From Armstrong to the Olympics: Juliet Macur Discusses Sports Journalism

 /  May 16, 2016, 2 p.m.


Juliet Macur has been a Sports of the Times columnist for the New York Times since 2013. Her latest projects include “Countdown to Beijing,” which examines sports in China leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and “In Two Arenas,” which covered the Iraq war’s effect on athletes. Macur has also written extensively about doping and legal issues, and she is author of the best-selling book, Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong. Macur sat down with the Gate to weigh in on her career as a sports journalist, human rights violations in the sports industry, and the future of the Olympic games.

The Gate: I want to talk a little bit about your journey to becoming a journalist. You were a competitive rower in college—did you intend to become a sports journalist? How did that come about?

Juliet Macur: No, not at all, not even a little, nope. I didn’t even think about it until my senior year of journalism school when I took a sports class, and the dean of the journalism school at the time had been the sports editor at the New York Times, and he said I should try sports journalism because I was a rower and happened to have a lot in common with the people I was interviewing. And he said I would be able to do a lot of traveling around the world. I thought I would like that, so I said I would try it. I didn’t want to cover politics if it meant I had to start in Iowa—my best friend is from Iowa, so it’s nothing against Iowa—but I started out my journalism career later because after college, I worked for a law firm for three years and then was a rower for three years and then I went to journalism school, so I didn’t have much time to mess around at these small places and work my way up. I wanted to do something where I could travel right away before turning seventy. So that’s how I wound up in sports journalism. I took an internship at the Orlando Sentinel in Florida and then got a full-time job there.

Gate: In an interview with  David Axelrod on “The Axe Files,”, you said that you’re a “sports journalist who’s trying not to write about sports.” Can you explain that?

Macur: Right, and that makes me really popular among my colleagues. What really bothers me, and this has happened to me many times, whether I’m at the park or walking around or in a plane, and people ask me where I work, and I say the New York Times and they say, “Oh, really, what do you write about?” I say that I cover sports, and they say, “Aah, I never read the sports section.” So I say, “Well, thanks.” But I explain to them that I write for people who don’t necessarily watch sports all the time. I don’t write for an x’s and o’s kind of person. I’m not going to break down a play in a football game, for God’s sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but if you’re looking for that, don’t click on my byline. I want to write more of the issue stories, and I really like writing about people and doing profiles. I think that’s the thing I like to write the best. I like sports, I like watching sports, but I’m not really into the game itself as much as I am into the issues around it. These are the issues around everything in the world: racism, domestic violence, I’m trying to write about the Zika virus now in Brazil, which really has nothing to do with sports at all, so I try to write about issues that people who don’t necessarily read the sports section would be interested in.

Gate: Can you tell us a little more about your piece on the Zika virus? What’s your angle?

Macur: Well, there is a list of people I want to interview. I haven’t written anything about Zika yet. When I start working on a column, because I have to be an expert on something if I want to give my opinion on it., I try to talk to all the experts and interview them. So I have a list of all these infectious disease people I want to talk to, some athletes I want to talk to in the Olympic movement, some American athletes who are women and plan to go to the Olympics and might try to have a kid right away afterwards. (sSometimes they do, because they try to fit in their kids between Olympics, so right after the Olympics, they want to get pregnant, have a kid, and start training for the next Olympics.). So this will be a couple days or a week of reporting, talking to these experts about what the virus is, well, I know what the virus is, but I want them to tell me again, and just how dangerous it can be to athletes, and if they think it would be safe for people to go there at all, because a lot of these infectious disease experts think people have gotten on this issue way too late and to fix it in time for the Olympics is not possible. So it’s still in my notebook. The story doesn’t exist yet.

Gate: You’re planning on going to Rio for the Olympics?

Macur: Yeah, it’ll be my ninth Olympics—I’ve been going to the Olympics ever since 2000 in Sydney. I’ve been to Olympics all over the world, and it’s been really great. I was in Rio and Brazil two years ago for the World Cup there, so we went all around Brazil for that, too, before the Zika virus broke out last year.

