An Interview with Elliott Almond
“Sports is a multi-billion dollar business. Sports journalism needs to vigorously report on it as reporters would any institution. Everything is ripe to investigate for the curious reporter…The problem is that editors, readers, et al get bored with a subject and want to move on to the next big thing. Journalists need to resist that and keep serious sports issues in the forefront.“
“Hitting the waves transports you to a different world than chasing down stories without enough time or resources to do it. When you’re chasing waves that is all that matters. If the swell is heavy and you need to charge – surfing lingo here – you don’t have time to worry about anything other than letting your instincts take over. After a good session I always felt clear headed and revived. That makes you a better employee, a better person. “
Elliott Almond: Interviewed on November 11, 2008
Position: reporter, Olympics, soccer and GA/enterprise & investigations, San Jose Mercury News
Born: 1953, District of Columbia
Education: Cal State Fullerton, 1975, bachelors in communications and political science; Long Beach State, 1978, advanced to candidacy for a master’s in comparative government and international relations.
Career: Los Angeles Times 1975-95, Seattle Times 95-98; San Jose Mercury News 98 –
Favorite restaurant (home): House of Nan King, San Francisco. “Even Parisians gobble it up. “
Favorite restaurant (away): Sudestada, at Guatemala and Fitz Roy in Buenos Aires. “After all that grilled meat in Patagonia, I crave for yummy Asian veggies.”
Favorite hotel: Hotel Saint Germaine des Pres, Arrondissement. 7, Paris. “I’m not a big luxury hotel guy but this hotel is situated in the center of the Left Bank art scene.”
Author of: “Surfing: Mastering Waves from Basic to Intermediate” (The Mountaineers Books, April 2009); “Real Sports Reporting” (A chapter on narrative writing, Indiana Press, 2002)
Elliott Almond, San Jose Mercury News, August 12, 2008:
The Mexican town of Tecalitlán lies in the heart of mariachi country, but Brenda Villa’s mother didn’t have much time for music. As the oldest of nine children, Rosario left her native state of Jalisco for El Norte when she was 18.
Her journey three decades ago wasn’t particularly unusual for a Mexican immigrant. She worked as a seamstress in the Los Angeles area. She sent money home to help her mother, a widow. She lived in the burgeoning Mexican community east of L.A., married another immigrant and hoped for a better life for their children.
But much of what happened since hasn’t followed script. The Villas settled in Commerce, a gritty, working-class L.A. suburb that happened to have a community aquatics complex. The mother sent her children to the pool to learn to swim because she was afraid of the water.
Brenda, along with her older brother Edgar soon began playing water polo as a diversion from swimming. Then she and her Latino teammates began winning junior tournaments, often defeating all-boys’ teams from more affluent areas.
Finally, Brenda became America’s best young women’s player, earning a scholarship to Stanford. And she began her third Olympics on Monday by scoring a goal in the United States’ riveting 12-11 victory over China.
“I couldn’t have imagined it,” Rosario Villa recently said in an interview conducted in Spanish.
How could she? Rosario had never even heard of water polo, growing up in dusty Tecalitlán. When her kids said they wanted to join the Commerce team, “it was a little strange to me,” she said.
Now Villa, 28, is competing in what might be her final Olympics. She helped the Americans win a silver medal in 2000, when women’s water polo made its debut, and a bronze four years later. She wants to end her career with a gold medal, but after the match against China, it appears the top-ranked Americans won’t waltz to the title. It took fourth-quarter goals by Kami Craig and Lauren Wenger to prevent an embarrassing upset at Yingdong Natatorium. The Americans face reigning Olympic champion Italy on Wednesday.
Whatever happens, the U.S. water polo community has Villa to thank for helping the program develop. Villa said it couldn’t have happened without her parents, who traveled to Beijing to watch their daughter compete.
“She never said there wasn’t enough time or money,” Brenda said of Rosario.
While her father often was protective of his only girl, Rosario encouraged Brenda to play the rough-and-tumble game — even against the boys.
