Thursday, March 4, 2010

Jay Weiner: On working for NBC at the Vancouver Winter Olympics (and an encounter with Stephen Colbert's moose)

Jay Weiner is a former Star Tribune reporter who writes about politics and sports business issues for MinnPost and other local and national publications. His book This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount is forthcoming this fall from University of Minnesota Press. He has covered every Winter Olympics since the 1984 games in Sarajevo, and is among the most veteran Olympic journalists in the U.S.

With the closing of the Vancouver Winter Olympics on Sunday night, I have now covered eight consecutive Winter Games and seven Summer Olympics. This was my first time with NBC, the first time I saw the Olympics from “the inside,” (previous years were spent working for the Star Tribune, MinnPost and Sports Business Journal) and the first time I didn’t wander at all. For all other Olympics I covered, moving constantly was one of my trademarks. Some days, I took in three or four events. Fact is, in Vancouver I didn’t see a single event in person, but just about every event live as I watched the TV feed from every venue every day at any hour. I had a better sense of the totality of the Games and the unity of the event this year. I didn’t have as good of a feel for the on-the-ground spirit and dynamics of the Games.

I was a supervisor in the fabled NBC Research Room, a place where many NBC executives launched their careers as young, fact-checking go-getters. (Among those were current Olympics president Dick Ebersol and NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker.) Four of us oversaw the work of about 15 sport-specific researchers, who became experts on – to be facetious - the left-handed curler from Norway whose uncle was once the prime minister and whose mother, battling cancer, climbed Mount Everest. Those are the kinds of unusual facts NBC loves to use.

One thing to know: NBC is committed to getting things right. Of all the things I learned during the past month (that’s how long I was on the ground in Vancouver), one stood out: in as quick a time as live TV offers, NBC tries its best to be accurate all of the time. Frankly, it was a dogged standard that surprised me.

Aside from confirming facts, attending news conferences, performing some minor reporting duties and relating specifically to the Vancouver organizing committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee, my main task was keeper of the NBC medals chart. It’s a bit more complicated than it sounds. As the 17 days wear on, hundreds of athletes win medals from dozens of countries, and NBC tracks them all for instant facts on the air. Out of that came a major task: identifying and cataloging multiple medalists. There were more than 60 of them, with most winners of two medals. It was a head-spinning chore, and again, accuracy was key.

As for encounters with “the talent,” there were few. The Research Room is tucked away down the hallway from the studio. The Today Show was shot at a different site, as was the Nightly News. I chatted once with Tom Brokaw about a mutual friend we have. I talked a bit with Jimmy Roberts, the NBC “essayist” on air. I saw Bob Costas a few times, and Brian Williams. I did pass Stephen Colbert in the hallway and touched his moose — a real thrill.

My shifts were long. I barely saw the sun, and not only because I went in early in the mornings and left the International Broadcast Center at night. But it rained a lot in Vancouver. We never saw snow in the city. I did see a blizzard of red and white, however, every night as I walked back to my hotel. Canada was intensely patriotic and competitive around these Games. Canada’s success on the field buoyed the population and filled the streets of Vancouver with noisy partying into the night, often right outside my window. Some nights, I felt like singing, “Oy Canada,” rather than “O Canada,” as I tried to grab my (hoped-for) six hours of shuteye amid the revelry.

Still, the Vancouver Games were a healthy break from the past year. Since November 2008, and right up to the start of the Winter Olympics, I covered the Senate recount, and then wrote my forthcoming book, This Is Not Florida. The recount, too, was a marathon of sorts, but not like the compact, happening-every-minute Winter Olympics. That recount lasted 35 weeks. The Winter Olympics only last 17 days, which, all things considered, was a five-ringed piece of cake.

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See also: Top 12 list of Olympic memories from Jay Weiner.

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