I’ve officially lost my touch. After drinking seventy-five-cent Tsingtao beers with the Russian women’s volleyball team (the amount dictated by the government, so its people could have “fun”), and watching Rafael Nadal beat Novac Djokovic in men’s tennis, I end up sharing a midnight hot tub back at our hotel with super-heavyweight wrestler Rulon Garder. Any amorous thoughts I had of the Russian volleyballers quickly sank with the rising water.
Furthering my unease: Rulon extends his right foot to show me his missing toe, the result of a snowmobiling accident between his gold medal in 2000 and his bronze in Athens four years later.
Bathing with Rulon certainly wasn’t in the brochure when I took the Olympic job with NBC, but I rolled with his punches and soon learned that we share more than a minimum of nine toes. Long neglected by mainstream media, our respective sports were about to get a Yao-Ming sized boost. NBC’s various networks were offering 180 hours of programming a day–more airtime than every previous Summer Olympics combined. My job was to help the paddling events ride that wave.
Rulon is a real Olympic hero, a Wyoming farm boy who vanquished the unbeatable Russian Alexander Karelin at the Sydney Olympics, then survived the snowmobile accident, as well as a mid-winter plane crash into Lake Powell, to emerge as NBC’s on-air wrestling expert. I was helping his announcing counterpart in canoeing and kayaking spice up his coverage.
When I told broadcaster Marty Snider about my fall from grace with the Russians and subsequent rendezvous with Rulon, he was genuinely impressed. “Way to go,” he said. “You had an Olympic moment.”
Snider was one of several big-time broadcasters taking a break from money sports like the NBA and NFL to cover boating in Beijing. Their mission: beam Olympic moments back into American living rooms.
My part wasn’t too much different from my first raft guiding gig: stay out of trouble and come up with good tales to spin—in this case, helping announcers Joe Jacobi and Craig Hummer, fresh from calling the Tour de France, unearth interesting backstories to tell on the air.
The Shunyi Whitewater Park was full of such juicy details. Sleuthing around, I discovered that German kayaker Jennifer Bongardt once appeared in Playboy, French kayaking superstar Fabien Lefevre had his own line of cologne, and the Aussies named the course’s two biggest rapids Wok and Roll and Stir Fry. Every little detail went into my notebook, with many of them making their way onto the air as I steered the camera crew and announcers toward the moments and emotions that best captured the spirit of the Olympics.
Chinese kayaker Li Jingling’s run was one of the first of those. The crowd of 27,000 – the largest at any paddling event ever — waved red banners and roared as their paddler charged the gates. While they had high hopes—paddling was one of five sports in which China had invested heavily to increase its gold-medal count—Li was ousted in the semifinals. The crowd fell hush as our camera zoomed in on her fists-to-face disappointment.
The next day I dragged the camera crew to the stands to sit with the Parsons family during the men’s K-1 prelims. Scott Parsons was America’s best hope for a slalom medal, and his mom, Mary, could barely watch. The family hugged with joy when he came in third on the first run, then again with grief when a 50-second penalty knocked him out of contention. You could feel the lead in their stomachs as readily as in Chinese toys.
It was tough for us as well; Our main paddling storyline had just spiraled down the drain. NBC had shipped 5,000 pounds of Starbucks to Beijing to help fuel our coverage, and that night we stayed in the edit bay until 2 a.m., re-voicing the race to fit in the backstories we’d been saving for later.
The next day we captured another moment of agony when front-running Slovenian kayaker Peter Kauzer failed to qualify for the final, snapping his paddle across his boat in rage as if it were a twig.
Overdue for an uplifting Olympic moment, we found one in the unlikely story of Benjamin Boukpeti, paddling for the tiny West African nation of Togo. When he charged across the line for the bronze—his country’s first medal ever—he splintered his paddle, too, only this time in jubilation, shaking the pieces at the sky.
The Olympic spirit ran just as deep in flatwater, where New Zealander Steve Ferguson plucked weeds off another racer’s rudder at the start, and the powerful Hungarian team wore black armbands in tribute to two-time, gold-medal-winning countryman Gyorgy Kolonics, who died while training just a month earlier.
For every Michael Phelps success story, it seemed, there was a Liu Xiang, the Chinese celebrity hurdler forced to miss his long-awaited home Games due to a last-minute injury. But the spirit driving the athletes linked them as closely as the Olympic logo’s interlocking rings.
Perhaps it was my three-week stay in the land of Confucius that made me wax poetic on my last night when I lifted the toilet lid of our hotel bathroom to find lavender orchids floating in the bowl below. There’s a yin-yang beauty in everything, I surmised, from porcelain bowls to missing the Olympic podium. And dreams can be both made and broken quickly on the world’s biggest athletic stage — just like mine were when Rulon overflowed the Jacuzzi.