John Tanner’s first recruiting visit as Stanford’s coach was to the Villas’ home in Commerce. He hadn’t been to the city before, but he knew its water polo reputation because of Villa’s exploits starting when she was 13.
Commerce now has five coaches and spends more than $250,000 on its youth programs. When Villa played, the city provided transportation to tournaments and gave the kids a per diem for overnight trips.
Villa earned her keep because of the limited number of girls who played. Often she would drive from one pool to another and yet another to play in three age divisions – as many as six matches a day.
But the demands made Villa better. So did playing against boys in junior high when they were similar in size. “You’re a boy, but I’m better than you,” Villa said in reference to the confidence boost it gave her.
She recalled playing against former Stanford star Tony Azevedo, who is leading the U.S. men in Beijing. “I beat him up,” Villa said.
When she starred at Bell Gardens High, Villa played on a mixed team because the school didn’t have a girls’ program. Her teams became legendary in Southern California by often defeating teams from the beach cities and Orange County.
“It gave us motivation, as cheesy as it sounds. If you put in the work, you can match up with anybody,” Villa said.
Added Tanner: “She makes it sound like it was all so easy.” Many “things could have kept her from being great.”
And not just because of her background. “She doesn’t have long arms like other great water polo players, Tanner said.”
Villa has become one of the world’s best scorers because she can anticipate opponents and teammates alike.
“I was surprised at how much better she made other people,” Tanner said.
Rosario Villa once felt the same way because she knew so little about the game.
“I didn’t know she could do so much,” she said.
Q. I’m a new Olympics reporter assigned to women’s water polo. You are among the few reporters who understand this under-appreciated sport. What do I need to know?
A. The obvious answer is to do as much homework as possible before covering a new, and perhaps arcane, sport. But sometimes there isn’t time, especially during the Olympics. Fundamentally sound reporting skills will get you through it. Ask, ask and ask again when you don’t understand something. Find the reporters who seem to have a base knowledge. Almost every Olympic journalist is willing to help. Or seek out the venue communications chief, who often is an expert in the sport.
In this case that person was an Australian who had followed water polo much of his career. Too many times egos get in the way of sportswriters who don’t want to appear unknowledgeable. I have been around water polo since high school and covered it since then. But even as I covered much of the 2008 Olympic water polo tournament I tried not to forget to ask basic questions when I saw something that didn’t make sense. The participants understand how difficult their sport is for spectators, and usually are willing to try to help you make sense of it all.
Now, I didn’t really answer your question. What does one need to know about water polo? The best advice is this: you need to know that what you think you saw might not be what really happened because so much action occurs under water. And how one team describes something controversial might differ completely from another’s interpretation. Always try to get all perspectives so you can report as accurately and balanced as possible. If you get only the perspective of the country you’re covering then you are going to miss out in telling the story properly.
This advice transcends water polo and applies to any story that you are researching.
Q. What was your assignment in Beijing? Can you describe one of your typical workdays?
It’s funny, but we really don’t experience “typical days’’ at the Olympics. All the best plans go out the door as soon as something happens. And something unexpected always happens. For example, I was settling in to write three stories the morning Liu Xiang, the famous Chinese hurdler, suddenly withdrew in the morning round of his race. Fortunately I was watching and able to put everything else on the backburner and produce a deadline story. That set me back for the next 48 hours but that’s the way it goes.
I actually love the Olympics as an event because of the spontaneity of the reporting. You never know when, but you know something crazy is going to happen and you just have to be ready to jump. I admire so many of the veterans such as Mark Ziegler of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Scott Reid of the Orange County Register, because of their methodical approach to the major breaking news stories. They usually are one-reporter operations going against big papers such as the Times and Post that mobilize teams of reporters to cover the story.
My Beijing experience, though, did have familiar traits of what it’s like to cover the Olympics. Here is my best attempt to describe a typical day:
— Wake up at 9 a.m., shower, shave, blah, blah.
— Dress, pack everything I’ll need for the next 18 hours.
