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.
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.
"Last night, I was crushed for 51/2 hours, but I didn't leave this spot," he says. "There are moments of complete boredom, and there are moments of sheer panic when the winner of a big race comes in and every journalist surges forward and it's like being at a Who concert."
Moseley is no stranger to the discreet charms of the press corps. In real life, he works as a press secretary to Democrats in the Colorado state Senate. But Colorado political reporters are gentlemen compared with the international sports press.
"Politics isn't as brutal," he says. "In politics, the press is highly controlled. They won't squash you up against a barricade."
Also, political reporters don't stink -- at least not literally.
Actually, the problem isn't a lack of bathing. Given a chance, most reporters will generally bathe nearly as often as civilized people. The odor problem here is a laundry problem. Reporters don't have time to do laundry, and Greek hotels charge 6 euros -- about $7.50 -- to launder a shirt. That kind of money can cut into a reporter's all-important alcoholic beverage budget. Consequently, even reporters who squeeze in a shower tend to cover their clean bodies with dirty clothes. In this weather -- it's been in the 90s and sunny almost every day of the Olympics -- that can get funky.
"It gets pretty ripe," says James Christie, a veteran reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail. "If you haven't been able to do your laundry, then you're just warming up what's on there already."
Reporters from all countries have been known to throw an elbow or stomp on a foot, so it's hard to handicap who would win the gold for sheer brutality in the mixed zone. Who gets complained about depends on whom you talk to and which event you're at.
On Monday night, it's the Americans who are swarming into the mixed zone, charging the fence like it was the beach at Normandy. American runners have just swept the 400-meter race -- taking first, second and third -- and everybody in the huge American press corps wants to hear what these guys have to say. The pack at the fence is pressed six bodies deep. Consequently, latecomers -- people who actually watched the event in the stadium instead of grabbing a spot in the zone and seeing it on TV -- are shoving toward the fence like fullbacks fighting a goal-line stand.
"Are you going to be able to hear anything?" an American in the back yells to a colleague about three bodies from the fence.
"I don't know," the colleague replies with a shrug. "It depends."
For several minutes, no athletes appear and the only action in the room is reporters squeezing and shoving for position along the fence.
Now here comes a real live Olympian. From five or six bodies back, you can see the top of his head. The huddled masses surge toward him like Vegas women mobbing Tom Jones. Dozens of reporters stretch to hold their tape recorders near his mouth -- a move that puts their armpits right in their rivals' faces.
By now, several athletes have arrived and they appear to be speaking, although you can't hear a word unless you're in the first few rows.
"I heard something about breaking down stereotypes," one reporter announces, "but I couldn't hear it."
After a few minutes, the athletes move on, heading for their urine tests, while the reporters try to piece together what was said. Somebody wrote down the first part of the dialogue, but the rest is illegible. Other folks got various pieces on tape. They huddle, building a complete quotation by consensus, assembling it from shards, like archaeologists re-creating a piece of ancient pottery.
Watching this process, you begin to wonder: Has it always been like this? Did reporters covering Lincoln's Gettysburg Address work this way?
Did he say "Four score and seven years ago" or "four score and seventeen years ago"?
Is it "our forefathers brought forth" or "our poor fathers brought forth"?
But there's no time for historical reveries. An Englishwoman named Kelly Holmes has just won the 800-meter race, sending a pack of Brit journalists swarming into the mixed zone. No doubt there are gentlemen and scholars in the British sporting press, but some of the ones here appear to be soccer hooligans who have managed to obtain semi-respectable employment.
"This is the worst of mixed zones," one of them grumbles from the back of the pack. "Normally they have a few crimps and bends so you can position yourself in a crafty way."
Another Brit starts to sing: "It's a feed-ding fren-zy!"
Up in front, a female athlete scurries past the mob, avoiding even eye contact.
"Can you stop for just one second?" a scribe begs. "Just one second?"
She keeps going. The scribe tries to give chase, fighting to break out of the scrum.
Now Holmes enters the mixed zone and Ian Chadband of London's Evening Standard hurls himself into the mob, shoving his way toward the fence.
"I'm king of the mixed zone," he calls back to his pals, laughing.
Holmes stops at the fence. She appears to be saying something, although you can't hear it from here.
Chadband stretches toward her, balancing on one foot, holding his tape recorder over the heads of the scrum, his body held aloft only by the shoulders of the reporters he has just assaulted. He looks back at his chums and smiles.
"It doesn't get any better than this," he says.