Northwestern alumnus Greg Presto (BSJ ’04, MSJ ’07) just returned from covering the Winter Olympics in Sochi, working as a video producer for USA Today Sports. Presto shot, edited and produced an array of Olympic content, including a fun piece on Russian culture in Sochi.
Read his reflections on the surreal experience of covering the world’s greatest athletes in an unfamiliar land—and running into some fellow Wildcats along the way.
There’s nothing better than a scoop for a journalist, and our team had broken the biggest story in Sochi: There were burritos somewhere. And they were amazing.
The Winter Olympics hold a lot of mystery for Americans—we don’t usually watch a biathlon, and placing the Games in Russia added another layer of confusion in language, alphabet and food.
Despite the reports of missing shower curtains and brown tap water, the lost-in-translation moments are what made covering the Sochi Games wonderful. And I do mean full of wonder. We wondered about the boiled meats and how often to say thank you and what lugers are really trying to do. And for me, answering questions that arise from natural curiosity is what makes journalism fun. If you see something, ask about it. Then say something.
So we asked: “What are lugers trying to do, anyway?” (As little as possible, it turns out.) “Do Russians celebrate Valentine’s Day?” (Yes.) “How much does skiing before you shoot a gun alter your aim?” (A little.) “What does the Russian letter that looks like an asterisk sound like?” (It’s a “J.”) “Why are downhill ski poles bent that way?” (To bend around the skier’s body.)
And, of course, where did the Russian guy at the Ekaterininskiy Kvartal media village learn to make such amazing “fajitos?” Turns out he spent some time in Colorado, where he learned to make some incredible wrapped goodies filled with crunchy vegetables (a rare treat) and spiced pork worth the 40-minute round trip to grab a bunch for some coworkers.
A taste of home like that was a welcome respite from feeling like the ugly American who can’t understand anything. Staring at a string of Cyrillic text and having the symbols look completely meaningless was, as one coworker pointed out, as close as we’ll probably come to understanding what it’s like to be illiterate. Trying to translate kilograms to pounds on a rare trip to the press center gym was nearly impossible on three hours of sleep. And giving directions to a cab driver? Well, an hour to wait for the next bus isn’t so bad, I guess.
But it was something we were all learning together—not just my fellow USA Today Sports folks, but other media, including a pile of Northwestern alums. Ten of us gathered for a photo on the last day, recounting confusions and questions we’d raised and reminiscing with our fellow Americans and media from Australia, Korea, Japan and China.
It’s with the Chinese guys that we finished. After the Olympic flame was snuffed out and the last of our video gear packed, we celebrated with a dinner that devolved into a sing-off, with a table of Chinese journalists singing one song and our group singing another. They took us to school with a string of not-in-English tunes that included Pavarotti and a bunch of stuff we couldn’t identify. But the crown jewel of their dominant concert was a three-part harmony rendition of a song that wasn’t lost in translation at all: “Jingle Bells.”
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