— Go to the mess hall dining facility and eat breakfast (If I had a morning event to cover I would take something like yogurt, fruit and baked goods with me and eat on the bus to the Main Press Center, or the second bus to my event).
— While on the bus to the MPC I usually checked e-mails with a Blackberry, as well as communicated with my editor on site, Rachel Wilner. Because of the time difference, she edited stories early in the morning; this was our time to go over changes and fix copy before it was filed to San Jose.
— Cover a morning event for that day’s paper.
— Return to the MPC to get a quick lunch, or if there wasn’t enough time, go directly to the next event or news conference that needed covering.
— Depending on the day’s schedule, I was covering a night event or chasing down athletes for a preview story.
— Get situated at my venue or the MPC or somewhere with Internet access and write whatever needed writing. We also were responsible for blogging immediately at whatever events we covered, so writing for the paper sometimes had to come second to the immediacy of the Internet. There were times I wrote as many as six versions of the same event.
— Return to my hotel at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., sometimes 4, but never 5 or 6 like in Athens.
I averaged five hours of sleep per night and was able to break for a real dinner four times during the three weeks of the Games. Those two little tidbits are a departure from previous Games and made the experience much more civilized.
Q. Here’s a deep one: If one believes the 68 Summer Olympics – and the black-gloved fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos – had a bearing on the 68 presidential election, can you draw a similar connection between Beijing and the 2008 election?
A. From what I have been told Americans got Michael Phelps 24/7. As a result, the Beijing Games were about selling and celebrating American heroism as a symbol at a time of waning global influence.
No definitive American moment in Beijing came close to the level of political statement as the actions of 1968. The cyclists who wore protective masks at the BJ airport were looking out for themselves. The U.S. Olympic Committee spent time prepping the athletes about proper behavior and encouraging them to steer clear of any kind of political pronouncements.
Also, I’m not sure the periods have strong parallels with regard to the question. We didn’t have a figure such as Martin Luther King or RFK assassinated, or racial riots in the streets of major U.S. cities, before the Olympics. The underlying reasons for racial unrest still exist but no one was calling for a boycott to protest the circumstances. As it is now abundantly clear, the failing economy trumped all other issues in this historic presidential election. But it does make me wonder what Smith and Carlos would think of Barack Obama’s victory: They certainly can claim a small part of why we have reached this point in history.
The Games might prove to be transformative for China and its leaders. Political and social scientists will need to investigate this as time passes. I can only guess what Chinese think today as the government initiates its own economic stimulus package. I heard lots of grumblings about spending billions on sports venues at the expense of schools, hospitals and other social services.
Q. Your top three sports investigative stories?
A. The Balco investigation, 2003-2007. Washington Huskies football, 1993.
Hank Gathers’ death, 1990.
Q. What are the fertile areas for sports investigative going forward?
A. I once was asked this question by Joe Sexton, the New York Times’ metro editor. As sports journalism has matured, it does seem as if the major media miss fewer and fewer penetrating stories. In other words, you will find ESPN, Sports Illustrated or New York Times reporters digging below the surface of a major, or minor, news event to illuminate through reportage. This isn’t traditional investigative reporting per se, but it shows the depths sportswriters go to tell a good story.
My stock answer to the question: Sports is a multi-billion dollar business. Sports journalism needs to vigorously report on it as reporters would any institution. Everything is ripe to investigate for the curious reporter.
Some suggest stories on cheating in college athletics are passé; I say you need to pursue wrongdoing wherever you find it. That’s the mission of journalism, even at a time when we’re running on fumes. By extension, we need to follow the recruiting pipelines that exist outside the college sphere. Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian did a great job with Raw Recruits in the late 1980s, and then New Yorker writer Susan Orlean wrote a spectacular piece in 1993 – “Shoot the Moon” – on the recruiting of Felipe Lopez. But since then recruiting has become more sophisticated, the stakes higher. The story is more difficult to get because of it.
We never do enough on sports ownerships. Pick a team and do a serious explanatory piece on the ownership group.
