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From Russia with love

Get a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics through the eyes of two Elon alumni and an assistant professor who covered the event.

By Philip Jones

For more than two weeks in February, the world turned its attention to a seaside town in Russia for the XXII Olympic Winter Games.

As an estimated 2,800 athletes spent 16 days in the spotlight in Sochi, two Elon alumni and an assistant professor in the university’s School of Communications played vital roles on teams of their own. If you watched the television coverage of the Olympics, caught a recap online or spotted a photo in a newspaper, chances are you saw and enjoyed their hard work without even knowing it. While their jobs were all very different, there’s one thing they shared: long work days. Think 14-18 hours a day for more than two weeks.

Now that they have returned home, we’ve asked Angie Lovelace Walton ’10, Sean Flynn ’09 and Max Negin, who previously worked at the games in London, Vancouver and Beijing, to share the highs and lows of their Olympics experiences.

Angie Lovelace Walton ’10

Job description: Photo editor for USA TODAY Sports

Primary location: The Rosa Khutor mountain cluster (where events such as skiing, snowboarding and bobsled took place)

Typical day: A typical day lasted around 18 hours. From the first morning event until the last night event, I was in the office editing photos that were being transmitted in real time from our photographers at the various mountain venues. Other than occasional visits to the venues, I saw the Olympics through photographs and live television feeds. Once I received the photos, I edited to determine which ones would be distributed, captioned [them], did minor color and cropping edits and then distributed to clients. The process of my job was the same at the Olympics as it is at the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, etc, but it was a wonderful and new experience to get to edit sports that I don’t see everyday on a beautiful snow-covered backdrop.

How would you describe Sochi? The most surprising aspect of the trip was just how warm it was for a Winter Olympics. While it wasn’t as warm as the temperatures on the coast, the temperature hovered around 50 degrees some days and this presented a problem for many of the venues. Some cross-country athletes competed in shorts as the course below their skis was melting and the half pipe constantly had to be maintained because of the warm temperatures. We had one day of snow toward the end of the games that in my mind really prevented a very difficult situation for the winter venues.

Another aspect of the Games that surprised me was the lack of fans at the events. It seemed to me that this Olympics was for TV, not for attending. Those attending events were either families of the athletes or people who were fairly local.

Was Sochi prepared? Were stray dogs and half-built hotel rooms really that big a deal? For the most part, Sochi was prepared for the Olympics. There were a lot of stories that portrayed facilities that were falling apart or weren’t ready, but there wasn’t a lot of reporting on the things that were complete. I stayed in a hotel that was already built as part of the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort, so I did not encounter any issues. However, colleagues that were working at the coastal cluster did experience some problems. In my opinion, when you’re working the Olympics in a foreign country, you have to be prepared to roll with the punches and go with the flow. A lot of time, there were language issues, but you just point, nod and try to do what you’re being asked.

Prior to the Olympics, there were safety concerns for Sochi, but while I was there I felt very safe. Security was everywhere, which was a good thing. Every time I entered a building or venue, I was searched along with my bags. I was obviously very happy that the Winter Olympics came together without any incidents, but I feel like Sochi was very prepared for the threats they were under.

As a dog lover, the Sochi stray dogs just broke my heart. The family of dogs American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy brought home were living outside of the press center where I worked, so I would see them every day. One of our photographers shot a story on a shelter that many of the Sochi stray dogs were being taken to, but now that all of the media has left, we do not know what became of those dogs.

Julia Krass (USA) competes in ladies' ski slopestyle qualification during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park. Walton calls this image her favorite moment from the Sochi Olympics. Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports.

What's the most awesome thing or moment you saw while you were there? For me my favorite moment from Sochi was more of a favorite photo that I edited.

Photographer Rob Schumacher set up a remote camera during the ladies’ slopestyle skiing event and submitted a sequence of images from a jump by American Julia Krass. When I saw this sequence, I had the idea to compile the photos into a composite using Photoshop. The finished product is something I’m very proud of as an editor because it’s a photograph that really shows the amazing skill and fearlessness of an Olympic athlete.

What will be the enduring memory from your experience in Sochi? After all our work was done, I stayed in Sochi for one day after the Games. On my final day there, I had the opportunity to take a cable car up to the very top of the alpine course. I was at the top of the highest mountain and the view was just breathtaking. It was amazing to me to be on top of this beautiful mountain range and take in the magnitude of God’s stunning creation. In that moment I really understood why Sochi was given the Winter Olympics.

Sean Flynn ’09

Job description: Account supervisor for Ketchum Public Relations (managed global media relations on behalf of Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You, Mom” campaign)

Primary location: The P&G Family Home, a space within Olympic Park that hosted 11,000 moms, athletes, guests and media to get a little taste of home while they were abroad

Typical day: There was no “typical” day, which is why the Games and media relations are so fun. Some days we would host a “medal ceremony” in which athletes would visit the home and present their moms with their Olympic medals to say “thank you!” for the support. Other days we would host National Olympic Committees for luncheons. It was not uncommon to do media tours with Korean athletes, Swedish moms and USA legends all in a single day.

