Skeleton? Nordic combined? Pixies in sequins, twirling on ice? For a reporter eager to do good work, unfamiliarity will breed curiosity that brings jump-off-the-page enthusiasm and vitality to the writing.
So there I was one day, enthusiastic curiosity about to kill me. Not that I knew it, of course, and that’s a story best told by the estimable Tom Callahan, who shared the adventure into the unknown.
"Opposed to walking any time he can ride, Kindred came upon an unattended ski-lift chair in Sarajevo and offered an innocent companion a lift up the mountain.
"‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ I asked.
"‘Absolutely,’ Kindred said.
"Up into the frozen fog we went, higher than we had imagined, until we felt like angels on hooks. As we climbed, the ground gradually gave way beneath us, the chair rising toward the mountaintop, our legs dangling like those of deceased horse thieves.
"‘Is this more dangerous than you expected?’ Kindred inquired cheerfully, hugging the lift chair’s center pole. But I couldn’t speak. It wasn’t until a rider passed by going the opposite way that they simultaneously glanced up and pulled down the crossbar that prevents one from falling off the chair and into snowdrifts containing the frozen remains of wooly mammoths."
Because we knew nothing about downhill skiing, we thought it would be neat to ride the ski-lift to the top of Mount Bjelasnica and see what it looked like from up there. So we did what any curious reporter would do: we just kept moving until somebody told us to stop. When nobody stopped us – maybe they didn’t care if two scribblers fell among the wooly mammoths — we soon found ourselves in the downhill start cabin.
There I heard Callahan say to the man in ski gear, "Throwing yourself off the mountain?"
To which America’s wild-and-crazy downhill hero of that moment, Billy Johnson, nodded toward a hole in the floor and said, "Have a look."
We did. Through the hole that was the racers’ launch point, we saw that the downhill was not just downhill – it was a freefall into icy space. They do this. They really throw themselves off the mountain. I, for one, stopped breathing. This was insanity on slats. No amount of television coverage had taught me how steep the downhill slope was. At the top, it was practically vertical.
So we had learned something. There was no need for us to be experts on fluorcarbon waxes and the most effective beveling of edges; we were writing for newspapers, not high-gloss ski magazines. But we now knew enough to get through the next day’s story, which is to say we knew that only seriously wild-and-crazy people would even think of doing this thing. As a bonus, we had taken most of our readers to a place they had never been – all because we knew that the way to cover unfamiliar sports was to admit ignorance and try to fix it.
Here are Four Easy Ways to Get Smart:
Find an expert.
Ask all the questions.
Pay attention to the answers.
Then write it as if you knew it all along.
The expert may be a coach, an athlete, an administrator, an obsessed fan, or even a journalist. Once, because I knew nothing about soccer and yet was enlisted to write a running game story, I asked the team’s public relations person to sit by me, very close to me, so near that his lips were next to my ear, and tell me why in the name of Pele everyone was cheering when nothing appeared to have happened. For 90 minutes, nothing happened that I recognized as something happening. The game ended scoreless, nil-nil, 0-0, yawn-yawn, but thanks to my soccer whisperer I wrote 25 deadline inches on the strategy, tactics, and nervous-making suspense of the beautiful game.
Shira Springer of the Boston Globe, getting ready for Vancouver’s Winter Olympics, did more than ask an expert. She put herself in a bobsled – not on Whistler Mountain’s killing ice but on the Lake Placid run used for the 1980 games. There, even on a run shortened to limit the sled’s speed for neophyte riders, Springer learned more than she wanted to know.
With a driver in front of her and a brakeman behind, Springer enjoyed the ride at first.
"The bobsled begins to rumble down the ice, gathering speed and growing louder," she wrote. Someone told her the ride would be like an upgrade from an E-ticket ride at Disney World.
"But when my bobsled reaches a top speed of 52 miles per hour, I’m not thinking Disney World or anything close to it. What I’m thinking is not kid-friendly. My run seemed frighteningly fast . . . There is the unnerving sound of the sled rumbling and scratching down the ice, the feel of balancing on a pair of blades, the sight of rushing past track walls at a distance too close for comfort. . . . I felt exposed and vulnerable with little between me and the icy, hard track walls."
At 52 m.p.h., Springer felt a sensory overload that was disorienting. Imagine, then, the experience at Whistler Mountain where the four-man bobs hit 100 m.p.h. As to how fast that is, Shauna Rohbock, the U.S. women’s best driver, put it in technical bobsled terms: "Stupid fast."
My man Callahan thinks heavy research in advance of an event is unnecessary. "I knew nothing about soccer," he says, confessing to a common affliction among American sportswriters of a certain age, "but when I saw Maradona – Mexico City, the World Cup, the year of the Hand of God goal – I knew he was great. He dribbled faster than anyone else could run. He was a little Gayle Sayers. When you see a guy that good, it’s mesmerizing. And you write it."
That is a columnist’s advantage because he’s not obligated to decipher the technicalities of a hand-goal and the controversy accompanying it. He can leave that to the beat reporter whose job calls for exposition and explanation. As the late Jack Mann, a great New York sportswriter, once told me, "Don’t do Abe Lincoln’s politics. Write the log cabin."
And so Callahan and Kindred wrote the downhill start cabin.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295