We need to continue to monitor abuses in youth sports and women’s sports – those investigations are timeless because we often are a voice for the voiceless. The trafficking of African soccer players is a huge international scandal. There might be similar situations closer to home for all the reporters who don’t work at the New York Times. Juliet Macur exposed serious health problems of Chinese gymnasts, and athletes in general.
The drug issue isn’t going away. In fact we need to continue to follow issues in health and sports. The supplement industry is unregulated and uses ingredients from China, where there are serious questions about some food products such as milk.
The problem is that editors, readers, et al get bored with a subject and want to move on to the next big thing. Journalists need to resist that and keep serious sports issues in the forefront.
You never hear about the nefarious influences of the mob in professional sports anymore. Remember the issues of the Russian mafia and athletes, particularly hockey players? These stories are so difficult to unearth, and perhaps dangerous. But we haven’t done enough with it because the athletes fear for their lives.
This is an endless list, and that is why journalism is so interesting. An enterprising reporter can do good investigative work while covering the local high school team, or community college team. Where there is a sport, a team or an event, there is bound to be something interesting behind the scenes.
Q. Could the BALCO story have happened anywhere? Or was it destined to happen in the Bay Area?
A. Balco in fact wasn’t simply a Bay Area story. No one in Victor Conte’s crew was a chemist. The chemical mastermind lived in Illinois. Without chemist Patrick Arnold Balco would never have found the secret formula to completely circumvent the drug-testing system.
Furthermore, as it is becoming increasingly clear, Balco was just one of the drug enclaves, so to speak. The lines eventually stating blurring, but the Raleigh sprinters, according to published reports and my own reporting, had drug-supply connections in Laredo, Texas.
Cycling has nothing to do with Balco but has been rife with drug allegations, stemming from Spain, Italy and Eastern Europe. Speaking of which, track and field has seen its share of problems in China, Greece and Eastern Europe. This is a worldwide problem and underground suppliers are everywhere. Victor Conte’s biggest problem was not staying underground.
Q. How competitive was the BALCO story in the 2003-05 period? How difficult was it to go against the Chronicle?
A. It was as competitive as anything I have done in my life. It was stressful every waking moment. It would have been stressful had it not been so competitive.
It was very difficult going against the Chronicle. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams are terrific reporters. They were well suited as a team because Lance has been considered one of the state’s best investigative reporters for some time. And Mark is excellent.
What made it doubly difficult is that the Chronicle’s editors from Phil Bronstein on down identified Balco as a major local story from the moment they finally jumped on it. They gave it the proper resources and attention. Our first editor, George Judson, switched to the Chronicle early on. He knew who my original sources were because of a newspaper policy to identify unnamed sources to your supervisor before going to press. I’m not accusing George of doing anything unethical; it simply was bad timing for us.
Q. Trevor Graham was sentenced to one year of home confinement for perjuring himself in the Balco case? How do you envision the Barry Bonds prosecution ending?
A. This is a great question because it is making those of us who follow the case wonder as well. You can add cyclist Tammy Thomas
to the equation: She was sentenced last month to six months of home confinement for lying to the grand jury in the Balco case. Barry Bonds’ lawyers must love these decisions because the legal parallels appear to be strong. Can Judge Susan Illston now send Bonds to prison after essentially letting two others in the case go free after their convictions? I try not to guess or bet. But it now seems doubtful that Bonds would serve any time – if he is convicted by a jury.
Q. Your thoughts on Jamaican sprinters and drug-testing?
A. I was in the stadium in Beijing when we confronted Herb Elliott, the famous Jamaican physician involved in the country’s track program. Elliott was celebrating with the athletes after their great victories and was defiant when asked about drugs.
Elliott said Usain Bolt was clean because he had been personally testing him, that Elliott was in charge of Jamaica’s drug-testing program for the 2008 Olympics. Many reporters quoted Elliott at his word. But it made me, and some others such as Mark Zeigler and Wayne Coffee of the New York Daily News, shake our heads. Can you imagine the chief of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency – or officials from any sports anti-doping agency – celebrating with athletes in the mixed zone after any race much less the Olympics?