Gate: We’ve talked about Zika, and Rio has come under fire for infrastructure problems reminiscent of Sochi, as well as human rights abuses similar to what we saw in Beijing. Do you think Zika is their biggest problem, and do you think they can pull off the Olympics?

Macur: I was just thinking about this and was just talking to my editor before you came in. Before every Olympics, you always see people running around like chickens with their heads cut off: “It’s not going to be finished. Oh my gosh, nothing is built.” And you had this problem in Sochi, not only with the buildings, but with the anti-gay law that they had there, which raised questions of whether we should boycott it. And before every Olympics, there’s a problem like this, or similar to the Zika virus. But at least in recent Olympics, there’s been nothing in terms of having something that will affect the athletes. They’ll be affected at the Olympics, because if they get the virus, they’ll have flu-like symptoms and swelling and a rash and they’ll feel like they have a bad flu, which kind of negates the fact that they’ve been training for this their whole lives. But it could also affect them in the future if they’d like to have kids. For women, it’s obvious, but for men, they think the Zika virus stays in the sperm for a certain amount of time, and they could be transmitting it all over the place. So in terms of putting the athletes in danger, I think this is unprecedented. I’m not sure what I’m going to say about it in my column yet. I don’t know what the conversations are like with the International Olympic Committee right now, but usually they don’t react quickly enough to anything. They’re just a bunch of old white men who say, “Things will be alright.” But this is really affecting women more than men, even though it takes two to have a child—which they might not even know. But I think a lot of the times, they don’t think about how these things affect women, because these international sports are mostly run by men. If it were all run by women, maybe things would be going a little differently right now.

Gate: Given the controversies that inevitably surround each international sporting event that have popped up in various forms, as well as the amount of money that needs to be spent to host these events, do you think that they’re financially worth it for the tourism boom you get for a couple weeks and the cultural fame that comes with it?

Macur: It depends on the country. If you look at Sochi,. I think that the cost was $50 billion or something. It was ridiculous. They thought that these ski resorts would be a huge draw for Europe. I went skiing there, and I thought it was great, but after the Olympics there, it became kind of a ghost town, which happens in a lot of these countries that build these new stadiums for the Olympics or the World Cup. A couple years later, they’re completely empty or unused, so it’s a waste of money. So I think the Olympics should go to countries like the US that have all these venues already, or Britain or Australia, who had the best Olympics ever. I don’t know what the status of their summer Olympics venues is now, but you could just go back to that every few years or have it on a cycle. Say we’re going to Australia now, we’re going to the US next, and if a country decides to build this infrastructure, they can join the cycle of the Olympics. I think that’s a good idea, instead of just going to Brazil, building these stadiums, which they did for the World Cup, and have these stadiums end up completely empty. It’s just a waste of money in a country that really needs money for education, healthcare, and a million other things. They don’t have a lack of things to be spending money on. I think in most of these countries, it’s a waste of time unless they have the infrastructure ready.

Gate: Do you think that creates an inequitable distribution of where sports happens? In South Africa, for example, with its World Cup, you could argue that it was one of those countries that shouldn’t have built all those facilities, but the World Cup brought in many benefits in terms of addressing racial issues and boosting South Africa’s tourism industry. Do you think that those benefits could potentially outweigh whatever costs there are?

Macur: I’m not sure about that. I think it’s a temporary benefit, where everyone is looking at South Africa and admiring how great these stadiums are and rallying together. I went to South Africa several years ago when I visited some of these stadiums that are now completely empty, including this gigantic one in a prime spot in Cape Town that had one game a week of ten thousand people. It cost billions of dollars, and they razed all this housing for it—I don’t know where all those people went. A couple years later, does the temporary benefit of having the world learn about South Africa really matter? I’m not sure it does. For China, it was this big coming out party and people thought it would bring this opening up of China and maybe some better human rights. But it didn’t. So I’m not sure that’s the case. I think it helps raise a country’s profile, but only for a short time.

