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I had the good fortune to work as the Mixed Zone Supervisor for figure skating and short track speed skating at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Although I had worked at four previous Games for the Olympic News Service, this was my first time in this position.
The role of a Mixed Zone Supervisor primarily involves guiding athletes through a restricted area where the writing press wait to speak to them about their competitive performances immediately after they leave the kiss and cry. Basically, it is the place where athletes and journalists ‘mix.’
While a figure skating short program or a 500-metre race in short track may take 2 minutes and 40 seconds and 1 minute and 30 seconds, respectively, it could take a figure or short track skater more than an hour to get through the television and press interviews in the mixed zone at the Olympic Games. Talk about pressure!
In theory, my job was pretty straightforward. Accompany the skaters as they walk through a maze of aisles with a wall on one side and a barrier that separates the athletes from the press on the other. Athletes stop at various places along the way to answer questions posed by journalists. In reality, it was a little more complicated. First of all, there were the egos and sometimes divas to deal with — and those were just the journalists. In PyeongChang, there were between 200 and 300 print journalists covering figure skating and short track. In fairness, they had deadlines and needed to get stories written in a very short period of time to file with their respective publications.
For each event, I had to decide where in the mixed zone to put them. If I thought there were going to be a lot of journalists, then they had to go into a bigger space near a speaker. We often had athletes use a microphone because it was hard to hear them without one. If a journalist couldn’t hear every single word they would shout: “Speak up, I can’t hear,” or “Can you turn the speaker up?”
With only one entrance, used by both athletes and journalists, I had to be always conscious that they were not blocking the narrow pathway that everyone used to come to and go from the area, which was sometimes not an easy task.
The Russian journalists were the most patient as many Olympic Athletes From Russia walked right by them, both figure and short track, without saying a word. While athletes are required to go through the mixed zone, they are not obligated to speak to anyone. On more than one occasion, all the Russian journalists got was a “nyet” (no).
America’s Adam Rippon was one of the biggest hits with journalists. They couldn’t wait for him to arrive in the mixed zone and when he did, he had them eating out of the palm of his hand and laughing most of the time at various and sundry comments he made about his life. Rippon is very media savvy and he used this platform to his advantage.
I had the most sympathy for Gabriella Papadakis of France as she walked through the mixed zone after her costume malfunction in the short dance. She was asked time after time about her costume failure. You could tell the mixed zone was the last place she wanted to be, but she remained stoic. Her partner, Guillaume Cizeron, did most of the talking.
Then there was the Canadian, Gabrielle Daleman. After a seventh-place finish in the short program, a disastrous free skate left in her in 15th place overall. Her appearance in the mixed zone was delayed for some time as she came to terms with one of the worst performances of her career. She eventually appeared and put on a very brave face as she talked to the Canadian journalists.
North Korea’s Tae Ok Ryum and Ju Sik Kim were a big draw, even though they didn’t say a word after the short program. Though I had previously confirmed that the pairs team would speak to the media, that did not happen. They did smile and giggle a lot, however. After the long program, there were so many journalists waiting to speak to them, but the team never showed up. At one point, a North Korean official was about to enter the mixed zone, but was obviously startled by the number of people waiting. All that came out of his mouth was ‘Ah,’ before he stepped back into the broadcast area and out of sight.
The biggest draw in the mixed zone was of course, Yuzuru Hanyu. Anticipating the number of journalists that would want to speak to him after his first session in the practice arena, the Japanese federation decided Hanyu would just walk through the mixed zone on that occasion and not say anything.
The following day, a press conference was held so that he could address the media after his practice session in the main arena. It was a good decision. The room was packed with nearly 300 people waiting to hear, for the first time in months, what Hanyu had to say.
The mixed zone (as per International Olympic Committee rules) is only open to skaters, press attaché and professional journalists who work for newspapers, agencies and magazines and accredited fans who run figure skating websites. No coaches, parents, judges, federation or skating officials, and no one from a television network or radio station (who interview athletes in the broadcast area) are permitted to be in the mixed zone.
So, whom did I have to ask to leave the area? Well, a 1984 Olympic champion, the president of a European figure skating federation, a high ranking Russian federation official and a French Olympic bronze medalist. On two occasions I had to ask a Canadian coach to leave. She subsequently asked someone from Skate Canada who I was and then said, “I don’t like him.”
Sorry, but it’s all about keeping order, otherwise it would be chaos for the journalists and the athletes.
The reason coaches and others are not permitted to be in the mixed zone is to allow the athletes to speak freely about any subject and not be swayed into talking to some journalists and not to others.
One of the most amusing moments was when the Dutch press attaché handed Suzanne Schulting, a short track skater from the Netherlands, a mobile phone as she was walking through the mixed zone after her win in the women’s 1000-metre race. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s the King,” the attaché whispered. Although I let the athlete talk to the King, I told her to make it quick as the Dutch journalists were waiting. Good thing the King was only on the telephone and not there in person. It would have been tough to ask him to leave.
It was a challenging job, but all in all, it was a great experience with journalists getting great material and writing many excellent stories. Mission accomplished.
(© Originally published in IFS May/June 2018)