Secrets of short track speed skating

March 31, 2002|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

HAVE YOU EVER wondered how professional journalists cover an international sporting event? Too bad, because I'm going to tell you.

In February I spent three weeks at the Winter Olympics in Utah ("Where the Party Never Stops Until 8:30 p.m."). I was part of the press corps swarming around in thermal underwear, asking penetrating questions such as: (1) Who won this event? (2) How can you tell? (3) What is this event called again?

As you can see, the Olympic press corps does not always have a solid grasp on the events it's covering. Take, for example, "short track speed skating." This is one of those sports that nobody you know has ever heard of, let alone participated in. You suspect that the Olympic organizers invent these sports just to see if they can trick the press corps into covering them. Clearly this was the origin of curling ("I know! Let's have the competitors flail the ice with brooms!" "No! Even the press corps isn't stupid enough to fall for that!").

I spent two nights watching short track speed skating, and I never did figure it out. It consists of people skating around very fast in a little circle, bent way over, with their faces almost touching the skater directly ahead, looking like performers in a musical extravaganza called "Proctologists on Ice." So far, so good: It appears to be a race.

But almost always, just before the end of the race, most of the competitors would fall down. So the winner often turned out to be a competitor who, until the end of the race, had not been at all competitive. One much-publicized Olympic short-track event was won by an Australian man who, many eyewitnesses believe, was not even in the race, because it is a known fact that there is no ice in Australia.

On those rare occasions when the leading competitors failed to fall down, the apparent winner would cross the finish line, skate around triumphantly for maybe a minute, and then ... get disqualified. I am serious. In the key races I saw, the officials invariably declared that the winner had violated some rule, and therefore somebody else was the actual winner. Then, no matter who had won, a formal protest would be filed by Korea.

So imagine you're a journalist covering this event. You watch the big race. At the end, the ice is littered with fallen proctologists. Out of this chaos, a random winner emerges, and is immediately disqualified, at which point the formal Korean protest is filed. The crowd, 13,000 people, is on its feet, going: "Huh?"

And now you, the journalist, must write a story on this. Step one is to ask the journalists around you if they have any idea what just happened. (This is basic journalism procedure; it's what enables journalists who cannot correctly fill out their mileage reimbursement forms to write stories about the collapse of Enron.)

Once all the journalists have determined, by interviewing each other, that nobody has the faintest clue how short track speed skating (or Enron) works, it's time for the entire press corps to race downstairs and interview the participants. But no matter what question the participants are asked, they'll shrug and respond: "That's short track!"

This is how they explain the falling down, the disqualifications, everything. If an alien spacecraft crashed onto the ice and a 75-foot- high two-headed lobster popped out and sang "My Way," the skaters would shrug and say: "That's short track!"

At this point, you, the journalist, race back to the media workroom, where you risk being decked by microphones wielded by angry roving Korean TV crews, who are demanding some answers on this gigantic story, which has both North and South Korea on the brink of declaring war on somebody. Somehow you must ignore the bedlam around you and, in minutes, produce your authoritative story, armed with only two facts: (1) Nobody knows what happened; and (2) Whatever it was ... It was short track!

This is the kind of heroic effort that we in the media made night after night at the Winter Olympics, so that the next day's newspaper would have a story that you, the reader, could ignore, because you don't care about short track speed skating. Not that you should! It's a minor story, really. Until the missiles start arriving from Seoul.

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