If Elliott’s intention was to ground out drug rumors, he failed miserably. His narrative of being the one testing the Jamaican sprinters calls into question the validity of those tests because of his closeness with the team. It goes against every basic principle of independent drug testing and harkens back to the day when sports organizations such as The Athletics Congress – now USA Track & Field – conducted testing on its own athletes. In 1990 I obtained US Olympic Committee documents showing that many American track athletes had tested positive but the TAC was covering them up. Such situations led to the USOC forming the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a quasi-independent group to conduct drug testing of all American Olympians.
I have exposed serious flaws of drug testing in the Caribbean from a piece before the 2005 track world championships. Although I cannot say with certainty what the Jamaican athletes were or were not doing, my reporting leads me to believe we must question the legitimacy of the drug-testing system. To be fair and take it a step further, I believe we should be vigilant with questioning all systems, not simply the Caribbean.
Q. Does surfing help your reporting, or vice versa?
A. Surfing helps my reporting immensely in the way any recreation helps with a balanced life. Hitting the waves transports you to a different world than chasing down stories without enough time or resources to do it. When you’re chasing waves that is all that matters. If the swell is heavy and you need to charge – surfing lingo here – you don’t have time to worry about anything other than letting your instincts take over. After a good session I always felt clear headed and revived. That makes you a better employee, a better person.
But I would be lying if I didn’t add that surfing detracted from career just after college because I spent much more time hunting waves than worrying about writing a good story. Now, how do I get back to those days?
Q. Closest you have come to a perfect wave – in surfing and reporting?
A. President’s Day weekend, 1983. I worked the copy desk late at the L.A. Times, and didn’t get home until 2 a.m. Had to get up at 5 to drive south. We spent the weekend at Todos Santos, a relatively unknown island about 8 nautical miles from Ensenada, Baja California.
Because of an extreme El Nino condition, the winter of 1983 brought incredible surf to the Pacific Coast of the United States, as well as Hawaii. It was an epic season, and we landed on Todos Santos on one of the biggest swells of the winter. You can find a story about this in my upcoming book.
Every break on the island was pumping. But the place now called Killers was enormous, about 30 feet. I was with some kids who were good surfers. But none dared paddle to the main break. After all, we had huge waves – 10-15 feet – all around the island. I found a smaller left-breaking wave on the east side. But it still was going off at 8 to 10 feet. I had it to myself. The wave shoaled along the reef, pitching over with beautiful shoulders. It doesn’t get better than that.
As an aside, I’d like to add that shortly after our trip word got out about our experience. Star surfers hit Todos Santos later that year and suddenly the surf press did a magazine spread. The place got discovered overnight. It is now one of a handful of big-wave breaks along the West Coast. The others are Mavericks, Ghost Tree and Cortes Banks.
I haven’t been so lucky in reporting. All the big stories have been major struggles with lots of self doubt and questioning and worry. The closest is a situation that I have used as a lesson for young journalists.
I did a story on Todd Marinovich a year after the troubled quarterback left the Raiders. No one could find him; no one had heard a word from him. Rumors had Todd surfing in Hawaii or following the Grateful Dead around the country. It was fun to track him down. We actually did one of our interviews while surfing together at Doheny. The L.A. Times played the story big and it got a nice reaction. I got a call from someone who said he was getting into the sports agent business and wanted to represent Todd if he chose to return to football. I promised I would pass his name along, and I followed up with fledgling agent to let him know I made good on that promise.
About six months later this guy called and wanted to meet for lunch. He said I had been so nice he just wanted to meet me. With L.A. traffic, it often was difficult to meet people because you would lose a whole day of work just driving to get there. Still I met the guy and we hit it off. Afterward, he said, “Come back to my office, I want to show you something.’’
That’s how I obtained the documents for something Bill Plaschke and I turned into a package that won first place in the APSE news category.
Talk about being lucky.
