Behind The Stories

Into the Rapids: Covering the Olympics

NPR's Tom Goldman using the new portable desktop soundbooth while filing an Olympic news spot in London. i

NPR's Tom Goldman using the new portable desktop soundbooth while filing an Olympic news spot in London. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR
NPR's Tom Goldman using the new portable desktop soundbooth while filing an Olympic news spot in London.

NPR's Tom Goldman using the new portable desktop soundbooth while filing an Olympic news spot in London.

Howard Berkes/NPR

The unofficial sport of the Olympics has to be the reporting. As the world is focused London, reporters, editors and photographers are jumping hurdles, serving up aces, and keeping their eye on the goal: getting the story behind every thrilling victory and agonizing defeat.

NPR's team on the ground in London will include Reporters Howard Berkes, Tom Goldman and Mike Pesca. Deputy National Editor Vickie Walton-James, London Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent Phillip Reeves, along with others back here in the States will assist in the coverage on NPR programs, and NPR.org, including a new blog: The Torch.

Just before they left for London, 'This is NPR' caught up with three of NPR's Olympic team - Tom Goldman, Howard Berkes, and Vickie Walton-James - to find out how they'll be covering the Games and what competitions they are most anticipating.

Meet the Team

Howard Berkes
NPR Rural Affairs Correspondent

Olympics Covered:
'84 Summer Games in Los Angeles
'88 Winter Games in Calgary
'00 Summer Games in Sydney
'02 Winter Games in Salt Lake City
'04 Summer Games in Athens
'08 Summer Games in Beijing
'10 Winter Games in Vancouver

Anticipated Events and Athletes:
Swimming: Phelps v. Lochte, up-and-comer Missy Franklin
Badminton: first ever medal for USA in men's doubles?
Women's Judo: gold medal for USA?

This is NPR: What is your training regime leading up to the Games?

Howard Berkes: One thing I did was to attend a pre-Olympic event in Dallas in May. There were 100 athletes from Team USA in a three-day, non-stop news conference and athletes demonstrating their sports. I got to talk with the athletes and learn about new athletes.

Vickie Walton-James
NPR Deputy Editor, National Desk

Olympics Covered:
London will be her first

Anticipated Sports and Athletes:
Track and Field: Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, runners from Kenya
Swimming: Micheal Phelps and Ryan Lochte
Women's Weightlifting

Vickie Walton-James: I've been working with our correspondents to map out what we are going to cover and also meeting with show and web editors about what we'll cover and when. There is lots of coordination to make sure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Tom Goldman
NPR Sports Correspondent

Olympics Covered:
'92 Winter Games in Albertville
'96 Summer Games in Atlanta
'98 Winter Games in Nagano
'00 Summer Games in Sydney
'02 Winter Games in Salt Lake
'04 Summer Games in Athens
'06 Winter Games in Torino
'08 Summer Games in Beijing
'10 Winter Games in Vancouver

Anticipated Events and Athletes:
Follow up from Beijing: Phelps or Lochte or another swimmer? Usain Bolt: can he keep it up?
Track and Field Events
Men's and Women's Basketball
Women's Boxing - new sport this year
Rowing - one of the events England is expected to do well in

[During the week before the Games,] we are going to touch base with [NPR's London Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent] Phillip Reeves in London. That week will be key in terms of getting things organized and off to a good start.

Tom Goldman: I'm trying to get a good overview of what's going on, get the logistics, and keep up with the stories.


TiN: What is the most exciting thing to you about the Olympics?

HB: There will be something that happens that none of us can imagine right now. An athlete does something completely amazing that no one thought possible of a human or that athlete in particular. An athlete that comes out of nowhere. I'm excited about the sports I'll be covering. It's like compressing a year's worth of news in 17 days.

VW-J: I'm looking forward to all of it. I'm a huge fan of the Olympics. It'll great to be in London where all the action is. The Olympics offers an opportunity to get together and watch. It's a communal experience. Or can be. There is something for everybody, even if you aren't a sports addict.

TG: That there is no way to predict is what gets me excited. There will be amazing moments. 17 days and every day is a new drama. The Olympics have an amazing capacity to write a new history every day. A scandal, outstanding performance or something else. There is always something different.

Also, I'm looking forward to covering sports that are new to me. Each sport has its own culture and is surrounded by people who know the nuance of the sport. It's neat to discover these little worlds.

TiN: What will covering the Games be like for you?

HB: One thing I like about the Olympics is encountering people who are smart, driven and so excited. Gymnast Gabby Douglas is like that – a 16 year old, African American from Virginia Beach, VA. She finished at the top in the US Olympic Trials. She is so excited. So bubbly about going to the Olympics. It's really refreshing.

VW-J: My role is to work with the reporters and show editors to make sure we are covering all the right things and that those pieces, blogs, and two-ways go to the right places. Also, I'll be editing the stories from the reporters in London. And I'll be blogging; trying to get out and about and off the beaten path to find the quirky or interesting things. I don't think there will be any shortage of those stories. That's the great thing about the Olympics – the athletes, their families and the fans from all over the world. The challenge will be to have enough hours in the day to tackle all of them.

TG: Once the Games start, you get sucked into the rapids. You really just dig you paddle in and go for it. You aren't going to sleep. You just go nuts and cover everything you can. Work first, health and sleep later.


TiN: Howard, this is your eighth Olympic Games, how will these games be the same or different?

HB: Every Games are different. The athletes are different. I'm looking forward to having Mike Pesca and Vickie Walton-James. Vickie has the demeanor you want in your editor when you are working 12-20 hour days. She's very calm and has a good news sense and editorial judgment. Mike has a great cock-eyed view. He's funny. The stuff coming out of his mouth will be different. It will be fun for us.

It used to be we just did radio. It's a demanding news cycle – every show will want one or two items. NPR.org provides an insatiable 24 hours of constantly changing updates. There are tons of possibilities. The Games themselves are bigger and more complicated and have greater demands. But we aren't complaining. We love it.


TiN: Do you prefer to a huge upset by the come-from-behind underdog? Or a powerhouse living up to expectation and hype?

HB: I like the underdog. The completely unexpected happening. The kid who no one is writing about, who upsets the favorite in a performance of a lifetime that will never be matched.

At the Olympic Trials for the decathlon in Eugene, Oregon, Ashton Eaton, a local athlete from the Oregon Track Club broke the world record. The guy with the high expectations isn't even going to London.

I think that is what is so exciting about sports. On any given day, any athlete can do something amazing and make their bodies break a record. Those with great expectations are getting all the attention and money. There are so many other athletes who are toiling and working just as hard to scrape to get by. I like to see those people get attention and succeed.

VW-J: That's hard. I like the close ones, the nail-biters!

TG: Oh, the huge upset. David and Goliath. The unexpected; the team out of nowhere. Strike me down, but I'd love to see the USA go down in basketball to Korea.

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