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With the increased warnings of terror attacks, suicide bombers dubbed “black widows” and protests against anti-gay laws, the Winter Olympics in Sochi are attracting a lot of global attention.
In an exclusive interview with the The Hollywood Reporter, ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap revealed why these games are a “very different challenge” from the eight other Olympics that he has covered.
“There are stories surrounding the new anti-gay propaganda laws, there are security issues there that we don’t typically confront with the Olympics…so these are a very interesting games at a lot of levels,” Schaap tells THR.
“So much is a mystery for us right now in terms of how we are going to get around,” he reveals. “The logistics are always an issue, particularly at the Winter Games because you have a town venue and a mountain venue and navigating that can be difficult.”
While ESPN is a powerhouse when it comes to sports broadcasting and the leader in the field, at the Olympics it is in the shadow of rights holders NBC, which is airing coverage in the U.S.
“It is difficult as we don’t have access, we can barely show highlights. We try to do what we can,” explains Schaap, who is the on-air host. “It is guerrilla journalism, it is not what we are used to facing. Even when we’re not rights holders we get credentials, and a lot of access, like at the Super Bowl — but the Olympics is an entirely different animal.
“One thing I have noticed after doing 22 years of Olympics coverage is the access gets more and more restrictive each time,” he explains.”That can be frustrating, it is certainly a challenge, it makes doing our job harder — just what they allow us to do with our credentials are getting tighter. The IOC [International Olympics Committee] makes it as difficult as possible for non-rights holders to cover the events, which seems silly to me. It is a very different experience for NBC.
“There aren’t too many occasions when you are going somewhere for three weeks and you don’t know what the place is like where you’re staying, who knows if you have Internet, or communications — you hope everything works but you don’t have a lot of opportunity to test it out beforehand. It all comes up pretty quickly — that is the case if you are NBC with an army or if you are ESPN with a squad. It is a weird feeling for us because ESPN is quite often the army, and that is not the case at the Olympics,” he adds.
That does not mean that the sports network won’t bring compelling stories and must-see TV, and even gives them freedom to get more creative with their coverage.
“We have plenty of people going over who know a lot about the Olympics and our viewers will be well-served. We focus on different stuff [than NBC], we have to pick and choose what we focus on, but they are going to be whatever the big story is. We have a commitment to covering the controversies that arise, which sometimes the rights holders can’t because they have to focus on the athletes themselves.
“But there are other stories, such as gay athletes and people wanting to show their support for the gay community — that is obviously a big story coming into these games, just like the human rights issues were going into Beijing.”
In addition to the usual obstacles, the ESPN crew has to face new challenges regarding “where we are allowed to go in terms of the security concerns — it is very much up in the air and a mystery in terms of how difficult it will be to get around Sochi and up in the mountains,” says Schaap, who has covered the winter games in France, the U.S., Norway and Italy.
Schaap and his crew — which consists of three producers on the TV side and nine reporters for ESPN.com — will be staying at the Russian Seasons Hotel, directly opposite Olympic Park and right outside the main security perimeter. With so many staff members in such a volatile location, the safety of employees has obviously been a key aspect in planning coverage.
“We have had security calls. I can’t really get into the specifics of it too much, but we know that Disney is taking this seriously at a corporate level,” reveals Schaap.
“The security issues are all the stuff you would expect, we have people making sure they know where we are at all times and watching our backs. I don’t want to make light [of security fears] but when everyone is telling you that this could happen, you have to be in a state of denial not to be anxious and be aware of your surroundings.”
When it comes to the actual Olympic competitors, “where the athletes are put up will be very secure — for obvious reasons,” he explains. “All this stuff has changed so much in the past 40 years, since Munich, security for the athletes especially has been the single most important priority for the people organizing the games.
“At the same time they try to balance it so that they can still enjoy themselves and go out and have a good time, but I am confident that the organizers are doing everything in their power to make sure nothing might embarrass them or lead to harm being perpetrated against the athletes, journalists or people who are coming to enjoy the games.”
To many, Sochi seems a strange location for a winter games as it is a summer resort, and known as the so-called Russian Riviera, because of its mild weather. “The average high temperature in February is in the 50s; this is not one of those games where you need heavy boots, but it will be chillier in the mountains,” says Schaap.
“There are also environmental issues galore in Sochi, and many questions to be asked about the $60 billion spent on these games,” explains Schaap. “They spent more on the rail system than anything else. For a place that has so much corruption, to create this gold rush…but this stuff has happened before. The Olympics don’t always end up in the place that makes the most sense to have them — like Mexico City in ’68.”
Despite the multiple issues and anxieties, Schaap is certainly excited to watch the upcoming Olympics and offered some matchups to look out for.
“I love Olympic hockey, I love the kind of game they play. There should be some really interesting players interactions — you have Sidney Crosby for the Canadians, and Alex Ovechkin leading the Russians, who have not had a lot of Olympic success in the past few years,” he explains. “The alpine skiing should be interesting, too, especially with all the new events this year.”
The Sochi Winter Olympics run Feb. 7-23.
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