London 2012: Learning the Ropes at the Olympics
This story first appeared in the August 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"It is the single best entry-level job in all of television," Jeff Zucker, executive producer of Katie Couric's upcoming talk show, says about his stint as a researcher for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which precipitated his rise through the NBC ranks to CEO.
The position was conceived by the late ABC Sports impresario Roone Arledge, who convinced a 19-year-old Dick Ebersol (a future NBC Sports chairman) to become the inaugural Olympic researcher for the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
Since Ebersol, the job has minted an impressive stream of high-powered TV executives. Terry O'Neil, who went on to become an executive producer at ABC Sports and NBC Sports, was the 1972 Munich Olympics researcher. Peter Diamond, now NBC's senior vp Olympic programming, was the researcher for the 1976 Montreal Games. He has hired nearly every subsequent researcher, from Molly Solomon, now executive producer of Golf Channel, to Jamie Horowitz, vp programming at ESPN.
These days, the job usually goes to two recent college graduates with hardly any roots and one obligation: to travel the world unearthing the stories of the athletes who will compete in each Olympiad. "It requires that person to assume a lot of responsibility at a very young age, to become a very good storyteller and a very good producer right away," says Zucker.
Once the Games begin, researchers work closely with NBC's star anchors, who travel en masse to broadcast from the Olympic host city. "You're working side by side with the face of the Olympics, providing them with information, writing their scripts," adds Zucker. Says Ebersol: "We are all lucky to have the careers we had. It is because we had that early training as Olympic researchers."
Executive producer, Katie (Seoul 1988)
In 1988, we were the last Olympic researchers to not have any real type of computers. We were traveling the world at NBC's expense, compiling all of this background information by hand. There was no such thing as the Internet or LexisNexis.
I remember making the trip to Korea early to check out the country. We went to the demilitarized zone on the line that separates North Korea and South Korea. Suddenly, we were locked down in the building because there was some incident going on between the countries. I'm thinking, "Great, I came halfway around the world, and I'm going to die on the demilitarized zone because I'm the Olympic researcher."
Senior vp strategic partnerships and business affairs, NBC Sports (Barcelona 1992)
In October 1991, I went to the World Wrestling Championships in Varna, Bulgaria. Varna is a small summer-resort city on the Black Sea. It took 24 hours to get there -- New York to London, London to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, and then Sofia on to Varna. There are no cell phones or any way to easily communicate with people.
I was 23 years old going to a former Soviet satellite country. I'm not embarrassed to admit that my mother was very concerned about me. When I got to Varna, she wanted me to call her and let her know that I was safe and sound. I finally get there, they take me to where the media was staying -- this old, grand hotel used by all the former Soviet leaders as their summer home. It was way out in the woods. They send me to my room, a gigantic suite. I spend an hour trying to get an outside line -- nothing worked.
I was panicked about not being able to call my family. So the next day I went to the Palace of Culture and Sports arena. The first thing I do is ask the media-center volunteers, "Is there any way I can make a phone call back to the United States?" They pointed to a row of pay phones. I thought: "This is a joke. This is never going to work." But I had a crystal-clear connection and was talking to Mom within three seconds.
I go back to the volunteers, and I say, "How was that possible?!" And they said, gesturing me close so no one else would hear, "That was the phone bank that the CIA used during the Cold War." They were hardwired back to the U.S. You couldn't call Paris or London or Munich or anywhere else, only the United States.
Executive producer, NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network (Seoul, 1988)
Ping-Pong, or table tennis, was for the first time part of the Olympics. But the World Championships were in New Delhi, India. So I flew to New Delhi and checked into the hotel, some Taj Mahal palace.
I'm at the hotel, 3 in the morning. The door opens, and in comes this guy. I jump out of bed and say, "What are you doing here?!" He says [Flood affects a Swedish accent]: "I'm Lars. I am your roommate." I say: "No! I'm here with NBC." He says: "Yes, I'm your roommate -- Lars from Sweden. We always share rooms." I say, "I don't know who you are, I'm getting out of here."
I go downstairs and sleep in the lobby, where I meet the Chinese team. This is 1987, and China was not an open society. They were also really good at table tennis. I had an in with the team because they saw this poor guy hanging around the lobby! I was able to get great bios on them -- more than, "He's an only child," which is about all you got from any Chinese athlete in those days.
Olympics researcher (Vancouver 2010, London 2012)
It was the 2009 Nordic World Ski Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, about an hour and 20 minutes from Prague. I might have been one of two English speakers in the town aside from the U.S. athletes. I landed on a Sunday and realized I had forgotten my power adapter. Usually you can go down to the hotel desk and they have one, or you can go buy one. But not in Liberec on a Sunday afternoon.
