THE BLOG
27/07/2012 06:07 BST | Updated 25/09/2012 06:12 BST

Give the Games a Chance: Sydney and Athens Tempered My Olympic Scepticism

When I landed in Sydney to cover my first Olympic Games, the signs were not encouraging. The signs in question said "Olympic Family" - pointing the way through the airport for all of us involved with the 2000 Games.

When I landed in Sydney to cover my first Olympic Games, the signs were not encouraging. The signs in question said "Olympic Family" - pointing the way through the airport for all of us involved with the 2000 Games. Having covered the Salt Lake City corruption scandal, I was not a big fan of the International Olympic Committee. If they were my family, I thought, I'd put myself up for adoption.

In short, I was an Olympic sceptic. There seem to be a lot of those in London these days and they have plenty of grounds for grousing. But, based on my experience in Sydney, and Athens four years later, it's worth giving the Games a chance.

I was sent to Sydney by Reuters as a general news reporter. Editors feared the Games could be plagued by violent protests and organisational problems. But everything went smoothly and there was very little hard news to report. I left veteran general news correspondents to scrap over who would pick up local media stories about alternative mascot Fatso the fat-arsed wombat and was sent off to cover some sport.

That is, after all, what the Olympics are meant to be about and it turned out to be hugely enjoyable. To my surprise, I particularly enjoyed the lower profile sports.

I had reported on football for years and was fed up trying to coax quotes from arrogant and wary professional players. At the Olympics, I met athletes whose love for their sport was obvious and who were delighted to speak to the media. After years of slogging away without recognition, trying to fit in training around jobs and family, these people finally get to enjoy a little limelight at the Olympics. They are ordinary people working incredibly hard to do extraordinary things.

For some reason, Timea Nagy, a bookbinder from Budapest who won a fencing gold in 2000, particularly sticks in my mind. She confessed she'd only taken up the sport in her teens because she fancied a fencer.

Covering the Olympics for a big international news agency is a plum assignment. But it's not easy.

Reporters for the agencies such as Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Press have been described as "the downtrodden peasants of the modern journalistic class structure". Under intense time pressure, they're the ones who gather much of the raw information used by newspaper and television reporters, commentators, columnists and bloggers.

At the Olympics, they have a special role. While most journalists focus on athletes from their own nations, the international agencies mount a huge operation to cover every sport and every medal awarded. War correspondents and bureau chiefs are pulled away from geopolitics and conflict to report on gymnastics and kayak.

This may seem strange but it has a certain logic because for a few weeks every four years, millions of people decide they care more about minority sports than they do about world affairs - particularly if their nation has a chance of a medal.

The switch from the day job to the Olympic beat can be jarring. I arrived in Sydney after more than a year based in Kosovo. Four years later, I touched down in Athens after reporting on refugees from Sudan's Darfur region in eastern Chad.

In some ways, though, covering the Olympics is a challenge perfectly suited to a foreign correspondent. Switching between lesser-known sports is like having to report on a new country every day. Just got the hang of the Republic of Greco-Roman wrestling? Great, tomorrow you're off to the Kingdom of Canoe Slalom. Every sport has its own rules, language, history and important people.

As a reporter, you frantically try to learn as much as you can in the few days, hours or minutes you have to prepare. It's like cramming for an exam - alas, also in the sense that the knowledge vanishes soon afterwards.

The record shows I have covered Olympic archery, badminton, canoeing, diving, fencing, gymnastics, javelin, shooting, table tennis, triathlon, volleyball and wrestling. I would be hard pressed to explain the finer points of any of them now.

On one particularly fraught evening in Athens, I found myself trying to come to terms with synchronised diving as the competition itself plunged into chaos.

Despite my lack of specialist knowledge, something told me the figure on the springboard did not belong there. As a rule, Olympic divers do not wear a blue tutu and white leggings. Especially not the men.

The man, apparently a well-known prankster, dived into the pool in the middle of the Olympic final, which then took one improbable twist after another. The Chinese pair on course to win gold made a total hash of their last dive, earning a grand total of zero points and ruining my nascent story of China winning a fourth straight diving gold.

Then it looked like the Americans would win. They had the same surname, I noticed. Did this mean they were brothers, cousins or just drawn together by this common bond? As I searched frantically for the answer, they too messed up their dive. Just for good measure, the Russian pair did the same. One of them even hit the board on the way down.

Astonishingly, the Greek duo of Thomas Bimis and Nikolaos Siranidis, having not even been in line for a medal, were now in first place. Suddenly the competition was over, the host nation had won a sensational first gold... and our phones weren't working. I resorted to sending the result by electronic messaging from my laptop as the venue descended into bedlam, with Greek music blaring out, the crowd going berserk, the coach ending up in the pool and the divers running around in their national flag.

This time around, I'm looking forward to experiencing the Olympics at a more sedate pace as a spectator and blogger. Of course there are serious questions to be asked about cost, organisation and legacy but my memories of Sydney and Athens mean I won't write off London 2012 in advance.