How would you describe Sochi? Sochi was fantastic. The Russians were such gracious hosts and really seemed proud to have the Games in their hometown. Sochi is actually a beautiful resort town right on the Black Sea, so at times it would be 60 degrees while my friends and family back in NYC were dealing with single-digit temperatures. Sochi is more than 1,000 miles from Moscow so it was not how Russia is often portrayed in movies. It was closer to a Mediterranean vibe. The sun was shining, the beach was beautiful and the food was typically lamb kebabs, not borscht. What made Sochi especially unique was its proximity to beautiful mountains so close to the coast. There are few places in the world where you can wake up on the beach, hop on a train for an hour, and then do some world-class skiing.

Was Sochi prepared? Were stray dogs and half-built hotel rooms really that big a deal? Media wants views and clicks so it is understandable that some of the negatives of Sochi were written about, but in reality only a handful of hotels and roads were not finished. My hotel was very nice and comfortable.

We have to remember that these games were so different than Vancouver. Vancouver already had the infrastructure to host a global event. Sochi had to start from zero. They built trains, roads, all the stadiums and even the ski resort! None of that existed before Sochi 2014. That, of course, raises the question of why Sochi was selected to host the Games and I cannot answer that, but I think they did a great job all things considered. 

Yes, there were lots of dogs. Most were pretty cute, but unfortunately Delta would not let me bring one home.

When you see the situation in Crimea in the news and compare the Russia that’s making headlines to the Russian people and places you so recently encountered, what comes to mind? It is a reminder that sport is a universal language. All these countries came to Russia to compete against each other, but ultimately we came closer together as people for a few weeks. It’s the Olympic spirit. I never experienced any negativity toward or from the Russian people while in Sochi.

What’s the best untold story or hidden gem to come out of your time in Sochi? That’s a tough one. We all heard about the Starbucks (I was so jealous) and Gus adopting the puppies. One of my favorite Sochi memories was finding a Karaoke bar and discovering that despite a language barrier nearly everyone in Sochi knows, and loves, the 1999 hit “I Want it that Way” by the Backstreet Boys. You can take me out of Lighthouse (a former tavern in Elon), but you’ll never take the Lighthouse out of me.

What's the most awesome thing or moment you saw while you were there? My favorite moment took place in the P&G Family Home. A Swedish cross-country skier named Charlotte Kalla had just won a silver medal (she went on to win another silver and a gold later in the Games) and she was presenting her mom her medal during a P&G medal ceremony. Charlotte gave this completely honest, emotional speech. It meant so much to both of them. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Check out the 0:11 mark in this recap video:

Oh, and the sunflower seed bars. So weird. So delicious.

Max Negin

Job description: Assistant professor of communications in Elon University’s School of Communications; digital media manager for NBC Olympics

Primary location: International Broadcast Center

Typical day: My responsibilities in Sochi were mainly as a media manager. I helped to develop a workflow of getting clips of events and a variety of feeds from venues and various sources into the system so folks could edit packages, commercials and other elements for NBC. It was my responsibility to make sure the completed, edited elements were delivered to the control rooms for playback. I also trained interns and other members of the production team on operation and workflow. Finally, I was on hand to troubleshoot a variety of issues that might crop up (a missing feed or delivering a finished edited piece under a time constraint). My typical day in Sochi was a twelve-hour shift from 3 p.m. until 3 a.m., although I was asked to stay later on occasion to help finish projects.  When you toss in an hour or so to get to work and an hour or so to get back to my hotel, that didn't leave a lot of time for many other things other than a few hours of sleep and then back to do it all over again. 

Was Sochi prepared? Were stray dogs and half-built hotel rooms really that big a deal? This is an interesting question. As far as the Olympics were concerned, yes, everything was prepared. The venues and the Olympic Park were done. But the surrounding areas were really rough. The bus stop in front of my hotel is an example. When we first arrived, the bus stop was just the frame. Then about a week later, the roof appeared. Then a few days later, the bench and a few days after that, a sign about where you get from that stop. The International Broadcast Center was a little rough, but in the three previous Olympics I have worked, that was kind of par for the course. However, the overall feel was that things were being worked on and built under your feet as you walked around. For example, piles of metal for HVAC systems, patches of dirt that should have had grass, areas of debris from construction and, yes, several dogs roaming around. Was Sochi prepared? Kind of. But you also get the sense that they knew that there was a lot of work to be done for future events (such as the World Cup in 2016).

When you see the situation in Crimea in the news and compare the Russia that's making headlines to the Russian people and the places you so recently encountered, what comes to mind? This Olympics did not have the feel of a world event. Whether it was the difficult location to reach, warnings from the U.S. State Department, or some other feelings, I didn't see huge crowds. I understand security concerns, but it seemed like the vibe was “get people in and out as quick as possible.”

What’s the best untold story or hidden gem to come out of your time in Sochi? I’m not sure how hidden it was, but I enjoyed when Matt Lauer asked if Bob Costas was going to take the “red-eye” home from Sochi. Maybe that they served a lot of pork in the NBC commissary? 

What will be the enduring memory from your experience in Sochi? The most enduring memory of working this Olympics was being able to be behind the scenes of NBC and see all the moving parts that go into putting the Olympics on multiple television networks as well as the Web. To have a fully functioning national studio set up and operating without any huge hitches was an amazing achievement. Without exception, NBC brought the brightest and most talented people from all over the U.S. and the world to produce so much content. I felt blessed that I could be inside the machine and could observe and ask questions of people who were at the top of their game. From directors and talent to graphic artists and producers, the access I had allowed me to bring knowledge and experience back to Elon to share with students and colleagues.

Philip Jones,
4/25/2014 11:45 AM