PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – I was in our office in the Main Press Centre when Chloe Kim clinched her gold medal Tuesday morning. I had opened the office for the day, and therefore seized control both of the remote and of my first channel-flipping experience in some time. I decided against the channel showing a constant live shot of a tree on the East coast of Korea in favor of the women’s halfpipe final. This was the right choice.
Because of that decision, I knew the exact moment when the U.S. had added another medal to its tally – and knew that was the exact moment that the iconic guitar riff at the beginning of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” blared from an unknown nearby office. We had heard the song play after an American medal before, but we never felt much need to investigate.
The Washington Post’s office is right next to Team USA’s press office, which has couches and big screens from which to keep track of it all. We are bordered on the other side by an office dedicated to the Olympic Athletes of Russia. I made what I felt was the reasonable assumption that the speakers were in Team USA’s office somewhere. I tweeted that conclusion. I was wrong. Team USA’s head press man, Mark Jones, came to correct me.
“We don’t know who it is either!” he said before speculating, as I had, that it probably wasn’t the Russians. As of late Tuesday night our time, we still hadn’t solved the mystery, though we didn’t try too hard. With the athletic schedule now in full swing, we don’t spend much time in our temporary office these days.
Anyway, I fall into what I hope is a large group of people who would say that playing “Party in the USA” when an American fares well is all in good fun. But most American media outlets avoid showing any kind of alignment with any athletic team at all. Inspired by the Miley mystery, I spent most of my four bus rides today thinking about a subtle but fascinating aspect of covering the Olympic Games: the tug of war between rooting and reporting.
This might be obvious, but in the United States, the going theory of sports journalism is this: a reporter is never a fan. A reporter must be an unbiased observer. For example, baseball beat reporters spend more time with the team they cover than with their families. Many reporters have told me they root for good storylines. The more honest among them will admit they root for good games. But most reporters I’ve spoken to can say that they are not fans of the teams they cover – even if they respect the people involved.
No one had to tell me that this was how we would approach the Olympics. As with the Nationals, I have been well-drilled in the long-standing tenet of sports writing: any allegiances born of familiarity can be used to inform coverage, but not influence it. As for cheering in the press box – well, there is literally a book with a title that declares that off-limits, whether at the Olympics or anywhere else. But as I’ve learned this week, the American book on this subject reads differently than others.
At the Opening Ceremonies, for example, I was surprised to see journalists from a large number of different and varied countries (and continents) openly rooting for their countries as they walked in, dancing to the music, cat-calling like crazy. Some of the media members here wear the same officially sanctioned gear as the athletes from their countries. To be fair, if I were a Canadian reporter, I would do my best to secure a pair of Team Canada’s bright red Under Armour boots – which are, for lack of a better word, bomb. But I digress.
I’m describing a different approach to coverage, not ridiculing this approach as the wrong one. Everyone does it differently. Many American reporters here talk about the apparent rooting tendencies of their global colleagues. I’ve heard this is a biannual topic of conversation. So it was only a surprise to me because I’ve never been to an Olympics before – and because so much of covering American professional sports is about acting like you’ve been there before, no matter what.
And so frankly, I don’t feel much compulsion to solve the mystery of “Party in the USA,” at least not beyond ruling out the Russians. Other than that, to put it simply: Who cares? It’s funny. It’s fun. But it’s also out of the norm for someone used to the usual, cynical, stoic American press box. I am one of those people. As with most things at the Olympics, things are a little different, the lines are drawn differently, and the speakers are turned up a little louder.
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