The 2012 Olympics - Press Team
In the blur that was the 10 days of track and field competition, it’s an impossible task to single out one particular highlight as my personal favourite of the 2012 Olympic Games.
Was it meeting Usain Bolt, not once, not twice, but on three separate occasions? Was it seeing Russian pole vaulter Elena Isinbaeva, once at the top of her game, lose her rag and rant hysterically for 20 minutes in the mixed zone? Was it witnessing Mo Farah claim his second goal medal by winning the 5,000m? Or was it having my Yohan Blake quotes sent out to every major international media outlet in the world?
I could probably write an entire book of the extraordinary things I was a part of during my time in the press team at the Olympic Stadium. For example, I'm sure that I, like everyone else who had the pleasure of being there, will never, ever forget the atmosphere created by the 80,000 rapturous supporters on the evening of the final Saturday. To describe the noise as thunderous would be an understatement.
During the ten days of competition, I saw world records being obliterated; I watched competitors celebrate in the most unusual ways, and I worked alongside some terrific journalists and some genuinely fantastic people.
I even bumped into John McEnroe at one point!
Before the Olympic madness began, I was sitting in my Glasgow flat, surveying all the items I had to take with me: a gleaming purple uniform, stadium accreditation, an Oyster card, maps, notebooks. Although I was beyond excited for the Games, I also felt like I was going to be way out of my depth. I mean, I was going to be a part of the press team at the Olympic Stadium, arguably one of the biggest media jobs at the entire Games! I had never done anything like this before. My stint at the John O'Groat Journal newspaper was child's play compared to the behemoth of the Olympics I was about to come up against...
However, the highlight of my Games was probably the first time I encountered Usain Bolt.
It was on the night of the men's 100m final. Although a full evening's competition had already taken place, I (along with the rest of the planet) was waiting for the main event. Who would be crowned the fastest man in the world?
I have never in my life heard a noise like the one the crowd made when the starting gun was fired. For the next 9.63 seconds, pandemonium ensued, with the reigning Olympic champion coming out on top. After his usual “Lightning Bolt” celebration and a lap of honour, he made his way over to the media zones.
Journalists are meant to keep a cool head at all times, and I'd like to think I did a good job. However, I couldn't help but feel just a little bit star-struck. Here I was, a wide-eyed 20-year-old from Caithness, standing less than a foot away from one of the greatest sportsmen of my generation! Over the next thirty minutes, Justin Gatlin, Yohan Blake and Tyson Gay all passed through the mixed zone, giving plenty of quotes for me to use. The adrenaline rush I got from those interviews lasted the rest of the night; I didn't get to sleep until 3am!
Over the course of the week, I was able to interview all of the Jamaican sprint team, including an in-depth interview with Yohan Blake that got my quotes sent out worldwide (more on that later!), men's 110m hurdles winner Aries Merritt, USA's world record-breaking women's 4x100m team, decathlon gold medallist Ashton Eaton, British triple jumper Philips Idowu and, amazingly, 43 other athletes from every track & field discipline. I even got a few sentences from the first man to compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics - the Blade Runner, Oscar Pistorious.
The press team I was a part of was a crucial cog in the Olympic media machine. As I suspected, I was a little fish in a big pond - but this was a blessing rather than a hindrance. Although I was the youngest member of the team (and one of only two Scots!), my colleagues, made up of former news editors, freelance journalists and international writers, were a huge help. I was able to pick the brains of some of the senior journalists, whilst the others gave me tips as we worked, and by the end of the week, I had ten new industry contacts.
The broadcast and mixed zones, where we spent much of our time, were better than anything I could've imagined. I spent most of my time in the broadcast zone, perched next to the BBC's trackside interviewer Phil Jones or NBC's reporter Lewis Johnson. From here, we had the perfect vantage point from which to see the action. We will literally just a few feet from the track! After each competition, the athletes would come to speak to the cameras, whilst I would be stood to the side, taking down everything he or she said. Getting to see professional broadcasters, like Phil, at work was a personal highlight, and I had some really interesting conversations with him.
The mixed zone, however, was an entirely different kettle of fish, and one that I loved. This was the area where athletes would come having dealt with the broadcasters. Essentially, all the print and radio journalists would gather here in an attempt to get a few words from their chosen competitors. In the morning sessions, when it was only early rounds and heats, the mixed zone would be very quiet. However, when the evening sessions began, it was a completely different story.
