News & Politics

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.

Photographs courtesy of 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.