Capital Comment Blog > Sports
Brett Haber’s Behind-the-Scenes Tales From the Olympics Part II
Writing from London, The Washingtonian’s Brett Haber shares his observations about Olympic-level security, sponsor exclusivity, and more.
Having arrived at week two of the games (our third week in London), our tennis crew had fallen into a somewhat predictable rhythm: Wake up, pile into a van for the ride to the All England Club, and listen to outlandish Hollywood stories from host Pat O’Brien, which, regardless of their embellishments, provide endless entertainment as we sit in traffic. After we arrive, we pass through a multilayered security labyrinth so elaborate it makes the TSA look like a bunch of mall cops. Those who forget or refuse to take off their belts while passing through the metal detectors are subject to a rigorous pat-down. How rigorous? As one foreign journalist said to the British soldier who was conducting his body search, “Uh, I didn’t sign up for a prostate exam.”
Here are a few more random observations from inside the games.
Sponsor Exclusivity: The International Olympic Committee takes this seriously—very seriously, as we found out. Various blue-chip international corporations have paid major money to sponsor these games, and the organizers have ensured, right down to the tiniest possible conflict, that no competing brands receive passive exposure at any Olympic venue, at any time. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. If a sporting event is sponsored, for example, by Visa (as the Olympics are), you can’t use any other credit card when purchasing food or merchandise from an Olympic vendor. Okay, that’s annoying, but not completely unreasonable. But the Olympics have taken the concept several steps further.
At every single Olympic venue, in every single building, hallway, bathroom, catering kitchen, competition field, janitors’ closet, and vehicle, an army of workers has covered up any and all references to sponsors that are not paying the Olympics for the privilege. To use a Washington term, the IOC has redacted all the competition. In fact, take a look at the photo in the slideshow attached to this story (it’s actually a photo of a photo) of the woman holding the tennis racket. That photo hangs in the second-floor hallway of the All England Club TV broadcast compound. This is a non-public area. The only people who walk down that corridor are TV technicians and other staff. And yet, look at the picture—there’s a piece of black tape over the manufacturer logo stenciled on the strings of the tennis racket. I say again—this is not an actual tennis racket, just a picture of one. Here’s a question: If an athlete pulled a Ron Artest and changed her name to Diet Pepsi McGee, would he or she even be allowed to compete in the games?
Medal-Stand Coup: Speaking of logos, there’s no question Nike has made the commercial steal of these games. In addition to the athletes it sponsors and outfits in various sports, the company secured the exclusive rights to Team USA’s medal-stand attire. That’s right—regardless of what brand American athletes normally wear, medal winners must mount the podium and receive that medal outfitted in head-to-toe Nike. At the tennis venue, we saw Bob and Mike Bryan win the gold medal in doubles on Saturday. The twin brothers from California have a lucrative endorsement contract with K-Swiss, but they stood on the top step of that medal stand awash in swooshes.
Back in 1992 at the Barcelona Games, Nike was on the other side of the same equation, since Reebok had the rights to the medal-stand attire. When Team USA won the gold in men’s basketball, Michael Jordan, a loyal Nike client, obscured the Reebok logo on his warmup jacket with an American flag during the ceremony. Several other Nike players followed suit. None of this year’s tennis athletes engaged in similar defiance.
Flag Fail: The most uncomfortable moment of the tennis competition took place during the medal ceremony for women’s singles. Serena Williams won the gold—the third of her career (she won her fourth the following day in doubles with her sister, Venus). As custom dictates, a brigade of soldiers mounted the flags of the medalists’ countries, to be raised during the playing of the gold medalist’s national anthem. As you’ve no doubt seen, the flag of the winning country is raised a bit higher than the other two. The problem at the tennis venue is that there are no flagpoles; instead there are three horizontal bars from which to hang the flags. Fair enough—except it seems no one put much thought into the mechanism that would hold the flags onto the bars. They were simple hooks (referred to as “J hooks” in the hardware store because they make the shape of the letter J). The salient point is that they don’t close all the way around. And I’m guessing you know what happened next. Yep, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played and the stadium stared at the flag, a gust of wind whipped through Centre Court and blew the Stars and Stripes off the hooks and straight to the ground.
The crowd gasped.
Serena wasn’t sure what to do. At first she looked startled, then she tried to play it off with a grin, but there’s no sugar-coating the fact that it spoiled her big moment. I was in one of the courtside booths when it happened, and when the ball girl retrieved the fallen flag and returned it the brigade of soldiers, several Americans in the crowd started shouting, “Burn it; you’ve got to burn it.”
I think we’ve all heard that if a US flag ever touches the ground, it needs to be burned. Turns out that’s not true—the flag simply needs to be removed from the ground and cleaned if it has become soiled. Simple enough. Glad these weren’t clay courts. (Carabiners and zip ties were used to attach the flags starting the next day.)
Gold-Medal Sunday: Our tranquil little tennis venue saw the cavalry arrive. The NBC Olympic daytime show decided to originate its program from our tennis studio Sunday. With Roger Federer playing Andy Murray for the singles gold medal, and the Williams sisters competing for doubles gold, the network decided to send Al Michaels over to the All England Club to host the day portion from our place. At the same time, John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, and Ted Robison joined us to call the singles finals, and all of a sudden our quiet little outpost in SW19 was a hustling, bustling TV metropolis. Let’s just say the small office Andrew Catalon, Jon Wertheim, and I had been sharing to change clothes for the first week of the tournament was no longer ours. We were more than happy to cede the ground.
One of the cool byproducts of the NBC influx into the All England Club this past weekend was that Jim Cantore of the Weather Channel came along. He was doing reports on how much the weather would be a factor during Sunday’s events around England. I actually ended up sitting on a couch next to him during a rain delay in the tennis office, and I couldn’t help myself. “Any idea how long this is going to last?” I asked sheepishly, knowing every annoying mook on earth must ask him the same question when it rains. He couldn’t have been nicer. “Going to be on and off for most of the day,” he replied as he gazed down at the radar loop on his laptop. Of course, he was right.
Murray: They tell us not to root for certain people when we’re calling the Olympics, but it was hard not to pull for Britain’s Andy Murray. Just four weeks after losing a gut-wrenching Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, Murray was back on the same court, playing the same opponent for gold. The perennial backdrop to Murray’s tale is that no British man has won Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936, and every year Murray fails to end that drought adds another anvil to the weight he carries around. This wasn’t Wimbledon, but to see him win gold, and to bathe in the warm embrace of the English people—with whom, as a Scot, Murray has long had a complicated relationship—did my heart good. I happened to walk by “Murray Mound” just moments before he clinched the gold, and it was teeming with fans craning their necks to get a view of the match on the big screen and cheer for their man. They erupted when Murray served that final ace. So did Murray’s emotions.
Track Event and Lebron: Sunday night, after the tennis competition wrapped up, I got my first chance to experience the Olympics at a venue other than Wimbledon. I took the tube to Olympic Park and watched the track and field. I saw Usain Bolt win gold in the 100 meter, and I saw Sanya Richards-Ross win in the 400 meter. When they held her medal ceremony and played the anthem, I found myself putting my hand over my heart. It’s not something I always do at home, but something about being abroad made me want to.
By the way, I ran into Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and a couple of the other USA basketball players at the track-and-field event. Check out the photo in the slideshow of Bron Bron getting turned away at the media gate of Olympic Stadium. There has to be some cosmic irony in that image, no?