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So What Do You Do, Brian Cazeneuve?

Sports Illustrated's Olympics guru on the Games, the threats, and why he hated Atlanta.

By Greg Lindsay - August 10, 2004

While most of the American sports media is resigned to tearing itself away from pennant races and football training camps this week to cover the soap opera beginning in Athens on Friday, Sports Illustrated's Olympics beat writer, Brian Cazeneuve, has been preparing for these Games nearly as long as some of the athletes have been in training. Cazeneuve, 38, has been in Athens for almost a week now, laying the groundwork for SI's wall-to-wall coverage of the Games online and in the magazine. He's already picked every medal winner of every event, as he does for each Winter and Summer Games. (And SI football guru Dr. Z thought he had it rough, predicting the Super Bowl winner every year.) Before he left on his Greek odyssey, Cazeneuve spoke to mediabistro.com about the simple matter of covering the sprawling, won't-be-ready-until-Thursday, 28th Olympiad.

Birthdate: December 13, 1965
Hometown: New York City
First section of the Sunday Times: Sports

This isn't just a job for you, is it? It seems like a very specific calling.
I attended the 1984 Summer Olympics as a spectator. And by the end of the Opening Ceremonies, I had resolved that this would be my career, because I was so moved by the energy of the whole thing. Young people from 200 countries were in one place, and there was such a positive vibe about the whole thing. I decided on that day that this was going to be my career. That was July 28, 1984. So I overloaded my college course load at Boston University so I could graduate in three years and be able to attend the Calgary Winter Games. When the time came, I contacted some people at Time and sent them some clips, and there was an editor there who was open to the idea of me contributing to their Olympic coverage. But he said that he was going away for vacation for a while and could I please get him some story ideas? So three weeks later, I gave him a packet of 150 ideas, which I don't think he anticipated, so he said, "OK, you're hired."

For a year I worked with them on the Calgary and Seoul games in 1988, and then I freelanced in Europe for three or four months at a time, basically sending a master list of ideas and events to different papers and wires, and I was very lucky because the first event that I ended up covering was for The New York Times. It was a track meet in Switzerland, and they had not agreed to use me, but they said, well, let's see what happens at the meet. That night there was a world record broken during the very first event, and I happened to be in the stands sitting next to the person whose world record was broken. And both the Mets and the Yankees were rained out that night—both in different cities—so it ended up being the lead story in Sports.

Three records were set during that summer, and I happened to hit all of them just by chance. So I did some work for the Times, which at the time they did not have a full-time sports person in Europe. I did some for The Washington Post, the AP, Reuters, and Time, and I think by the time I came back and added up my income and expenses over four-and-a-half months, I was $17 ahead, which was thrilling, because it meant that I hadn't gone into great debt. I did that for a couple of summers and during the winters I covered the Knicks, Jets, and Rangers for the AP, and I also edited a hockey magazine. And I kept building up different freelance clients until SI called me in 1995. I've been working for them since 1995. It's not a job, it's a passion. And it's great to be able to do it.

Where are you staying in Athens? I've been reading that a number of guests will be housed in cruise ships because they couldn't even finish the hotels in time.
We are staying at a hotel in the tourist section up the city, and it's funny because one of the wings of the hotel apparently wasn't finished. I think some of us who were planning to stay there have been moved to another hotel, and I know that some people on our publishing side are staying on a cruise ship. Hopefully when we arrive they won't ask us to take out a hammer and nails.

Are these Games the culmination of two years of work? Is this a personal crescendo for you, or just another—admittedly huge—story?
This isn't really like anything else in the sense that sometimes you have an Olympic cycle in which you might write about a particular athlete or a particular story, and then the storyline changes immediately after the Games are over. I think the public's appetite for Olympic sports is voracious for a couple of weeks, and then the people sort of disappear from public view. It's great if you get a chance to follow these people year-round and get to learn their stories and tell their stories to people in advance of the Games.

What makes the Olympics different from baseball, football, and basketball is that, because you have so many different sports and so many different cultures, you don't have to tell the same story twice. If you are interviewing baseball players all the time, for example, their interest in talking to you is going to be limited. They feel they've heard the questions before, so there's very little you can do that is unique for them that will keep their interest and encourage them to give you a good story. I also think that because an Olympic athlete is not well-compensated for what he or she does, that they're not very spoiled and they're very grateful for the coverage they receive. And because there aren't that many people after them in the noncompetitive months, if you get people during that time, you get an exclusivity and an access that allows you to tell a pretty compelling story that hasn't been told yet. That's what I enjoy about covering the Olympic beat year-round. I've covered every winter and summer games since 1988 in Calgary.

