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Ringheads and Nancy Guys

Posted by John Powers, Globe Staff  August 12, 2008 11:29 AM

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I was sitting in the bullpen inside the Main Press Center yesterday when a Middle Eastern man with a microphone, cameraman at his shoulder, came up to me. "Excuse me, sir, we are from Al-Jazeera and we would like to interview you," he said. "You have heard of Al-Jazeera?" I assured him that I had, along with everyone else in my country. "I am honored," he said. What he wanted was to talk about the US-China medal rivalry. We chatted for a few minutes and he moved on, in search of another American journalist to interview.

If you are at the Olympics long enough, you are guaranteed to be interviewed by a journalist from another country. Sometimes it's a local TV person, wondering how you're enjoying the host city's famous hospitality. (The usual answer: I wouldn't know. I haven't left the Main Press Center.) Sometimes, it's someone gathering opinions on the Great Issue of the Day (What do think about that Denver guy insulting Salt Lake City?) If you're sitting still long enough at Olympus, one of your foreign colleagues is going to stick a microphone in your face.

Yesterday, the BBC Radio people asked me to come down to the Face Bar for their nightly sports show which is broadcast around the world. I figured that it would be for five minutes, but I ended up staying for nearly two hours, chiming in every so often along with Matthew Syed, who writes for the Times of London and was an Olympic table tennis player for Great Britain. The Face Bar is one of Beijing's hot new upscale places where hip young Beijingers are spending the fruits of capitalism and the BBC broadcasts from a room there. Whenever Matthew and I figured it might be time to catch a cab back to the hotel, a waitress would come in with an oversized gin and tonic rattling with ice and a cold bottle of Tsingtao beer. Olympic journalists (or `Ringheads', as the veterans are known) will talk forever if you merely keep them lubricated.

Usually, the interviews are sporadic, unless there's a huge ongoing story and you've been identified as the go-to guy. That's how it was for me for three weeks in 1994 in Lillehammer during Wounded Knee, the Nancy-Tonya saga which that held the rest of the world in thrall. Nancy Kerrigan, wisely, wasn't talking, so the next best source figured to be the guy from the Boston Globe who knew her. That's how I became the Nancy Guy. Everybody with a camera or a tape recorder wanted five minutes from me. The Japanese, particularly, were fascinated beyond belief. "Only in America," they told me.

Once you've been identified as the go-to guy, the whole world descends upon you -- Canadians, Swedes, Germans, Brits, Chinese. The same thing happened to two of my female colleagues from Portland, Oregon, Harding's hometown. They were the Tonya Twins, and everyone wanted trashy tales from the trailer park. Nobody wanted the figure skating to end more than we did, but we found that the saga never quite ended. Four years later, when we were taking a bus from Tokyo to Nagano for the Games, we made a pit stop at a remote place. "Hey, it's the Nancy Guy," a couple of Dutch journalists called out, as I was walking across the parking lot. This is how a Ringhead achieves immortality at Olympus. Just have someone whack your local athlete with a nightstick.

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