How the world views the upcoming Beijing Olympics depends as much on what participating athletes say of the games as in the games’ actual outcome. So, how are elite athletes preparing their words for the pending international media spotlight?
Outside of sport, the Olympic media storm gathers enough force to potentially transform Beijing into the most political Olympics since the cold war era when the event often occurred beneath clouds of geo-political controversy. Recall Los Angeles in 1984 when the Soviet Union boycotted in response to the US boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games.
Given sensitivities around mainland politics, activists are already using the sporting mega-spectacle to express views far beyond normal sporting discourse. Late last year, former Hong Kong Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming whipped up a storm with his commentary in the Wall Street Journal.
‘When President George W. Bush accepted President Hu Jintao’s invitation to attend the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Mr Bush’s press secretary said he was going to the games as ‘a sports fan, not to make any political statement …’ but I would encourage President Bush to take a broader vision of the possibilities for the Beijing Games.
‘He should use the [opportunity] to press for a significant improvement of basic human rights in my country, including press, assembly and religious freedoms.’
While Lee has long been known to express desire for political change, diplomats are using the games as an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail in conflicts around the world.
Leading the charge is the UN General Assembly. Observing a tradition dating back to the 1992 Barcelona Games, late last year the UN unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the world to observe a truce during what is anticipated to be the biggest games ever.
‘It is predicted that four billion people will watch [the games],’ IOC president Jacques Rogge told the General Assembly.
As for athletes and their ability to manage their words before the massive audience, some US Olympians are turning to Kevin Long, who once served as a spokesman in the US House of Representatives, and who has conducted media training with governments ministers and law enforcement and military officers from countries as far flung as Colombia and Afghanistan.
In 2004, after leaving Capitol Hill, Long launched MVP Sports Media Training, a niche public relations firm exclusive to the sports industry. Recently, he conducted media training for the US synchronised swimming team, who qualified for Beijing by winning gold at the Pan American Games in Brazil.
According to the team, the impact of Long’s wisdom was immediate and kept them free of potentially distracting controversy. US team captain Kim Probst said ‘reporters kept asking what we thought of Brazil and how we felt about the plane crash’, (in July last year, 199 people died in a crash at Sao Paulo’s airport).
Probst dealt with the subject diplomatically before using humour to deflect repeated questions about the US team’s possible routine for Beijing. ‘That’s a secret,’ she said to a room full of laughter.
‘It really lightened the mood, and changed the overall tone of negativity towards many of the US athletes by the foreign media,’ said Taylor Payne, US synchronised swimming media relations director.
Long, who also works with dozens of US university athletic teams, keeps his advice short and straight – be gracious in victory and humble in defeat; take a few seconds to think through an answer before responding; look journalists in the eye; and do not answer questions you might feel uncomfortable with.
During the Olympics, most journalists will keep to the sports script. But the potential for controversy will be greater than ever as the patriotic passions of billions, as well as billions of dollars worth of sponsorships – and the mental games athletes play with each other – make for what is sure to be an interesting atmosphere for journalists covering the event.
Add to it all the wide reach of the internet and you have the most challenging media landscape Olympic athletes have ever faced.
‘In today’s era of 24/7 sports news, blogs, countless websites and cell phones with cameras, anything that happens is just seconds, or maybe even a few damaging keystrokes, away from being seen by the world,’ said Long. ‘Gone is the ‘news cycle’ – we are in one big continuous news cycle now where the reactions to the story often receive more coverage than the initial story.’
Such an incident, said Long, occurred between US speed skating teammates Shani Davis and Chad Henning at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The athletes couldn’t resist creating controversy by repeatedly speaking ill of each other to every reporter who stuck a microphone in front of them. The media, more than happy to oblige, covered every comment as if it were breaking news. The controversy became the story that overshadowed all the medals the team accumulated.
A closer look at synchronised swimming reveals a sport with its own share of controversy. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, a second gold medal was awarded after the games to Sylvie Frechette of Canada because of a scoring dispute. At the 2004 Athens Games, Tammy Crow of the US pleaded no contest to vehicular homicide in connection with a 2003 car crash which killed two people. Crow was allowed to serve her jail term after helping the US team win bronze.
It is often the words we remember after the Olympics more than the games themselves. ‘I suggest to the athletes that they should prepare for interviews just as they would prepare for competition. They wouldn’t participate in the Olympics without spending time training for their sport and they should never face the media without preparing either,’ says Long.
With athletes now putting in hundreds and even thousands of hours of gruelling physical training for Beijing, might the final advantage come down to those athletes who have prepared their words also?