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Jostling across a no-man's-land from the athletes brings out the media's journalistic blood lust as well as their anthropological traits

For those of you interested in how news of these Olympics is unearthed, developed and passed along, you might be amused by a journalism term called mixed zone. This is a provision for informational osmosis whereby athletes, protected by a chain-link membrane, are sometimes (but by no means always) required to pass before (but by no means mix with) a thronging and cacophonous press corps. As you might expect, a crowd of 100 or so journalists trying to garner a quote from Michael Phelps when he's 10 feet on the other side of a fence is not a terribly efficient way to produce a unique story. Or even an accurate one. The journalist five deep, no matter how he strains his ear (or the arm extending his tape recorder), is not likely to re-create the medalist's mumbles in any meaningful way. This may be why the stories you read sometimes don't make much sense.

But the mixed zone, or rather the portal of hell, is necessary to a deadline-driven process during which 21,500 accredited media members must justify their airfare. It's true that a good number of them cover these Olympics from the womblike Main Press Center, a place of unholy incandescence that provides TV monitors for all events, result sheets, beer and toiletries. The MPC is basically a life-support system for an unshaven organism that knows its home-row keys. The real journos, though, must eventually descend to an actual event and, if they have gusto that carries them past being satisfied by a quote sheet, will join the international melee that is the mixed zone.

Besides providing the rare and immediate chance to mingle with the athletes right after the race, the mixed zone mostly serves as a case study in anthropology, in which international differences in language, attitude, interests and personal hygiene--a mixed zone in Athens's 95° heat is truly a melting pot--can be observed among the represented media. Unable to make sensitive distinctions, we find this the best place of all to form stereotypes, and we encourage you to do so as you follow along. Our findings so far:

The Japanese press is deferential yet wildly persistent and has the best gadgets, having been first to come up with a Popeil Pocket Fisherman--like device that extends a microphone over everybody's alarmed heads and directly in front of the athlete's mouth. These inventions are found at the best venues everywhere now. The Japanese also exhibit a surprising sense of cooperation among themselves in what is otherwise a cutthroat forum for personal advancement. After an athlete leaves a clot of 20 or more Japanese journalists at the railing, the clot scuttles slightly off to the side, where a reporter who was close to the athlete repeats the quotes to his or her competitors.

Other nationalities, insofar as they can be distinguished by their equipment and smoking habits, are not usually so agreeable. One USOC p.r. person finds the Germans pushy and prone to occasional fistfights with Austrian and Swiss press, and with each other, of course. It's always the Last Helicopter out of Saigon with them. The British, particularly those from tabloids (and remember, world capitals have many more newspapers than are found in U.S. cities), can be brutally blunt in their questions. The farther north you get, the USOC spokesperson finds, the feistier the journalism becomes. "In general," he says, "if you see people losing it, you can look for a preponderance of European journalists."

Members of the U.S. press, of course, are mostly a self-satisfied lot, happy to be among their fellow elite brethren every four years. They stand in the mixed zone, complain of the ridiculous setup, make dinner plans, throw out retirement dates, inquire about job openings and pretend to share notes. It is a good-hearted paranoia usually; yet there is nothing quite so nerve-racking as departing the mixed zone when a colleague-competitor halts in midstep and says, "Be with you in just a minute," and scurries out of sight. (Now, what could that jackass be up to?)

The mixed zone does produce the odd quote or angle, against all odds. It is amazing that the athletes are not overly startled by these conditions but instead seem to play along. They even seem comfortable enough with the press potpourri that very little, whether it be an astounding ignorance or even an embittered reprisal, can disconcert them as they make their determined way through the mixed zone.

Our favorite example of blithe good temperament: When Dream Teamer Karl Malone was asked, in Atlanta in 1996, why some baskets counted for two points and yet others for three, he famously said in passing, "That's just the way we do it here, my man."

Press conferences, the only other opportunity to query the athletes, are much more formal affairs, which is to say seating is provided. That and the presence of translators--who seem able to boil the athletes' long, anguished answers, perhaps even pleas for expatriation, down to "He is glad to win for his country"--usually encourage more thoughtfulness than is found in the mixed zone. There is even room for international debate. Just last week the U.S. men's basketball coach, Larry Brown, had to sit still for a little zinging after his team struggled to beat Greece, criticism that was in this particular instance based on the false premise that Dallas Mavericks executive and assistant coach Donnie Nelson could be a coach on the U.S. staff. (Nelson is a longtime assistant with the Lithuanian squad.) In a rare show of national solidarity, or perhaps just the American insistence on facts, The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan took the offender aside for a proper browbeating of his own.

Sometimes the discourse is not conducted on an appropriately high level. Early in these Games there was a press conference for Chinese swimmer Luo Xuejuan that got crashed by a second, simultaneous one for 200-meter freestyle silver medalist Pieter Van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands. He rather thoughtlessly and noisily entertained questions from the Dutch press while little Luo, at the same table, gamely tried to complete her own interviews. This quickly degenerated into a yelling match between various media factions, calling across oceans, you might say, during which the adjudicator directing the media at the venue admitted, helplessly, "What can I do?"

No matter the facts of the case, whatever they were, The Australian reported the next day that Van den Hoogenband "has blotted his copybook with an outrageous display of rudeness and disrespect." Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle found cause for national self-loathing in the same incident, describing "smug little coteries" of American press whose behavior was "appalling.... These uglies should know better," the paper decided.

The press conference, like the mixed zone, is just another laboratory for the study of human culture, in which the twin pathologies of sport and journalism collide to reveal distinct national characteristics. After the very first gold medal of the Games, won by China's Du Li in the 10meter air rifle, a member of the Chinese press approached the athlete for an autograph and a picture. A colleague quickly stepped forth with a garment to be signed. It might have turned into a Chinese swap meet had an adjudicator not intervened.

Other nationalities can be less adoring, more demanding. The hard-luck distance runner Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco was in Sydney four years ago, trying to make up for a stumble that cost him national pride in the 1,500-meter event in 1996. Instead he was nipped at the tape in one of the sport's great finishes. A countryman, not exactly lobbing up a softball, opened the press conference as follows: "How do you explain to 30 million Moroccans your failure, your shame?" El Guerrouj simply began weeping.

There are factors beyond nationality, of course, that contribute to these distinct behaviors. Each country's press corps enjoys a different level of cooperation from its federation. In general the U.S. has the best of it, with the USOC providing mostly reasonable access to its athletes. When a big story is developing, as, say, the gold medal success of gymnast Paul Hamm, he is hauled over to the MPC for the benefit of journos tethered to their monitors (and who, frankly, could just as well be covering these Games from Athens, Ga.).

Other nations' Olympic committees, not as well-staffed or well-intentioned, are seldom as accommodating. Thus an interview of Robina Muqim Yaar, who was briefly interesting because she was one of two women representing Afghanistan (though barely; her time in the 100 meters was 14.14 seconds), could only be facilitated by a man with a cellphone, who relayed Yaar's responses. He was later identified as the host of Good Morning, Afghanistan!

This, reported from the mixed zone, is absolutely true. As far as we know.

Says a USOC spokesperson, "If you see people losing it, you can look for a preponderance of European journalists."


Photograph by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images


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