ON THE SCENE: Covering the Beijing Winter Olympics for NPR | News, Sports, Jobs
Brian Mann, who was the founding reporter for North Country Public Radio’s Adirondack bureau in 1999, and in 2020 hired to be National Public Radio’s first national addiction correspondent, recently returned from covering the Winter Olympics in 2022 in Beijing, China.
While working for NCPR over the years, Mann covered many athletes from or who trained here and officials and volunteers who went to the Olympics. Instead of Salt Lake City (2002), Turin (2006), Vancouver (2010), Sochi (2014), or Pyeongchang (2018), the Beijing Games were Mann’s first in-person Winter Olympics. And due to COVID and China’s low vaccination rates and intense lockdown approach, they were unlike any other Olympics in many ways.
“At the very last minute, a few people from NPR’s Olympic team got turned away, and COVID complicated things, so they needed a new team member who knew something about winter sports. and who had covered the Olympics before,” Mann said. “I pulled that straw. It was very difficult because I had to get approval from the Chinese consulate at the last minute. I had to spend several days in New York to collect papers, but it worked.
While in Beijing, Mann was tested every morning by women in hazmat suits at his hotel in the bubble. Afterwards, he went to the media center for news outlets around the world. Then at the sites, most in Beijing, but a few, the Alpine and the half-pipe, were high-speed rail in the mountains. His evenings were at the hotel until the end of the ranking stories, some about local athletes like Emily Sweeney, others who dominated like Russian skater Kamila Valieva, and emerging about the performance of several older athletes.
“What was your impression?” I asked
“I came away feeling that these Olympics were an example of how we all managed to keep going, to do our best in a world compromised by the pandemic,” Mann said. “It was wonderful to be there. It was exciting to see incredible athletic performances and spectacular things, but it was tough. It was tough for the athletes, and they often talked about it. We were all inside this very intense quarantine bubble, which meant we couldn’t have many wonderful encounters with the Chinese people. We were separated. It was not easy. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, the Olympics happened; there were these remarkable moments; it was like a heroic feat that the Games managed to continue.
While NBC had direct access to athletes, Mann and other reporters had to work in more remote environments made more complicated by COVID restrictions. Overall, for the athletes competing outdoors, much of the weather was freezing, sometimes so windy that some events were postponed, and others at such high altitudes (6,000 feet for the biathlon and cross-country skiing) that the athletes were exhausted. at the end.
“One of the things that charmed me in the country is the landscape”, Mann said. “The mountains are incredibly beautiful. The surreal image of ribbons of artificial snow they created across the barren mountains looked like a magnificent giant outdoor art installation. It worked. They made pretty good quality snow and the athletes were quite happy. They were able to do what they had to do. »
While most athletes were happy with the snow, the freezing cold, wind and lack of experience on the courses were difficult, including the slide track and aerial jumps.
“You saw these incredible performances, skiers like Jessie Diggins from Vermont, where they would cross the finish line and crumble; don’t crumble just for a moment”, Mann said. “After his 30 kilometer run, Diggins, who won silver, lost a few minutes. She had to be helped to her feet. It required strategy, skiers adjusting their game plan, and remarkable stamina and mental toughness at this altitude and in this cold weather.
Mann said the overall aesthetic experience was different from the traditional Olympic or World Cup event. Sliding sports and alpine and cross-country skiing races did not take place on well-known sliding slopes or ski resorts near charming villages like Altenberg or Lake Placid. It was a different setting, like the big air ramps built next to the cooling towers in an old steel mill. While the athletes loved the ramps and their accessibility located in Beijing, there’s no doubt the aesthetics were eye-opening.
“Throughout questions were asked about the Olympic Committee’s decision to hold another Olympics in an authoritarian country, in this case a communist country,” he added. Mann said. “The pandemic has complicated the politics of these games. Additionally, there were serious concerns about human rights abuses in China, and the opening ceremony was held with Putin there. The Games felt clouded by history and by the decisions of the International Olympic Committee to be in this location at that time.
Mann said the questions ahead – are the Games too big, are they too big on money – are complicated by the beauty of the athletes competing, the joy of seeing what they do . Another challenge is pressure. Being part of the Olympic experience is wonderful, win or lose, for many athletes. Think of American Olympic speed skater Brittany Bowe giving way to Erin Jackson, who became the first black woman to win gold in the sport; they both came out winners and were uplifted by the experience.
For others, they have that brief moment once every four years to shine in ways they don’t get on a World Cup tour. The pressure is immense on certain sports such as figure skating, women’s skating, in particular, alpine skiing, and others.
“I’ve spoken to so many figure skaters around the Valieva scandal, and you hear (American alpine ski racer Mikaela) Shiffrin say that the structure of this event is so intense,” Mann said. “The pressures are so great, and the moment when they have to be at their peak is so brief that it’s such a small window of time when everything has to fall into place. And for some of those athletes, there’s really no alternative because they won’t get much attention on a World Cup circuit; there is no possibility of being noticed for the next four years. They must sink or swim that day. I think that pressure raises eyebrows. People ask, do athletes come out healthier or stronger? »
At the same time, Mann said many athletes were beaming and full of joy just to be there and having their Olympic moment, or who were thrilled with their results even though they didn’t win a medal. Then there’s Valieva, a 15-year-old girl at the center of a doping scandal. For Mann and people around the world, it was heartbreaking to see what had happened to her and to see the kind of pressure she was facing. Many now want changes, possible age limits and protections for the health and well-being of young skaters.
Mann was proud that our small region was once again well represented at the Olympic Games by a delegation of athletes practicing various sports. He hopes to be sent to other Olympics, without a pandemic, where he can once again mingle with families and friends of athletes as well as coaches and officials in the north of the country. “enjoying our trip there.”
“Leaving aside all my political experiences, one of the most joyful things has been watching all these young athletes find a way to celebrate, compete and share their experiences,” Mann said. “It was very encouraging, very uplifting, and so it was wonderful. The other storm clouds were around that; we all knew Ukraine was in the near future, knew the pandemic was here- low, but at the heart of it, putting all that aside, what I was able to do part of each day, that part was beautiful.
Mann also thanked China for hosting a COVID-free Olympics, which is no small feat with thousands of athletes, coaches, media and officials from more than 80 countries.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He’s been covering events for the News for over 15 years.)