- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

TURIN, Italy — About 10,000 accredited journalists are here at the Winter Olympics, a broad umbrella under which you will find writers, photographers, radio and television broadcasters, technicians, supervisors, assistants and the entire Canadian press corps.

They outnumber the athletes 4-to-1, and unbeknownst to those on the outside, they are involved in their own form of competition, a shadow Olympics, if you will. You won’t see them, but some of these events are more dangerous than curling and much more interesting. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek:

Beat the bus: It’s about an eight-minute walk from the main media center to the press buses, depending on your physical condition, how much stuff you’re lugging around and when you last had the super-giant pizza slice. Competitors try to time their arrival just right and find a seat. Get there too early and you freeze, because the heat is off and the doors are open. Get there too late and you really freeze, because it’s 20 minutes until the next bus.

The paisano pickup: Another bus event, a team competition. The bus that stops to pick up the most friends of the driver at non-designated stops is the winner.

The runaround: Thousands of volunteers and security people stand ready to serve. Most speak little or no English, nor have they been fully briefed on essential matters. Most of the journalists speak little or no Italian. In this competition, the object is to ask the simplest question — such as “Are we in Turin?” — and elicit the fastest response of “I don’t know.”

Sprint de fumar: Between the entrances of the print center and the main media center is about 45 feet of smog-filled outdoor space designated “Cancer Alley.” This is where people, about 99.9 percent of whom are non-Americans, go to smoke. Competitors, that is Americans and other non-smokers only, try to get across as quickly as possible, holding their breath and most of all, trying to avoid getting a face full. Coughing means disqualification, and another face full.

Security scramble: Competitors try to remove their coat, have it pass through the security machine and put it back on the fastest. Degree of difficulty points are awarded depending on the temperature outside. Points are deducted for making fun of the security guards’ uniforms, and they understand.

Wifi wobble: A popular event at the Problemas de Telecomunicaciones venue. Not only are they ripping you off for wireless service — making you pay for a full month when you only need it for less than two weeks — but you don’t always connect. Here, competitors try to log on repeatedly before getting connected, if ever. Fewest attempts wins. Ten tries and you’re out. Twenty tries and you’ve missed deadline.

X (extreme) temperatures: For some reason, you can’t get a hot drink that’s very hot or a cold drink that’s very cold. Competitors vie for the warmest or iciest beverage. Steam rising from coffee is automatic advancement to the medal round. Getting scalded is worth five golds.

Mix mosh: Interviews at venues are conducted in what they call the “Mix Zone,” which is repeatedly compared to a mosh pit. Athletes stand on one side of a barricade, the media on the other. Medals are determined by the extent of bodily damage. Someone’s tape recorder embedded in your ear or a crushed spleen might get you a sponsorship from a health care provider.

I must say, with all modesty, that even though this is my first Olympics, I have won a silver and two bronzes so far. Maybe I could have done even better, but as they say, I’m just happy to podium.

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