How to Write an Olympics Story

A few months ago I recommended a hysterical post entitled “How to write a China Article” over at Sinocidal. It’s a great piece, and the underlying point is still relevant: namely, there’s a whole lot of bad, hackneyed journalism about China being produced by first-time visitors with large expense accounts. Now, this sort of comment can come off as sour grapes by journalists with lesser expense accounts (ahem). And, admittedly, that’s what it’s usually about. But even if you don’t obsess over foreign media coverage of China, it’s still possible to appreciate a ringer like this from Sinocidal:

Thankfully, titles for China articles follow a strict guideline, and a catchy media soundbite can be created in seconds thanks to the Sinocidal (TM) China-headline-o’matic. Just choose one of the words from column A, and match it with a random word from column B.

A
China
The Dragon
The East
1.3 Billion People
Red Star

B
Rises
Century
Awakes
Stirs
Does Dallas

 

Truth be told, not all journalism by first-time visitors to China is hackneyed, and some of it is downright sparkling. And considering the fact that the resident foreign correspondent corps is made up of people who were – at one time – first-timers, this kind of criticism can boomerang in unflattering ways. At the least, it’s a good idea to remember that fresh eyes bring clear perspectives.

Which is why I’d like to offer a hearty recommendation for “Olympic China,” the roughly 5000 word sports/business travelogue penned by S.L. Price in the August 13, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated. It is – flat-out – one of the best China features that I’ve read in the last year, and certainly better than anything that I’ve read about the general mood of the country (in regard to the Olympics) from any of the foreign correspondents based in China. I spoke to someone close to the article on Friday, who told me that the piece was based upon a first-time, three-week reporting trip. Price leverages his unfamiliarity with China into a wonderful piece of reporting worth reading regardless of whether you are interested in the Olympics. It’s also a good reminder to the resident foreign press corps that length of residency, language proficiency, and an understanding of cultural mores are no guarantee of good journalism. In fact, sometimes, one or – more likely – a combination of the three, tend to inhibit it.

Anyway, a brief excerpt:

“Please don’t make me do this,” the woman says. “I can’t talk to foreign media.”

She’s right in identifying you, at least. You are distinctly foreign and, notebook in hand and photographer by your side, obviously media, but what she hasn’t picked up on is this: Here in China you feel about as threatening as an infant. A first-time visitor from the U.S., you don’t know the language or mores; you can’t even begin to have a feel for subtleties three millennia in the making. You may as well be deaf, dumb and blind for all the good your senses have done you these past two weeks as you’ve tried to take the measure of a burgeoning nation preparing to stage the costliest, most anticipated, most transformative athletic event in history.

Yet the nose still works, because it twitches, journalistically speaking, at the words your interpreter has just delivered. Can’t talk to foreign media? This is the first official push-back you and your photographer have encountered in a five-city, 2,700-mile jaunt down the country’s east coast, the first hint that the People’s Republic of China — under fire of late for everything from failing to stop the genocide in Darfur to exporting lead-tainted Thomas the Tank Engines — might well be a touchy host for the 2008 Summer Games due to spring open, like the well-oiled drawer of a cash register, one year from now.

You’re no Woodward or Bernstein, but even the lowliest sports hack knows to go — if only to see what happens next. Didn’t the Chinese government announce last December that it was relaxing rules on foreign reporters in the run-up to the Olympics: no minders, no interference, no problem? Yet here you stand just inside the doors of a third-rate mall in east Beijing on a Saturday in June, looking for a word with former marathoner Ai Dongmei, a 26-year-old woman caught in the gap between the old state-controlled sports system and today’s furiously churning market economy.

Read the rest here.