Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Greetings From The NBC Research Room

If I didn't get up and look out my hotel room window I might never know I was in Beijing. But then there's the view…

Outside my window looms the Bird's Nest, that iconic tangle of intertwining beams that make up the shell of the main Olympic stadium. At its peak burns the Olympic torch. Down the road is the Water Cube, truly the temple of swimming. In the evenings the three thousand separate "bubbles" alternate colors, bleeding from pacific blue into seafoam green and then deep purple. Standing in my thirteenth floor room the thought sometimes occurs to me that perhaps alien ships have landed, because these structures are so "other." Or maybe it's more that these buildings give the sense of being alive. It is difficult to explain. I have to make sure to take in the view because I know there may never be another time in my life when I have a view like this.

Maybe that's why I write about it first. Let's lighten things and maybe talk about my Olympic experience, because it's different than the living history our swimmers and coaches are living inside the "Temple." My experience is one of observation, commentary, and context. That's my job. Sitting in a room with some dozen people or so, I don a pair of headsets and bring the swimming up on my computer screen. It's fun because even though I'm not on the scene I'm still behind the scenes. I listen to what the commentators say between the races. I watch them do several takes of any given story before the final cut is taped. During the racing I catch phrases and facts I've researched and supplied. But it is when the racing is over that my job really begins.

My Olympics is about being NBC's swimming expert for 12 hours a day. When the prelims end the phone starts to ring. Nightly News, the Today Show, MSNBC, you name it, they call, asking anything from "What time does Michael Phelps swim tomorrow" to "How many of the world records broken at these Olympics were broken by athletes not wearing the LZR?" This room is like one great game of Trivial Pursuit: The Olympic Edition. Sometimes the big-wigs at NBC call to ask my opinion of something. And that's when I really need to be good because depending on my answer, NBC may make changes to it's live Primetime coverage of the Games. Scary when you think about it.

After a few hours the questions end, typically by about 10:30. I grab a bite to eat in the commissary (a word which my wife told me I pronounce wrong because I place the accent on the first syllable! Oh I love being married!), a place where I've seen everyone from Tom Brokaw to Cullen Jones. The other morning there was a table packed with Secret Service agents prepping for President Bush's arrival. No, I didn't stick around. I needed sleep. At 5 a.m. or so, your body tells your mind what to do, not the other way around.

But beyond all the swimming and the Phelpsian hype, China, like the Bird's Nest and Water Cube, is something other. Not that my experience is emblematic of a typical vacation to Beijing. For one thing, we've had several days of blue skies, something I've been assured is a bit of phenomenon. And everywhere I go someone is there to help me, literally.

In the bathroom at my hotel's lobby there's a man who stands between the sinks waiting to put his hand in front of the faucet's electronic sensor, so you don't have to worry about making the water run yourself. Not like there's even a knob there to deal with. But that's what he does. People man the garbage cans making sure you put the recycling in the right bin. Put it in the wrong one and they fish it out. I found that out my first time throwing something out. That doesn't quite capture it, though.

One day I did have a few hours to myself and hopped on the subway. Other than a Canadian journalist I met, I was the only non-Chinese person in sight. I ventured to "The Pearl Market" where, despite the best intentions, I think I successfully haggled myself into buying some very nice looking fake pearls for my wife. It wasn't until I did some research, post purchase, that I learned I'd probably been duped. Though I'll let her do the teeth test to figure it out on her own.

During my venture I made my way to Tiananmen Square, which sits across the street from the Forbidden City. The Square was closed down and it was too late to get into the Forbidden City, so I just wandered the streets feeling abnormally tall. Two things I noticed: A lot of people smoke cigarettes here, but there's not one cigarette butt on the sidewalk; and babies don't wear diapers but instead have pajamas with a big crack in the bottom…I'll let you figure that out. It's different. But it's the same.

There is a little more than an hour left in my shift and work to be done. But I wanted to write something, even though I know this is long. If I don't get to provide another post then I'll see you stateside.

Be ready to swim!

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