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Alan Abrahamson on the Olympics

October 27, 2011

Alan Ambrahamson:

First, can you tell readers where they can find your work and what drives your passion for covering the Olympics?

At 3 Wire Sports: just like it sounds, http://3wiresports.com/.

When I set out on my own, after 17 years at the LA Times and four at NBC, I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted my site to be named. The branding thing is a big deal, everyone tells you. As you may know, you’re not allowed to use the name “Olympic” in the United States for commercial purposes. By law, the U.S. Olympic Committee owns the rights to the word. In part, the name of my site pays tribute to my two middle brothers, who were Naval aviators; when you land a plane on a carrier deck, you have to catch one of four wires; the third of the four wires is the perfect catch.

I have always been passionate about the Olympics. We grew up near Dayton, Ohio. I remember hearing about Bob Beamon in 1968, when I was just 10, and being stunned that a man could jump more than 29 feet in the air. I vividly remember watching Frank Shorter in 1972 and Bruce Jenner in 1976. I went to Northwestern with the idea that I would graduate in 1980 with my journalism degree, which I did, having studied Russian, which I did, and go to Moscow to report on those Games — oops, that didn’t quite work out, and I have over the years become friends with some of the members of that 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic team. The stories of how the boycott has played out in their lives is compelling stuff.
 
How did you get started as a sportswriter – any advice for those choosing to enter the field?

I started working as a copy boy at the Dayton Daily News when I was still in high school. In college I worked in the sports section of the Waukegan News-Sun. My first job out of Northwestern was at the Jackson, Mich., Citizen Patriot, covering cops.

The business has changed so much since then.

Advice for those entering the field: Any foot in the door is good.
 
What are your thoughts the somewhat recent addition of allowing professional athletes to participate in the Olympics – has this had a positive impact on the games? Why/why not?

Well, it’s not really all that recent. The Dream Team in men’s hoops was Barcelona 1992, which is nearly 20 years ago.

I am all for professionals competing in the Games. How can anyone not be? The Games are supposed to be about excellence.

To compete into your 20s and 30s you need to get paid. To compete in sports such as swimming you need to get paid. Everyone reveled in Michael Phelps’ eight gold medals. But how, exactly, is Michael supposed to have the wherewithal to train? The second of the eight gold medals that Michael won in Beijing was saved by Jason Lezak’s phenomenal anchor leg. How is Jason supposed to train? Don’t Michael and Jason have every right to strive for the same excellence that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James do? Moreover, if Pau Gasol is going to be playing for Spain — shouldn’t Kobe and LeBron be wearing red, white and blue? It only makes sense.
 
Can you describe the effect Juan Antonio Samaranch had on the Olympics – what impact did he have and how much is he missed?

Juan Antonio Samaranch was president from 1980-2001. History will, I think, be far kinder to him than many judge him now. When he took over, the IOC was mired in financial instability and turmoil. When he stepped down, it had enormous global reach and was financially secure.

His legacy will forever be tarnished, of course, by the specter of doping in sports and by the Salt Lake City corruption scandal. As for the events in Salt Lake — he immediately launched a far-reaching reform plan that continues to guide the IOC to this day. As for the campaign against doping in sports — that is without end.

It is fair to say I came to know Samaranch better than any other American journalist. He was actually quite shy in public; incredibly warm, personable and gracious with those he knew; and nothing like the stereotype of the imperious grandee so many liked to toss about. 
 
What do you think about the location for the 2012 and 2014 games – will London and Sochi be ready – what should we expect?

Yes, both absolutely will be ready.

London, assuming no transport or security issues, holds the promise to be a party like Sydney in 2000 — only better. After all, it’s London, which may well be the best big city in the world. The big question right now is who is going to play the opening ceremony — as in: The Who? Or will it be the likes of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr? The guessing game is on.

As for Sochi: The 2014 Games will prove a catalyst of sorts for Russia. They will introduce concepts there that are long-familiar here and elsewhere but not there — for instance, volunteering. And recycling. Because of the 2014 Games, you will be able to recycle water bottles in Sochi. You couldn’t do that before. If that seems simple — it’s also fairly profound. That’s a big, big culture change in a place like Russia.

Which US athletes should we be watching out for in 2012 – what athletes do you think will surprise U.S. viewers?

1. Michael Phelps. He’ll be back. He won’t be swimming eight races. But he’s still going to win a bunch of golds.

2. Ryan Lochte. He swam better than Phelps in 2010 and 2011. He became the first guy to break a world record without a high-tech plastic suit. And he beat Phelps doing it.

3. Missy Franklin. The teen-age swimmer from Denver rocked the 2011 world swim championships.

4. Jordyn Wieber. The 2011 world gymnastics women’s all-around champion. She’s from Michigan.

5. Trey Hardee, Ashton Eaton and Bryan Clay. The U.S. could go 1-2-3 in the decathlon. Hardee and Eaton went 1-2 at the track worlds in 2011. Clay is the 2008 Beijing champion.

6. Brady Ellison. The world’s No. 1 archer. From Arizona. Grew up hunting and fishing with his dad.

No list of athletes is complete without mentioning Usain Bolt, who of course is Jamaican. His current world records: 9.58 in the 100, 19.19 in the 200.

What have been some of the more lasting memories for you so far in your coverage of the Olympics – what made them so?

My favorite Olympic memory is from Salt Lake City in 2002. It’s the picture in my mind’s eye of Ross Powers winning the snowboarding halfpipe with his first trick, a huge jump called a method air. I was down at the bottom of the hill, watching. Ross threw the trick, which is really just a leap into the sky. He timed it expertly. He was probably 35 feet off the ground, silhouetted against a perfect blue background. Just — perfect.
 
Which athletes made the biggest impressions on you over the years – and why?

Phelps and Apolo Ohno, because I’ve had the privilege of working with each of them on their best-selling books, and gotten to know them so well.

And: Kerri Walsh and Misty May, after they won the gold medal in Athens in 2004 in beach volleyball. (No book but have gotten to know them, too.) After they won, they went around the court and shook hands with the officials, the ball boys and girls, the fans — everyone. It was a fantastic display of class and sportsmanship.
 
Some of the criticism of Olympics coverage is the fact that, outside of the known professional athletes, many of the participants are simply unknown to viewers? Do you think the US committee does a good enough job “introducing” these athletes to viewers? How can they improve?

That’s why NBC does those “up close and personal” profiles. It’s understood that several of the Olympic sports can be less-understood and that consequently viewers might need a rooting interest.

I think everyone who is close to the Olympic scene understands that the more we all do to tell the stories of the athletes the better it is for all involved. 
 
Any new books coming out soon?

Our oldest is a senior in high school. College tuition is coming right up!

Seriously — I’m always interested in new projects. At the same time, you have to find the right balance time-wise between professional and family life. So we’ll see …
 
Any last thoughts for readers?

My wife, Laura, makes all this possible. Without her support, no way I get to live out the dreams I dreamed of when I was watching Frank Shorter and Bruce Jenner a long time ago.

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