A fellow researcher from CTV and I went from store to store trying to find a power adapter. No one spoke English, so I tried to condense my words to make it as simple as possible. I came up with: "USA. Power." I kept going into these shops and saying: "USA! Power!" Finally, my fellow researcher from Canada said: "Ron, you're 6-foot-5, intimidating-looking and in Eastern Europe. I wouldn't go around saying, 'USA! Power!' "
Senior vp programming, NBC Olympics (Montreal 1976)
I remember waking up in the Holiday Inn, the ABC hotel for the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. It was 10 days before the Olympics. I woke up in the middle of the night and had no idea where I was until I could get the light on and get some hotel literature. There was so much travel, you really could lose your place occasionally.
Coordinating producer, NBC Olympics; senior vp/executive producer, Golf Channel (Barcelona 1992)
When I got to the Games with Brett Goodman, we knew more about those athletes than anyone else in the world. We wrote 800 bios, 3,000 pages. It was the best job I ever had.
In 1991, I traveled to Donaueschingen, West Germany, in the middle of the Black Forest. There was nothing there, except the World Weightlifting Championships. They ran out of hotel rooms. I had to stay in the basement of a private home. I spoke no German. I got there, and I go down into the basement, where there were no windows. I thought, "What am I doing?" But it turned out to be the most fulfilling trip. I figured out that the best way to get information out of the [former Soviet Union's] Unified Team was to drink vodka with them in the beer garden next to the stadium. At the end of the championships, I remember being thrown up in the air by the Unified Team -- they were such goodhearted athletes, and they loved that you were interested in them.
Executive editor, NBC Sports & Olympics (Atlanta 1996)
The longest trip I took spanned nearly two months in 1995, from late July to September, and included stops in Colorado Springs (for the U.S. Olympic Festival), Vienna (European Swimming Championships), Duisburg (Germany; Flatwater Canoe World Championships), Goteborg (Sweden; Track & Field World Championships), Stamford in England (Burghley Horse Trials) and then Atlanta for test events in diving and water polo. The ticket for that itinerary was like a paperback book. My then-girlfriend, Katie, stuck with me through that trip, and we've now been married 14 years.
I remember my first overseas trip to the 1994 World Cycling Championships in Sicily, about a month past my 23rd birthday. It was a two-week event covering track and road events in cities around the island. I landed in Palermo with no cell phone, no e-mail, no map and no clue, suddenly terrified that NBC was spending all this money to get me there and I didn't know how I was going to deliver. But you're forced to figure it out. I ended up interviewing an amateur named Lance Armstrong in a hotel lounge, surrounded by his entourage.
vp original programming, ESPN (Sydney 2000)
I was assigned to cover the 1999 European Basketball Championships in Paris. This was on the heels of the Kosovo War. I tried to get interviews with the Yugoslavian team. Most coaches would say: "Yes, of course, sit down. It's the Olympics!" But I could not get in with them in the aftermath of the war. I was so scared that I was going to come home and say, "I couldn't get bios of any of the Yugoslavian players."
I approached Vlade Divac (who had been the Lakers' first-ever Serbian draft pick in 1989 and later played for the Sacramento Kings). I'd never met Divac, but he spoke some English. I was a kid just a year out of school, and I explained to him that I couldn't get interviews with anyone. And he wonderfully put his hand on my shoulder and said: "Politics is politics; sport is sport. Come with me." He took me to a cafe, and one by one he pulled in his teammates for interviews and, of course, acted as a translator for me. Each player who came over was drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes.
Olympics consultant (Mexico City 1968)
I was the first Olympic researcher. The great premium in almost all media content is the ability to tell stories well. Some will differ with this because they only saw research work as drudgery, but I was 19, and the opportunity to be Jim McKay's guy or Roone Arledge's guy was a privilege.
They wanted a complete story on these athletes so that they could tell stories well. Before the 1968 Olympics, I got hired as a 19-year-old sophomore. I dropped out for two years to do this. They wanted me to travel around the world to get to know the top athletes in Europe and in the Americas. Storytelling being the essence of anything in content, it's a gift to be good at it, and to get a leg up by being an Olympic researcher has proved to be invaluable. It all came from our ability to recognize a story and tell it as succinctly and as well as we possibly could.
BY THE NUMBERS: 84 Binders. Or hundreds of thousands of pages of research on Olympians from nearly a dozen Games, in the NBC Sports offices at Rockefeller Center.