Gate: In that case, what do you think is the future of the Olympic games?

Macur: More and more countries don’t want the Olympics. I know that the 2022 Winter Olympics was awarded to Beijing, which doesn’t have any snow, and they still have human rights problems and terrible, terrible pollution, which they said they would work on for the last Olympics but they haven’t—it’s gotten worse. They only got the Olympics because the other country was Kazakhstan, which also has human rights issues, and I’m sure they would’ve put on a great Olympics, but they picked Beijing instead. All these other countries that had initially bid for the Olympics ended up dropping out because their people didn’t want the Olympics there. They realized, “This is not a benefit to us to bring in all these people and build all these temporary structures. We don’t want it here. We don’t want it in our backyards. Take it somewhere else.” Krakow would’ve had a great Olympics—my parents are from Poland, so I thought that would be great. But Poland didn’t want it. Oslo was another option, which is a winter sports haven. They didn’t want it either. So it ended up going to Beijing. I think that the trouble with the Winter Olympics will be that nobody really wants it. So where do you put it? It’s already going to a place that doesn’t have any snow, so I don’t know where the future of that Olympics will be beyond 2022. It depends if the IOC really follows these reforms that the new president has implemented over the last year, cutting down the cost of bidding for the games, making it possible for two cities or even two countries to share the games—if they’re close to one another. So we’ll have to see if all these things that they’re trying to do are successful, and then we’ll see what happens to the Olympics in the future.

Gate: On the issue of human rights, at what point do you think the international community has an obligation to step in when a host country is being particularly negligent? For example, Nazi Germany hosted the Summer Olympics in 1936, and Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup, which has essentially used slave labor to build their stadiums. At what point should the international community step in and intervene, or should they respect the fact that the Olympic athletes themselves have nothing to do with the human rights violations and have been training their whole lives for this?

Macur: Human Rights Watch has been talking about these issues for forever about what’s happening in Qatar and what happened in Beijing. After the Olympics, the Chinese promised that they would get better at human rights. They swore that the Internet would be open and made all these promises during the Olympics. I remember that closer to the end of the Olympics, these two old ladies in their seventies or eighties were upset that they weren’t compensated enough for their homes that were razed for something Olympic-related. So they went into this little square in Tiananmen Square—maybe it had masking tape around it that said, “Here, you can protest right here.” Of course, nobody protested there because everyone is afraid to protest. But these two ladies got their bags and went to the little protest square, and of course they were arrested. They were sentenced to several years of re-education through labor. This happened during the Olympics. And of course since the Olympics are going on, it’s too late to stop the Chinese government. So what does the IOC do about that? Well it gives the Chinese the Olympics again in 2022. You can complain about it all you want, but I think the IOC will give the games to whomever gives them the most money. China has a big population that can buy Olympic gear and sponsors like that. So I don’t think people really pay attention to any of these human rights violations when it comes to sports. I write about them, but I have no power in that vicinity.

Gate: Digging a little deeper into moral responsibility, another topic you have written about is the issue of concussions within the NFL. Where do you see the responsibility lie—within policy-makers, medical professionals, or the sports teams themselves—to prevent concussions?

Macur: A lot of states now have rules for concussions for young people in youth and high school sports. They have made laws that say coaches should pay attention to concussions. It’s an important issue. Teams, especially at the youth level, did not pay much attention to it because they were not really regulated. Most of the time, there were no doctors there, even at practices. I know my daughter just hit heads with another kid on the playground the other day. And they told me they did a concussion test. And I said, “How did you do that?” [Laughs] They didn’t know what they were doing. So I think the problem is most people think it’s just the NFL—“Oh, look at these guys who get paid all this money and get concussions and the NFL knew about it, how sad”—but this is a problem that starts when you’re just a kid. Over time, they found that people died from this brain disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy [CTE], which is not necessarily caused by concussions, but repeated hits and trauma to the head. CTE worsens based on how long you’ve been playing football. So, I’ve written a lot about how football, at least tackle football, should not be played when you’re young because your brain is still developing. Your neck is not strong enough to hold up your head, so your head is going all over the place. If you hit the ground, your head is going to be hitting the ground hard. I think it’s a gigantic problem. Unfortunately, the NFL is very powerful—they have a lot of influence, even among doctors, who don’t want to acknowledge the issue. But I would say that over the next ten years, this will change the sport quite a bit, as more and more people are diagnosed with CTE.

