February 26, 2010
Friends from far away are already asking about the best part of covering an Olympics, and I always say, "The chance to meet lots and lots of journalists."
The graying soldiers of the mainstream media are working in the convention center here, a barn of a place with writing spots for more than 700. Every few minutes, one of the seaplanes in the adjacent harbor takes off, making the work area sound like London, 1940.
Adding to the flatulence, nearby cruise ships periodically blast their horns, making this not only the world’s biggest newsroom but also one of its loudest.
Yet with a killer view of Vancouver Harbor, and the mountains behind, it has been my favorite place to scribble.
I’ve been writing every day for two weeks, and right now I could get a column out of the intern changing out the coffee urn. How she drops a shoulder and wrestles the fat urn to her cart. Grunt. . . . phew. Like Jack Dempsey outmuscling some punch-drunk opponent.
OK, so maybe not an entire column.
But I have managed to nail a story I’ve been chasing for several days: the truth behind those crazy broccoli-looking bouquets the winners receive.
Turns out they’re green spider mums.
Now, you think somebody just went out and said: "Hey, let’s order up a million mums"?
Not so fast, pal.
"Long stems of grey and white pussy willows, known for their furry catkins that grow wild across the country, were also considered but dropped because of safety issues," a news release on the bouquet selection explains. "When a bouquet is tossed into the crowd, it could cause injury if it contains pointy materials."
The release goes on to say that all of the flowers have been "carefully hand-selected and shaped into the bouquets by marginalized women, who may be recovering from addiction, leaving prison, exiting the sex trade . . . as well as by other women they train with who are (sic) changing careers to become florists."
At this point, you’re probably asking: "Well, what about the marginalized men who are changing careers to become florists?"
Mostly, they are still reporters.
"Today" show staffers, also known for their furry catkins, have been here for two weeks now, rising in the middle of the night for the 4 a.m. start time (7 a.m. on the East Coast).
Perhaps NBC’s sturdiest ship these days, the show has been based at Grouse Mountain ski resort 25 minutes north of town, just above the snow line, taking advantage of the splendid vistas and proximity to the city (better to bring in guests, says executive producer Jim Bell).
On Thursday, Meredith Vieira’s apple-dumpling cheeks — a gift from Hugh Downs? — glowed in the early-morning chill as she and her cohorts schlepped between segments at a rink-side fire pit and a cozy lodge. "I would kiss you goodbye, but that would be disgusting," Vieira says before hammering Matt Lauer with a snowball.
Lauer headed back to New York on Thursday, having put in more than two weeks of Olympic prep work and coverage.
In person, you realize how many moving parts a show like this has. Two minutes of Jimmy Fallon. Two minutes with the bobsled bronze medalists. A segment on a hockey mom. A cooking demo. A drinking demo. Fashion tips. Kristi Yamaguchi. A minute with the premier of British Columbia. All of it assembled on a dark, snowy Canadian hillside.
Best moment: Off camera, Lauer scolding an audience member who heckled British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell before his appearance. Lauer reminded the heckler that this mountainside set is like the "Today" show’s living room.
"I don’t care what you think, you don’t do that," said Lauer, the classiest host on television.
The Russians held a major news conference Thursday, to announce . . . well, that’s anybody’s guess.
As you may have heard, the next Winter Games are at a Russian site called Sochi, and if this news conference was any indication, it’ll be more fun than a barrel of former Bolsheviks.
International Olympic Committee member Rene Fasel opened the event by talking about how he gave up dentistry to become a hockey official. This was a critical stepping stone, he said, to his current post on the IOC executive board.
"The most important thing is to be nice to people," Fasel told a room packed with 200 journalists. "Don’t be grouchy when you wake up in the morning. . . . When you go to breakfast, have fun."
Yes, he really said this. And I think it is excellent advice. So does former swimming great Alexander Popov, who stepped up to agree with Fasel.
Popov was followed by Russian pinup Natalia Vodianova — really, I was there. Dressed in leopard-skin pants, she assured the audience that "there is definite spirit for Olympic competition."
Of the three, she seemed to make the most sense.
Much to the reporters’ dismay, comedian Yakov Smirnoff was nowhere to be seen.
Presumably, he will be heading up the Russian host committee.
The 3,000-meter short-track squad benefits when Korean team is disqualified. Win Bronze.
Crowd isn’t neutral for U.S.-Switzerland… Rooting for Swiss.
Bill Demong wins, Johnny Spillane finishes second in large hill event as U.S. adds to already impressive medal count in the sport.
But the bag belonged to a young widow, and it contained the belongings of her husband, an airman who died last month in Afghanistan — including a laptop bearing photos of him with his infant daughter, born weeks before his death; a watch his parents gave him for Christmas; and most significant to his mother, the dog tags he was wearing when he was killed.
"They were the last things he touched," said Paula Smith of Troy, Ill., weeping softly into the phone. Her son, Senior Airman Bradley Smith, was 24.
His belongings vanished Feb. 9 when the Smiths’ rental car was broken into after they arrived for a memorial service in Colorado Springs.
In the military town, home to the Army’s Ft. Carson, Peterson Air Force Base and the Air Force Academy, word spread quickly about the incident, sparking expressions of fury against the perpetrators and consternation that such a thing could happen to a family already devastated. Soldiers said they would comb the streets in case the stolen belongings had been tossed out a window; politicians called, volunteering their assistance.
Bradley Smith was a gardening manager at a home improvement store in Illinois who joined the Air Force in 2006 and was assigned to the 10th Air Support Operations Squadron, based in Ft. Riley, Kan. In Afghanistan, he worked with a Ft. Carson unit, directing air attacks.
When a bomb detonated Jan. 3 on a mission in the Kandahar province and killed two soldiers, Smith and an Army medic, Spc. Brian R. Bowman, volunteered to retrieve one of the bodies.
They were carrying their fallen comrade back to the helicopter when another bomb exploded, killing them both. Bowman, from Crawfordsville, Ind., also was 24.
Two weeks ago, Smith’s family brought some of his belongings to Colorado. After the memorial service, his wife, Tiffany Smith, intended to take them with her when she traveled to her family’s home in San Diego.
Soon after arriving in Colorado Springs, they stopped at a restaurant for lunch. When they came out an hour later, the window was broken, the bag gone.
"It’s like opening a wound and pouring alcohol in it," Paula Smith said.
Authorities soon arrested one man, Denard Thompson, 29, and issued an arrest warrant for another, Dwain Boyd, 22. Authorities initially kept news of the arrest quiet, hoping to recover the stolen property, but so far that hasn’t happened.
At home in Illinois, the Smiths keep hoping that the bag will turn up, perhaps in a pawnshop, perhaps elsewhere.
"We’re just asking . . . look on the side of the road. If they see a black bag, it’s just a zippered bag, large enough to hold two computers," Paula Smith pleaded, her voice dissolving again into tears. "We’re just asking."
Very, very sad…
Have a great weekend and hug your loved ones.