Nancy Barnes: Get ready for the swirl of the Olympics

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • August 2, 2008 - 4:15 PM

The summer Olympic Games, coming just every four years, captivate the public's imagination for so many reasons. We fall in love with the stories of the individual athletes, many of whom sacrifice their youth and much of their personal freedom to strive to be the best in the world. We live vicariously through their triumphs and setbacks. The setting of the Games always brings its own stories, sometimes wrapped in political drama, intrigue or even danger. The pageantry, and the union of athletes from all over the world, provides an opportunity for people to forget we live in times troubled by war and terrorism and to celebrate something as simple and magnificent as physical excellence and personal achievement.

This year's Games, however, have the added dimension of taking place in China, a communist country that is willing itself by sheer determination out of third-world status. China has been preparing for this moment for years, spending billions to remake its infrastructure and present to the world the emerging superpower it wants to be. Its leaders want the world to forget about Tiananmen Square and see instead the Red Star rising.

The world's press, already skeptical, will be putting China to the test as it arrives this week to cover the 29th Olympic Games. How China stands up under that scrutiny and whether it fulfills its promises to allow the press to freely cover the Games is one story line we all will be following. At the same time, though, nobody wants the story of China to eclipse that of the athletes.

The Star Tribune will send three journalists to the Olympics this year: two veteran sports reporters, Jim Souhan and Rachel Blount, and photographer Carlos Gonzalez. Their goal will be to cover the stories the national press will not, the stories of Minnesota's athletes. But, of course, even these stories cannot be told without the context of where and how these Olympics will take place. Our coverage begins today, followed by a special section on Wednesday that will feature local athletes. Starting on Saturday, we will provide four pages of daily coverage in the Sports section, with the sports cover devoted to the Olympics and a second cover-style page inside for regular sports content.

We have been preparing to bring this coverage to you for nearly a year. Reservations and credentials were made many months ago, as we started to scope out the angles of the stories we most wanted to cover. We have a high school wrestler who could become a national story. Track athletes Shani Marks and Kara Goucher both struggled through injuries and tough times to make it to their first Olympics; Minnesota is also sending rowers, a women's basketball player, an equestrian and two volleyball players. But the reporters know that the best stories are likely to be the ones nobody can predict.

This will be Souhan's second Olympics -- he covered the Winter Games in Turin, Italy, two years ago -- and it will be Blount's sixth. Souhan isn't quite sure what to expect heading to a communist state where the games will be run by the government instead of by the host city. China is both a target for protests about its policies toward Darfur and Tibet, he points out, and a subject of sympathy after the recent earthquake that killed thousands. He's been warned by friends to expect listening devices in his room and to be wary of criticizing the government. But most of all, he's looking forward to covering the sports. He recalls covering hockey in Turin and being surprised at the different ways each nationality enjoys the games.

"When you cover major-league sports in the United States, you become accustomed to routine, clichés and angry fans. For every fan who quietly enjoys an American sporting event, there are 10 who scream, jeer athletes and spend their free time spewing venom online.

"So it was with glee that I covered the men's hockey tournament at the Turin Olympics. The best players in the world divided up not according to employer, but according to birthplace, and played with far greater passion than you'll ever see in the middle of an NHL season.

"But the biggest difference was the fans. European hockey fans treat every game as a party. A Halloween party. They show up wearing funny hats, waving funny noisemakers, and cheering even when their team is losing.

"This prompted a strange thought: Sports are supposed to be fun?"

Blount's first assignment to cover the Olympics came when she went to Nagano for the 1998 winter games. Those games were particularly poignant for her as a female sportswriter in a field dominated until this day by men. She watched as the U.S. women's hockey team won the gold in the first year in which women's hockey was a medal sport. "Several of us got very choked up when the U.S. won. I felt very privileged to cover an event that felt like a milestone in the development of women's sports in the U.S."

She also remembers how touching it was to be in Sydney as the Aussies cheered on Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal track star. "Freeman -- a descendant of people who were terribly abused by white Australians -- became a national symbol of pride and a huge star. The whole country went crazy when she lit the flame at the opening ceremony and went even crazier when she won the women's 400 meters. It was the people's way of recognizing Aboriginals' contributions and worth to Australian culture and an instance of how the Olympics can influence societal change."

Heading toward China, she is wondering what stories these Olympics will bring. And like most of us, she is wondering if the Chinese will allow the Olympics to truly be a catalyst for change in their own land.

The world will be watching. And so will we.

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