ATHENS, Aug. 24
Outside, under the bright lights of the Olympic Stadium, the crowd roars as runners approach the starting blocks for the men's 400-meter race. But down here in the bowels of the stadium, a far more brutal competition is already underway -- a no-holds-barred body contact sport that is far too gruesome to be shown on TV.
This is the "mixed zone," an airless subterranean concrete walkway where print reporters line up along a metal fence for a chance to interview athletes as they walk from the track to the room where they must produce a urine sample for drug tests. Space is limited along the fence, and hundreds of sweat-soaked reporters from around the world jostle, shove, elbow and stomp each other, fighting to seize and hold a position where they might possibly hear an athlete stammer out a cliche about God or mom or an injured hamstring.
Colombia's Digna Murillo, center, and Slovenia's Alenka Bikar, laugh in the press's mixed zone after 200-meter heats.
(Photos Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
The mixed zone combines the worst aspects of a rugby scrum, a mosh pit and the New York subway at rush hour. It is a place that confirms all the worst stereotypes about reporters -- they are pushy, they are obnoxious and their personal hygiene leaves a lot to be desired, at least here.
In the mixed zone, the unruly battle the unwashed for a chance to hear the inarticulate utter the inaudible.
"It's nasty, it's smelly, it's stinky, it's rude, it's vile and a lot of the stuff that goes on here would get you arrested out on the street," says Bob Padecky, a veteran Olympics reporter for California's Santa Rosa Press Democrat. "Half the people in here, if they've ever showered, it's been a while."
Padecky's on a roll. He's just emerged from a cacophonous, malodorous mob in the mixed zone and he's eager to vent.
"You feel like you're getting battered by hurricane-force winds that have just blown through a garbage dump," he says. "You smell something bad and you're pretty sure it's not you. But you figure you should take a better shower tomorrow because you're picking up a whiff of Belarus."
Actually, mixed zones are not all bad all the time. Sometimes, they can be downright inspiring. You watch as athletes from three nations stand side by side giving interviews in three languages, and your heart swells with pride at the brotherhood of man. But then some lout with a press pass slams an elbow into your gut to get to a guy who finished seventh in a semifinal heat, and you want to wipe out his entire nation with a nuclear strike.
All Olympic events have mixed zones and most, if truth be told, are fairly peaceful. Go to a preliminary event of an obscure sport and you can engage in long, civilized discourse with an athlete. But at the major events -- swimming, gymnastics, track and field -- mixed zones are mob scenes.
The mixed zone at the recently concluded swimming competition carried an added whiff of danger: The combination of metal fences, electrical cables and pool water in close proximity caused much speculation that the entire aquatic press corps could suddenly be electrocuted with a boom that might blow out the Athens power grid.
But that didn't happen, and those reporters have lived to see another day, another mixed zone -- like this one here in the hot underbelly of the stadium, where a scrum of scribes battles to get close enough to hear Allyson Felix, the American who just won a preliminary 200-meter race, reveal the philosophical underpinning of the U.S. track team:
"We're just trying to do the best we can"
Squashed against the fence in front of Felix is Matt Moseley, who is taking a beating as he holds two tape recorders up to Felix's mouth. Moseley is a volunteer working for the U.S. Olympic Committee Web site. His job is simple but tough: He's supposed to hang on the fence at the start of the mixed zone and get a quote from every American athlete who passes by. Then he hands that tape recorder to a colleague, who runs off to type the quote into the team Web site, while Moseley does the same thing with another athlete, another tape recorder.