Gate: When you talk about the power of the NFL, another issue you have written about—for example in your book about Lance Armstrong, Cycle of Lies—is the idea that these athletes and sports teams are in positions of power. As an investigative journalist, how do you go about uncovering cover-ups and layers of deception to get to the real truth of the matter?

Macur: It’s tough. For Lance Armstrong’s story, it took me about ten years of building sources to have enough in the end for people to trust me. In everything, it takes working with your sources, which takes a long time. Sometimes, it takes digging through documents, too. But I think having good interviews and winning the trust of the people you’re writing about and interviewing those who are entrenched in all this stuff is the most important thing.

Gate: Did you have any concerns about taking on such a public figure? Especially in American culture, sports celebrities are elevated to a higher status. Did you worry about knocking people off their pedestals or have any fears of repercussions from doing that?

Macur: No, I tend not to think about that too much because once you start thinking about the repercussions of your story, I think that’s when you stop being a good journalist. If you’re thinking about how your story will affect the world, you’re thinking way too far down the road. You just need to do your job. The Lance Armstrong story was especially hard because I had been writing about his alleged doping for many years, and I was not his favorite person and not his lawyer’s favorite person. But I was also not the favorite person of people who wore those Livestrong bracelets, who had maybe lost someone to cancer or won their battle against cancer and used Lance as an inspiration. I remember that in 2010, right before my wedding, Floyd Landis, one of Lance’s teammates, came out and broke open the news that Lance and all of his teammates had been using drugs for all this time on the US Postal Service. It was quite a big story. So I wrote about Floyd Landis coming forward and saying that Lance was a fraud. I remember leaving for my honeymoon and checking my voicemail—which I should not have done—and this father had left me a voicemail that said something like, “You’re the worst person ever, writing all these things about Lance. You should just stop it. He’s an inspiration to so many people. You weren’t there in the hospital room in Minnesota when Lance came in and sat with my son. You should’ve seen my son’s face and how much he was inspired by Lance’s work and that Lance survived. You’re just a terrible person who is taking away the hope from all these people.” And then he hung up, and I thought, “Wow that’s pretty awful.” I think he also said something like, “I hope you get cancer.” And I got many emails saying stuff like that. This is a very emotional issue for a lot people, which is why Lance Armstrong became so strong to begin with. He wasn’t just an athlete. If it wasn’t for the cancer, nobody would know his name right now, even if he won a hundred Tours de France. Nobody would know who he was. That was a problem that I had to not think about too much, not think about me crushing the hero of all these people who were fighting cancer. I don’t go out of my way to do that, but he was breaking the rules. He was lying to millions of people who considered him their god in some situations. My job as a journalist is to uncover people who are lying and uncover the truth, and I can’t think about the repercussions of that. If you are cheating or not following the rules, then that’s your fault. Unfortunately, that’s part of my job. I can’t think about how it affects people, otherwise I don’t think I would be a good journalist.

Gate: In the sports industry, a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations occur in the locker rooms and other male-dominated environments. As a female journalist, how do you go about breaking into these predominantly male spaces and getting people to trust you as sources?

Macur: Well I’ve never had a good interview in a locker room in my life. I don’t enjoy going to locker rooms—it’s pretty awkward and there are lots of other people around. I do my best interviews one-on-one when I can pull people aside and get more normal conversations going. In locker rooms, you only have a short period of time to ask questions, and other journalists are around, so it’s almost impossible to squeeze in things and get a nice textured answer from someone who is rushing to leave to get to the team bus. Or your competition is floating around while you’re trying to ask a question on the side. I always try to be more personable—ask them to lunch or dinner or if I can hang out with them for a whole day. Which is, I’m sure, very annoying to them, but it’s pretty helpful for people to get to know me a little bit. So then they can tell me what their lives are about and tell me things that I need to know for my story. If I’m working on a long term story, my relationships might last for years until the benefit shows in terms of breaking a story. It takes a lot of patience in some cases.