But is it like other sports reporting? So much of Olympic reporting is purely human-interest driven. You don't read thrilling stories about an actual decathlon, or see fencing highlights on SportsCenter.
I think that people who dedicate their lives to something as noble as competing in the Olympics in fencing have interesting stories to tell. I don't think it's necessary to throw statistics at people the way you would throw batting averages at a baseball fan. These are, in many cases, people with Ivy League backgrounds putting their careers on hold to go after something that will not make them any money even if they win gold medals. It's compelling. Why would people want to do that? What about the romance of it, the pursuit of it, makes people want to do this? I think that if you tell that story, it doesn't matter if that athlete is a fencer or a judo player or a rower or a wrestler. You're telling a story of a young person who is very dedicated to something and who has arrived at that point in their lives because they have a focus that not everybody has. What is it that compels somebody to do that? I think that's different than somebody who swings the bat four times a game, and his numbers are .280, 20 homers, and 80 RBIs. Great, but what's his story?

Much has been made about the threat of terrorism to these Games in particular, but people seem to forget that terrorism is always a threat—Munich in '72, of course, but there was also the bomb in Atlanta in 1996. How does the threat in Athens stack up historically?
There were some pretty energetic student protests before the games in Seoul, where students were throwing rocks and firebombing a couple of stores. There was concern about the Basque separatist movement before the Barcelona Olympics, and there was concern even before 9/11 about a group in Athens called the November 17th Group. They are anti-American, anti-Western, and they have carried out a number of assassinations over the past year in Greece. The Games are certainly a tempting target for anyone who wants to make a statement. Because we are more aware now of how high the stakes are, people are more aware of Olympic security than they would have been in the past. I don't think too much has been made of the story, because obviously if there is a major incident it will greatly affect, if not end, this year's Games.

Once you arrive in Athens, how will you approach the Games? What are SI's reporting logistics like?
I believe we have 11 writers and as many photographers going, plus technical people and a couple of editors. We're going to have a fair number of pages in our issues during the Games, which I'm certainly happy about, and we also have to write for our website, SI.com. What we'll do is hit the ground and—especially for the website and for the first week—try to gather up snapshots of things that happen in Athens. I'll go to the athletes' village, I'll probably try to spend some time with an athlete's family, try to go to a training session, spend some time talking to the U.S. flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies, and try to give people a sense of what it's like to be there, and what makes the Olympics a unique experience.

Once the Games start, we will have sports specialist writers ready. We will have one person dedicated to track and field, another to swimming, another to gymnastics, another to basketball, another to boxing. And we will cover some of the smaller sports on an as-needed basis. And other sports may evolve into stories as the Games progress. That's part of the charm of the Olympics—you can be in one place and something magical happens in another place that you didn't anticipate, and so you're scrambling to find out what happened and trying to be there. It's a lot different from covering a world championship, where everything is centrally located. That's how we'll go about it. We'll have a plan and obviously we'll have to freelance a little bit as the Games progress and the stories evolve.

What do you think about the perception of the most recent Games as a giant, made-for-TV spectacle? The Atlanta Games in particular were perceived as a prime-time soap opera.
Of all the games I've been to, I will say this: Atlanta was very poorly run. I think we do not appreciate in the United States how badly those Games were perceived in the rest of the world—as more of a carnival than an Olympic Games. Part of the problem is that we had a lot of local people running the Games as opposed to people who'd run them in the past, people who understand what the Olympics are about. It's not a Super Bowl; it's 28 Super Bowls. It's the Super Bowl-World Series-NBA Finals-Stanley Cup. Put them all together, they still don't equal an Olympic Games in terms of logistical preparation. You have people from all over the world, so many languages and so many cultures you have to account for and so on.

I think the Salt Lake Games, in 2002, were very well run, and did a lot toward improving people's perceptions of the way Americans can run an Olympic Games. They were not too big, they were not too carnival-like, the focus was on the sports themselves, and not on the athletes, and also it was in a place where they had held a lot of Olympic events before.

In Atlanta, when they built the main stadium, for example, it was built for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. It just so happens that the Olympics were passing through. None of the facilities—even those that were built at the time of the Olympics—were built for Olympic sports.

I think, given the Greek ties to the history of the Games, that they'll treat the games with great care. They'll come off well because the people there care specifically about the Olympics as a movement, rather than just the 2004 Olympics as just an inconvenience in their city.

How can you possibly predict every medal winner of every event? How long does it take for you to do that, and what reporting do you draw upon?
Well, it's a lot of phone calls. In many cases, I talk to people who are experts in a particular sport. Some are athletes, former athletes, and coaches, and I get their input and that's critical. You pore over results, you talk to [Olympic] Federation people about the health of various athletes who you hear have been injured, and you're constantly adjusting. And even when you adjust, things happen. Since we came out with that issue, one gold medallist is out with an injury, and another had a drug test that's knocked him out. Another person with an injury that was supposed to be minor is now hobbled a little more than we thought. So those things happen. But you ask a lot of questions, you get a lot of input from people, you try to get more than one voice in a particular sport, and you keep very good files.

I can't imagine. I thought Paul Zimmerman had it tough predicting the NFL every year.
Yeah, well, Dr. Z. is all over football. Let's see him deal with fencing and sailing.

Greg Lindsay, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily.



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