Q. All-time favorite surfer songs?
A. This is straight from the book – chapter 6 – five favorite surf songs:
- Breakdown, 2005, Jack Johnson
- California Saga, 1973, Beach Boys
- Crumple Car, 1968, Denny Aaberg and Phil Pritchard.
- Pipeline Sequence, 1972, Honk
- Walk Don’t Run, 1960, the Ventures
Elliott Almond, San Jose Mercury News, June 14, 2004:
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s chances of banning athletes from this summer’s Olympics for suspicion of drug use might have improved, based on two memorandums dated June 1 and obtained by the Mercury News on Sunday.
First reported by the Washington Post in Sunday’s editions, one memo states that the court standard known as “beyond a reasonable doubt” no longer applies in arbitration hearings for track-and-field cases initiated after March 1. A second memo refers to documents collected during the federal investigation of Balco Laboratories, a Burlingame nutrition company, and says that arbitrators can hear evidence that a court might consider to be hearsay.
The policy changes could lead to a protracted court dispute, pitting potential Olympians against the anti-doping agency they endorsed four years ago. Already, sprinter Marion Jones — the winner of five track and field medals at the 2000 Olympics, and likely the Americans’ brightest star in Greece this summer — has threatened to sue if she is suspended without proof of a positive test. U.S. track and field officials would like to have the cases resolved by July 9, when the Olympic trials begin in Sacramento.
Lowering the standard from beyond a reasonable doubt to what the memo calls “comfortable satisfaction” would put the organization in line with the World Anti-Doping Agency, which establishes policy that international sports federations are expected to follow. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees drug testing for American athletes, is a quasi-independent branch of the world organization.
The changes in the drug code could make it easier for officials to bring cases against Jones and other athletes. But a lawyer with knowledge of the situation said the rules of the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s world governing body, do not allow the anti-doping agency to retroactively apply new standards on matters being examined before March.
“Why are they now changing the standards — does it have to do with the meager facts that they have?” asked the lawyer, who requested anonymity.
An anti-doping agency spokesman did not immediately provide answers to questions about the memos.
If officials rely on something less than the reasonable-doubt concept, it could prove damaging to a number of American athletes whose names appeared on a memorandum prepared by Jeff Novitzky, an Internal Revenue Service agent. According to a previous Mercury News report, the document claims that Balco founder Victor Conte Jr. confessed that he gave 27 athletes, including 12 American track and field competitors, THG and testosterone, both banned drugs. Conte’s attorneys deny that he confessed, and claim that some of the report was fabricated.
Conte is one of four Bay Area men charged with distributing banned drugs to elite athletes, including Giants left fielder Barry Bonds. All four have pleaded not guilty.
The second memo, regarding hearsay evidence, could become especially controversial with regard to Novitzky’s account of Conte’s confession. Arbitrators could choose to accept Novitzky’s version as fact, and athletes would have no way of compelling Conte to appear as a rebuttal witness.
The policy change also could impact another wrinkle in the case — the cooperation of Jones’ former coach, Trevor Graham. According to the New York Times, Graham met with Novitzky for three hours last week and accepted limited immunity in exchange for his cooperation.
While Graham is expected to answer questions about the Balco investigation, perhaps including what he knows about Jones, his cooperation could affect his Sprint Capitol group, which boasts some of America’s best sprinters.
Graham coaches the up-and-coming sprinters Justin Gatlin and Shawn Crawford, as well as potential Olympic runners LaTasha Colander, Suziann Reid and hurdler Duane Ross.
Two other Olympians training with Graham, Alvin and Calvin Harrison, have cases pending before the anti-doping agency.
Losing those competitors could further impact a U.S. track and field team that already will be without world-champion sprinter Kelli White and three others because of the scandal.
“If USADA plays their cards right, they can catch his athletes before the Games begin,” said a person involved in the Balco case.
Graham did not return a call Sunday.
The Mercury News strives to avoid the use of unnamed sources. When unnamed sources are used because information cannot otherwise be obtained, the newspaper generally requires more than one source to confirm the information. `
(SMG thanks Elliott Almond for his cooperation)