With the Summer Olympics set to open on August 5, I thought it might be fun to write a couple of posts about the year that I covered the Summer Games as part of TIME magazine’s staff. I was reminded of that summer after receiving my copy of this week’s TIME with the Summer Olympics on the cover.
TIME was still a major media force and a far heftier magazine in 1984 than it is now. (Nancy Gibbs, the magazine’s current managing editor is doing a terrific job with it.) The proliferation of the Internet as an immediate source of news and information, has eclipsed the magazine’s role as a definitive news outlet that served to ‘wrap up’ and put into perspective the week’s worth of news and current events. It still fills this purpose but not nearly to the degree that it did in 1984 when the Summer Olympics descended upon Los Angeles.
You may remember that the ’84 Olympics had its share of controversy too. Four years earlier, the U.S. and 65 other countries had boycotted the Games held in Moscow over protest of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan (how things do change). In response, the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern bloc countries refused to send its athletes to Los Angeles in ’84.
I was reporting from the Los Angeles bureau of the magazine, whose ranks numbered about 7 or 8 full-time staffers, nearly an equal number of full-time stringers, and a handful of L.A.-based photographers, including one staff photographer, who were called in for assignments. When the Olympics came to town, those numbers swelled with additional editors, reporters and writers imported from the New York office as well as a couple of correspondents who specialized in sports coverage.
Each publication was given a limited number of press passes and tickets for the Games, not nearly enough to cover every event. Whatever the magazine lacked in ‘press’ tickets, it had to purchase like everyone else. And though we may have had a media pass to give us access behind-the-scenes, we sat with the rest of the spectators wherever our seats were located during the event itself. Our vantage point was that of crowd’s.
For the most part, our assignments were divided up according to either one’s knowledge of a particular sport or the location of our home. The top events were assigned to either one of the New York sports writers or one of the bureau’s senior correspondents. Because of where I was living at the time, I ended up with four water sports–rowing, canoeing, kayaking and water polo.
I knew next to nothing about any of these sports and so had to do some ‘crash course’ learning to bring myself up to speed about what I was to be covering. TIME actually prided itself then on being able to plop down its reporters wherever news was breaking and have them cover the given event as well, if not better, than anyone else. (One reason, perhaps, that I became the L.A. bureau’s medical reporter even though I had a college degree was in music.) Becoming an overnight expert of sorts in these four sports was not only essential to doing the job, it was required.
Before the ’84 games, I had never heard of an ‘egg-beater’ kick, knew what was meant by ‘fours’ and ‘pairs’ or had never seen a crew team compete even though my youngest brother had been on a college crew team. I did what I could to quickly become versed in these sports so that when I headed out to my venues, I knew what to watch for.
We were given our press packets, lanyard with our media pass attached, and various other media materials and dispersed to our various locations. Filing our reports was much different from it is today, as well. Some of had desktop computers, but there were no laptops, cell phones or other mobile devices on which we could instantaneously write our files and send them off to the editorial office in New York. We had to return to a desk somewhere to write and send our files. I, no doubt, returned to the office in my newly purchased home, where I probably wrote my reports upon the dinosaur of a desktop computer.
Covering the Olympics was without question one of the high points of my career as a journalist. Never had I dreamed as a young reporter that I would or could one day be chasing down world-class athletes for a ‘telling quote’ or asking the King of Sweden if he pleased with his country’s team’s performance, or getting close-up access to Olympic events. But it was all part of the job.
Technology has vastly changed the way we watch the Olympics today. With ‘streaming’ videos, blogging, live 24-hour broadcasting, the mainstream media, like TIME, has scrambled to find new ways of covering the Games. With all the issues surrounding the host country this year, as well as controversial athletes who have been barred from participating, some of the lustre and thrill of the Games themselves have perhaps been diminished. For most of us, however, the heart and spirit of the Olympics remain in athletes themselves who train for lifetime, who dedicate themselves to reaching the highest level of their sport, who sacrifice other pursuits just for the chance to represent their country and wear its uniform in the Olympic Games.
Let the Games begin!