Brett Haber’s Behind-the-Scenes Tales From the Olympics

Writing from London, The Washingtonian’s Brett Haber gives us a look inside the games.

By: Brett Haber

I’ve never been to the Olympics before. When I finished 14th in the 100-yard dash in Ms. Emerson’s fourth-grade gym class, I came to the harsh realization that I wasn’t likely to make it to the games as an athlete. But around that same time, I realized the lack of swiftness in my legs could be mitigated by the swift flapping of my lips. Broadcasting would be my only route to the Olympic dream, and this past week, that dream has come true.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far: While Super Bowls, Daytona 500s, and All-Star Games are big events, they don’t hold a candle to the humanity, infrastructure, money, time, and displacement required to put on the Olympics. What’s going on here in London is not big—it’s gargantuan. It has consumed every aspect of British life, every inch of these once-tranquil isles. What follows is an abridged diary of things/people/experiences I’ve seen and encountered since hitting the ground in London.

ARRIVAL: The first term I learned upon landing at Heathrow last Monday was “Olympic family.” As part of the NBC broadcast team for the games, I qualified as a member of that family. That meant that when I stepped off the plane ten days ago, I was funneled into a separate (and much shorter) customs lane, where my credentials were reviewed and validated posthaste. I was sent out the door in less time than it takes to ride the people-mover from terminal C to the baggage claim at Dulles. There was one other person in the Olympic family customs lane as I passed through. She was quite tall. It took me a moment in my post-red-eye haze to realize it was Venus Williams. She had flown directly to London from DC, where she played that night in her final Washington Kastles match of the season. Only a few hours later she would carry the Olympic torch on its leg through Wimbledon. Not sure where she got the energy to jog; I could barely walk.

On my trip from Heathrow to the hotel, I discovered one of the more controversial aspects of these games: the Olympic traffic lanes. Because London is notoriously consumed by traffic, the city has set aside entire lanes on various roads and highways for the exclusive use of official Olympic vehicles. This has created an immeasurable level of bitterness on the part of everyday London drivers, whose commute has been made even more miserable as a result. London taxi drivers went so far as to conduct a hastily organized strike to express their displeasure.

NBC: To use Junior Soprano’s parlance, they roll heavy. NBC considers the Olympics the tentpole of its dynasty, and when it comes to producing them, the network doesn’t mess around. Just as I was starting to feel special, I learned I was one of 155 announcers who would be calling the games for the network (actually nine networks—the tennis is mostly on Bravo). In all, NBC will produce 5,535 hours of coverage of these Olympics. As executive producer Molly Solomon pointed out, if you stretched all those hours out in a linear fashion across one network, it would take more than seven months to broadcast it all. Here is NBC’s presence at these Olympics by the numbers: 50,612 nights spent in 13 different hotels, 1,630 round-trip airline reservations, 2,000 pieces of furniture, 191 vehicles, 2 helicopters, 300 camera positions, 30,480 meters of fiber-optic cable, 202,594 meals served to staff, and 50,000 archived videotapes. In Beijing, it all equated to 215 million viewers. More are expected for London.

The day after we arrived, NBC gathered the entire announce team for a seminar in the International Broadcast Center (IBC). If you’re a sports-TV geek, this was like having a field pass to batting practice at the All-Star game. Bob Costas, Al Michaels, and Dan Patrick were sprinkled among us. Jimmy Roberts over there, Apollo Ohno over there, Béla Károlyi over there. I wound up sitting next to basketball reporter Craig Sager, who, to my disappointment, was not wearing an outlandish sport jacket.

Our bosses made speeches and showed videos illustrating the dos and don’ts of how to call an Olympic games. (Hint: when interviewing an athlete, don’t ask, “How does it feel?”) We got a chat from London Olympics chief Sebastian Coe (now known as Lord Coe to the Brits), who not only helped secure the games for London seven years ago, but has overseen every aspect of their organization. The whole thing was beamed back to New York, where hundreds of additional Olympic staffers were watching. Several Olympic sports are being broadcast from NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rock. In fact, for the duration of the games, the Saturday Night Live studio has been transformed into a stateside Olympic broadcast center.

WIMBLEDON: The moderate profile tennis usually maintains at the Olympics has been magnified exponentially this year as a result of the venue. The All England Club is not only the most iconic venue in tennis, it is among the most iconic venues in all of global sports. The fact that the Olympic tennis competition began just 20 days after the conclusion of Wimbledon created both a stark contrast and a logistical challenge.

From a visual standpoint, entering the club for the first time last Thursday was pleasantly jarring. The usual dark green that pervades every inch of the property has been punctuated by swaths of purple. It’s everywhere. The players themselves, who are normally confined to white attire during the championships, are under no such restrictions during the Olympics. The Olympic rainbow is in full effect around the grounds. For some, though, old habits die hard. Serena Williams showed up to practice last week in her customary Wimbledon whites.

The grass itself at the All England Club has been miraculously regenerated since the end of the championships. Those brown patches along the baselines were once again pristine green for the start of the Olympic tournament. No, they did not lay down sod. Head groundsman Eddie Seaward oversaw a painstaking process of rapid reseeding. The process, which involved two years of trials, began as soon as Roger Federer walked off Centre Court with the trophy last month. The rye-grass seed was pregerminated to facilitate faster growth. It seems to have worked.

GOOSE BUMPS: I admit it—I got some. I’ve worked at Wimbledon before, but this was different. On Saturday, after days of meetings, discussions, and rehearsals, we all took our positions for the start of the first telecast. I was in the broadcast booth on fabled Centre Court. (Perhaps you’ve seen shots of it while watching Wimbledon—it’s the tiny windowed room in the southeast corner of the main stadium that’s just over the players’ right shoulder when they’re standing on that baseline.) The entire team was in place, the clock struck high noon, our producer’s countdown reached “one,” and that famous Olympic theme music pumped into my headset. That’s when it happened.