Before the NBC video feed of the cross-country skiing events at the 2010 Vancouver Games reaches a single American household, it must first flow through a cramped, spare, six by eight foot room perched above the bleachers at Whistler Olympic Park.
Inside, off two small monitors, is where announcers Al Trautwig and Chad Salmela call the action, with the help of their three producers and researchers. No room for lunchboxes—those are outside the door.
Fifty minutes before the start of the men’s 4×10 k relay, Trautwig and Salmela were standing outside in a light drizzle, next to the lunchboxes, engaged in an animated discussion about their picks for the race. Salmela thought Sweden will be tough to beat; Trautwig was pushing Italy. Salmela won the argument, and good thing, too—the Italians ended up ninth on the day.
Nicknames to Tendencies
Just like for the athletes and coaches, the work for the broadcasters begins far ahead of the start of the race.
The night before, and even the morning of, there’s plenty of research to be done, “anything from nicknames, to tendencies,” says R.J. Broadhead, who does the play-by-play for the Canadian television station CTV. He said he prepares for about three hours the evening prior to each event.
In the CTV booth, experience is varied. Broadhead normally calls hockey—though he has been doing more cross-country over the last year and a half, in the lead-up to the Games. But he also has former Canadian National Team coach Jack Sasseville and former Olympic champion Beckie Scott doing the color commentary.
“[Sasseville] sees it from a coach’s perspective; [Scott] sees it from an athlete’s perspective,” Broadhead said. “It’s a nice contrast.”
Next door, in the NBC booth, Salmela is a voluble former elite-level biathlete who now coaches skiing at The College of St. Scholastica, in Minnesota. Trautwig’s realm is mainly basketball and hockey, but he is also a 13-time Olympic broadcasting veteran, having called the cross-country events in Torino and Salt Lake City.
Trautwig and Salmela are aided by two researchers, D.C. Robbins and Hugh Cooke, who sit at the back of the booth, internet connection at the ready. Wikipedia and foreign newspapers are especially handy when an underdog or a newcomer pops a big result—or even makes an appearance at the front, like Ben Koons did last week.
When that happens, the researchers do some digging online, then pass notes up to Trautwig and Salmela, who say they use about 20 percent of what they’re given.
But the researchers aren’t just glorified Googlers. During the men’s 50 k classic, Cooke even had a stopwatch at the ready, which he used to clock one of Petter Northug’s ski switches (seven seconds, for the record).
Taking What They’re Given
While the broadcast booth has a decent view of the stadium, Trautwig and Salmela end up calling most of the races from the two TV screens on the desk in front of them, which is cluttered with water bottles, McDonald’s coffee cups, and handwritten notes from Cooke and Robbins.
One of the TV screens shows what is called the “world feed”—the video shot by Olympic camera crews, then relayed to dozens of stations around the globe—while the other gives live splits from the race.
Everyone gets the same footage—NBC’s video feed is identical to Eurosport’s. Broadcasters can supplement with their own cameras—CTV, for example, has two crews in the stadium that can get shots of Alex Harvey or Devon Kershaw when they race past, but NBC doesn’t have anything extra.
“We’re just taking what they give us here—we’re at the mercy of the world feed,” said Salmela.
That makes it “critical” for the U.S. athletes to ski well, because, according to Salmela, “if the Americans aren’t in it, the world feed’s not going to show it—and we’ve got nothing to talk about.”
Keeping the Americans in the picture isn’t the only challenge for the NBC crew, though.
With coverage usually sliced, diced, and shortened to fit whatever time allotment they get from the head honchos in Vancouver, the announcers have to fit their live calls into pre-arranged chunks, called “segments”—a process Salmela likens to “building a house in a day, and drawing the plans while you’re building it.”
If they mess up, it’s not the end of the world—they can go back and voice over key sections later. But most of the time, Trautwig and Salmela take only take one crack at the calls, and that’s when they’re live—even if the program isn’t slated to appear until hours later.
The Moment of Truth
Cross country skiing doesn’t have the same kind of constant action as a sport like hockey, for example, where players are always making shots, passes, and body checks.
That showed during a commercial break halfway through the 50 k—the longest and slowest event of the Games—when Trautwig and Salmela were chagrined to find out just how much racing remained.
“We’re going ’til noon? Somebody throw us a life vest!” Salmela joked.
But despite the Herculean task of finding something to talk about for over two hours of monotonous pack racing, Trautwig maintained that calling skiing isn’t anything special.
“I think every game is the same, and you just have to wait for the moment that defines it,” he said. “There’s going to come that moment of truth.”
True to his profession, Salmela couldn’t help but chime in himself.
“It’s our job to, just, try to portray that accurately, and warmly,” he said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.