Enter Taoufik Makhloufi.
The Algerian 1500m runner had been kicked out of the Games for “not trying” in the 800m heats, although he was controversially reinstated a short time later after a doctor’s note was produced. Makhloufi then went on to shock the world by storming to the gold medal in the men’s 1500m final amidst rumours of doping.
With such a controversial athlete winning a track medal in such dramatic circumstances, surely he would stop for the hordes of expectant press?
Makhloufi decided, somewhat foolishly, to ignore every single journalist waiting for him and run straight through the mixed zone instead. What happened next was reminiscent of that scene from the Lion King, as over 100 angry journalists charged after the Algerian, desperately trying to squeeze any quotes they could from him. I only narrowly avoided the stampede.
There were several other bonkers moments throughout the Olympics, but as the final evening session drew to a close, I thought that I’d seen and heard it all.
But the Jamaican sprint team had other ideas.
At around 9pm on the Saturday, the team of Nesta Carter, Michael Frater, Yohan Blake and Usain Bolt were about to make history. Not only would Blake run one of the greatest bends ever seen in track competition, but the Jamaican relay team, led by the incomparable and indescribable Bolt, would go on to smash their own world record. As the ‘living legend’ crossed the line, I glanced at the electronic scoreboard in front of me – 36.85. A quick calculation revealed that each team member had run their 100m in less than 9.3 seconds – a truly remarkable performance!
However, the drama of the moment didn’t end there.
As each member of the victorious relay team slowly made their way through the mixed zone, the turn came for 22-year-old Yohan Blake to make his way past the first row of journalists. In this small area was myself, an IAAF writer and two American journalists.
As I stood mere inches away from him taking down his quotes, the question of how the Jamaican sprinters pulled off such a superhuman feat was asked. Blake thought for a moment, then came out with this gem:
“Basically, we are not human. We dropped from space like Mr.Bean. Mr.Bean is not a normal guy, he makes jokes. We are not normal guys. We are from space, I am from Mars.”
As Blake sauntered off to the next group of writers, leaving the four of us in utter bewilderment, we discussed whether or not Blake had actually just name-dropped Mr.Bean, as well as stating that he was ‘from Mars’. After some deliberation and listening back on dictaphones, we decided that yes, he had definitely said that.
I ran across to the office, typed up the quotes, and fired them over to the publishing team.
Within an hour, my quotes had been sent to every major international media outlet in the world. BBC, Yahoo, The Irish Times, The Jamaican Observer and the Toronto Sun (to name but a few) had all published them.
I don’t think that I will ever take down a better set of sentences in my life than the ones Yohan gave me on that Saturday night. I’m not sure what caused him to conjure up such fantastic lines, but whatever it was, I am very thankful to him for saying what he did! As you can imagine, I was over the moon with the success of the quotes.
I even got the chance to ask him to clarify what he meant at the media conference a short time afterwards, much to the hilarity of his compatriot Usain. The world’s fastest man replied: “I’ve told Yohan that if he keeps talking like that, someone’s going to put him in a straitjacket.”
Having the chance to laugh and even relax a little with the athletes at the end of a hectic fortnight was the icing on the cake. To get the opportunity to interview these amazing competitors was an honour in itself, but to actually get to know them over the course of the Olympics was the cherry on top!
As I mentioned before, the atmosphere inside the stadium was as hot as the Olympic flame. When you've got 80,000 people vociferously showing their support by shouting as loud as possible, you're bound to create a noise akin to that of a space shuttle launch.
But whilst I stood there, watching magnificent Mo Farah sweep round the last bend of his 5,000m final and letting my eardrums collapse due to the sheer volume of sound surrounding me, I couldn't care less. The scenario and the atmosphere, combined with the Olympic stage, really did sweep you off your feet and almost into a euphoric state. Journalists are meant to remain impartial and level-headed at all times, but I (like many of the British press) couldn't help but cheer for Mo. The final lap of that race will live long in the memory.
Nevertheless, after 10 frenetic days of action at the Olympic Stadium, my duties at the press team and the Games themselves drew to a close. As I walked out of the enormous amphitheatre for the last time, I couldn’t help but reflect on the wonderful experience I had just enjoyed. I’d met gold medallists; I’d interviewed some of the greatest sportsmen and women in the world today; I’d rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in media, and I’d made a whole heap of friends.
The Olympics may be over, but I’ll be living off the buzz for some time to come. Rio 2016, anyone?