March 20, 2018

The Loneliness of the American Paralympics Reporter

The point is to focus on the athlete instead of his or her impairment. Paralympians might look different from Olympians in some cases, but that doesn’t mean they perceive themselves that way.

To me, it’s almost a journalistic disservice to highlight one athlete over another. How to choose whether to write about the Swiss champion skier paralyzed on one side of his body, the American sled hockey player whose leg was amputated a year after his Army vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Iraq, or the Australian snowboarder who lost parts of both arms after being attacked by two great white sharks?

And so in the months leading up to the Paralympics, I chat with United States coaches and athletes to brainstorm ideas, whether over the phone or on reporting trips — in November I spent time with sled hockey players in Madison, Wis., and wheelchair curlers outside Utica, N.Y. — so I can position myself well once I’m on the ground.

With venues scattered across a sprawling region; a vast network of buses that transport reporters among those event sites, their lodgings and the main broadcast and press centers; and news media descending from around the world, every Paralympics is nominally the same, and yet each offers its own array of trials.

Covering this winter Paralympics (which run through March 18) feels more manageable — or rather, less daunting — than covering the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where 22 sports were contested across four clusters of competition, versus six sports across two clusters in Pyeongchang. Nonetheless, I must plan days ahead, since it’s almost impossible to report on multiple events in one day. Also, I’m the only reporter in Pyeongchang from The Times.


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Best I can tell, I’m the only one from a major American news outlet other than NBC, which broadcasts the Games across its platforms. The International Paralympic Committee says it credentialed 801 members of the news media, an increase of 132 from Sochi. More than a quarter of that total came from South Korea. At the same time, the number of accreditations from the U.S. decreased, from 57 to 33.

The Paralympic movement is gaining exposure and popularity, but the absence of the American press corps, which travel to basically every other huge international sporting festival, is jarring, and not having that camaraderie can feel isolating. Combine that with a time difference that makes it difficult to communicate with my editors, much less my family, and it’s easy to lapse into a funk. Then I think about the skier whooshing down the mountain without a left leg or a left arm, and my concerns feel quite small.

My experience here has been enhanced by working with our staff photographer Chang W. Lee, a native of South Korea who has taught me so much about Korean culture — and exposed me to such culinary delights as spicy catfish stew, and squid and pork belly bulgogi.

Inevitably, I do make connections with people, such as the helpful language services volunteer at the Gangneung Hockey Center, who, noticing me yawning in the late morning on Sunday, said he could empathize; he too had a long flight from the U.S., where he attends college. “Where?” I asked. “Emory,” he said.

That’s where I went. We laughed about the fortune of flying halfway across the world to chat about our freshman residence halls. I gave him a New York Times pin and waited for him and another volunteer to translate my questions for a Japanese sled hockey player first into Korean and then into Japanese. It wasn’t ideal, but that’s how life goes. It was a reminder that we’re all different but, really, all the same, too.

Follow Ben Shpigel on Twitter: @benshpigel.

Keep up with Times Insider stories on Twitter via the Reader Center: @ReaderCenter.

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