall that the Russians and the Yanks were at each others throats over a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the time and the Yanks had pulled out of the Moscow Olympics. US president Jimmy Carter simply told his Olympians they couldn't go and that was it because the government financed the whole Olympic trip.
Back home our prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, decided to follow Carter and announced Australia was also pulling out. Poor, silly, trouserless Mal didn't know that our Olympic movement was pretty rich and always provided the bulk of the Olympic money.
But Mal still announced that Australia would not be going because he was not going to give them any money ... about $40,000 of government funds. Of course Australia's Olympic costs would have been a lot, lot more than that. So our Olympians simply said "so long Mal" and took off for Moscow.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the Yanks sent a heap of journalists to cover the Games ... well, not only to cover the Games but to turn the heat up on the Kremlin.
So at that huge press conference, the Yank journos had found out that one of Russia's top women swimmers had simply disappeared off the face of the earth, and didn't they get stuck into the Russian Olympic organisers who were seated at a huge table on stage.
Things really heated up as the Yanks were standing up all over the hall yelling for a go at the four or five microphones that were being handed around by Russian staff. You had to get a mic to ask questions otherwise you couldn't be heard over the din. I hadn't seen a wild, wild press conference like it, and never have since.
They were mainly Yank reporters screaming for a microphone, then demanding what Russia had done to the poor, defenceless girl swimmer. Had they murdered her and where was her body?
But there was also a small Indian reporter on his feet, with arms waving and screaming for a mic. After about half an hour of mayhem, a microphone was finally handed to the screaming Indian.
He took it and with a tightly frowning face demanded:
"What has happened to our presents?"
The hall fell into deathly silence.
The MC on stage stood there blinking. "Vot do you mean ... presents?"
The Indian became more serious: "At all the Games I have covered the Olympic people always give visiting journalists presents to take home. But I have got nothing here. Where are our presents?"
The deadly serious, furious, screaming press conference started howling with laughter and that was the last we heard of the missing girl swimmer.
Actually, we finally did receive a present - a tiny stuffed Russian bear. I've still got it.