FAIRBANKS - It was a sight to behold, a unified display of utter joy and pride.
Canada had just beaten the United States in overtime for gold in men’s hockey and several thousand sang “O Canada” following the medal ceremony.
I was among the throng in Whistler Village Square who gathered for Canada’s showdown with their rival to the south in the final event of the XXI Winter Olympics. Most stood and watched a giant video screen; others had showed up hours early to get an outdoor seat at a bar overlooking the square; yet others hung out on rooftops or hotel patios. Virtually the entire nation was doing likewise.
More than 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the game on television (compared to about 10 percent in the U.S., which was still the most viewed hockey game in American history).
The party was well under way before Zach Parise of the U.S. knocked in a rebound to tie the score with just 24 seconds remaining in regulation, adding greatly to the drama and tension.
But early in overtime Canadian hero Sidney Crosby snuck the puck past U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller, setting off a wild — and mostly peaceful — celebration from British Columbia to Nova Scotia.
The fans in Whistler rejoiced about much more than winning the gold they coveted most, in their national sport, against the Americans, no less. They celebrated more than their Winter Olympics record 14th gold, achieved despite great pressure (their expensive “Own the Podium” campaign) and after a disappointing first week.
The normally modest Canadians’ jubilation — amid a sea of red-and-white maple leaf flags — was also about immense pride that their small country had welcomed the world and put on a great show devoid of major problems (except that of a luger who died on a track deemed too fast and dangerous). Even many nay-sayers, including a friend of mine in Vancouver who initially felt that the debt Vancouver would incur was too much to justify, quickly embraced the games and after 17 days wished they hadn’t ended.
The reason I was able to see the historic hockey game in Whistler was that I skipped the cross country skiing finale, the men’s 50-kilometer classic, at Whistler Olympic Park 45 minutes away. I opted instead to watch the ski race on television at the rented house where I stayed just a mile from central Whistler, mostly because that guaranteed I wouldn’t miss a good portion of the hockey game that followed.
And because the interviews with American skiers were available later on audio, and “flash quotes” from many of the participants were provided by the Olympic News Service, I could gather plenty of material for an article almost as if I had been there.
Of course, I did attend more than 20 events in person, a luxury afforded me because I held a credential that guaranteed admission to all but the most popular events (for those, like the opening ceremonies or preliminary round U.S.Canada hockey game, I merely had to request a ticket in advance). Though racing off to a competition became second nature, I knew I was lucky.
With tickets in high demand, most spectators were only able to attend a few events at substantial costs.
I arranged my attendance mostly around the Alaskan athletes’ participation in cross country skiing, biathlon, snowboardcross and women’s hockey, but I had the freedom to roam and write about whatever came to mind. This generated several columns in addition to the event coverage. Also, if my work was done for the day and, for example, women’s doubles bobsled was on the slate, I became a spectator (though one who gathered fodder for a potential article).
At that event, I ran into several friends from Anchorage and we witnessed in horror as a German bobsledder flipped and ejected from the sled right in front of us.
She walked away without serious injury.
Another night I spent more than five hours round-trip on a bus to Vancouver to catch what amounted to about five minutes of intense action in short-track speedskating — including a crash that disqualified American star Apolo Anton Ohno — and it was totally worth the effort.
But of course I was sent to Vancouver and Whistler on assignment, and reporting at the Winter Olympics — because of its sheer magnitude — was unlike my previous out-of-town gigs such as the Yukon Quest, U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships and Arctic Winter Games.
I was surrounded every day by reporters from major publications — USA Today, ESPN.com, the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer — and came to realize that, while most of them were indeed talented and experienced, they weren’t in a different league than me. They just represented much larger outlets.
And when it came to Nordic skiing, I was actually much more knowledgeable than they were.
Given the sheer number of media present (there were nearly 11,000 there, including 2,800 press reporters and photographers), there was a bit of journalistic absurdity I had never experienced before.
Us lowly reporters (who hadn’t paid extra and were therefore at the end of the media rights hierarchy) had to wait for Alpine darlings Lindsey Vonn or Bode Miller to do seven or eight interviews before they reached us; the media crowd was so large that on occasion I handed my recorder to a press officer with closer access to someone like Nordic combined medalist Todd Lodwick; and a press conference with the Norwegians and Swedes became farcical as Nordic stars like Petter Northug and Marcus Hellner gave us virtually nothing to go on in English before reporters from their homelands swarmed in to conducts interviews in their native tongues.
I was the only Alaska newspaper writer there, and one of the few from a small place — the only others I met came from the winter sports towns of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Lake Placid, N.Y.
Several people expressed surprise that a paper of Fairbanks’ size sent someone to the Olympics; given the financial challenges that newspapers, magazines and TV stations are faced with, reporting at the Olympics is unfortunately becoming more of a luxury than a necessity.
That said, it took a group effort for the NewsMiner to make it happen.
While I posed the idea and initiated the lengthy process of obtaining a credential, the support of the publisher, managing editor and sports editor were vital. And the advertising department — by raising revenue through ads tied into our Olympics coverage — largely helped fund the venture.
Back in the office, in my absence the sports department handled an extra workload during our busy season and the copy editing department executed the task of putting together a special Olympics section every day.