Gate: We have seen in political coverage that female politicians, similar to female athletes, are held to a different set of standards in the media coverage. As someone who writes about both men and women’s sports, what do you think of the media’s portrayal of female athletes?

Macur: It’s different than it is in politics. A lot of the time, female athletes tend to be sexualized—I don’t think people are doing that too much in the presidential race right now. They are certainly criticizing Hillary Clinton in other ways and wearing blinders when Donald Trump criticizes women. I think people forget that he really hates women, and women are quite a big part of this country. But when it comes to female athletes, I think that the main problem is that the media doesn’t cover them enough because people think no one wants to watch women’s sports, which is not true. For example, there is the ESPN “Body Issue” or Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Edition”—for Sports Illustrated, mostly there are models on it, not wearing much clothing, so it’s not really a swimsuit issue and more like a naked issue. So they’re body painted. A lot of athletes, even ones who I had respected, go into this swimsuit issue as models or whatever they want to call it, saying it’s so empowering to show my body. I just think it’s ridiculous. They’re just falling into the trap of thinking that it’s empowering to take your clothes off. Meanwhile, men are snickering in the back room. This is similar to the ESPN “Body Issue,” where they show men and women athletes looking so physical with no clothes on. I think that sports is very physical, but as a woman, you have to be careful about falling into that hole of “Let’s have her take her clothes off” and then she’ll be popular on the Internet or then people will know her name. I think that’s the problem with the media, always talking about how a woman looks and not necessarily what she does, which is the case for almost everything. That’s the biggest problem, not only in sports but in every aspect of our lives—women have to look pretty and sound pretty, instead of just looking at our accomplishments.

Gate: Looking to the future, what sports or sports-related issues do you think need to be given more attention and deserve more coverage?

Macur: We do cover the NFL quite a bit, but I do think people need to continue writing about the concussion issue because it’s not going away. Some people are afraid to write too much about the NFL because they want access to the players and want the NFL to like them. Here at the New York Times, we don’t really care about that, which is good. For me, this year, I will probably focus a lot on women’s rights leading up to the Olympics. I have written about how Iran won’t even let women in to watch soccer or volleyball. I mean, they can’t even go into the stadium. So leading up to the Olympics, I will be writing a lot about that—equal access to sports around the world. It is in the Olympic Charter that there can’t be any discrimination, and a lot of countries discriminate. Sports was very important in my life, in terms of giving me confidence. Everything that I learned as a kid in sports I use today, like being diligent and working hard and being resilient. A lot of women in the world don’t have that opportunity. So I think that’s really important, not only in sports, but in every issue when it comes to women in the world. But I think that sports can really empower women around the world and they’re being kept from it, which is a big issue for me.

Gate: In 2012, Saudi Arabia was almost barred from entering the London Olympics because they didn’t have a single female athlete. One of the two female athletes in their delegation is a young woman whose parents immigrated to the United States from Saudi Arabia to compete, even though she was born and raised in California. How do you think the Olympics can become a better platform for making sure that countries are living up to certain standards at home in order to compete on a national stage?

Macur: I don’t think the IOC really pushes its countries enough. I know that’s been a big issue for them with Saudi Arabia, but they don’t want to push it too much. And I’m not sure why—they have this power of kicking Saudi Arabia out of the Olympics, and that would be a blow to Saudi Arabia. Sports are big in these countries, too. So I think the IOC lets people down a lot because they’re not pushing these countries enough or have enough power to say, “You’re not going to be in the Olympics until you fix this. And if you don’t, we won’t miss you.” This happened in Iran with volleyball. I just wrote a couple weeks ago about how the International Volleyball Association brought a beach volleyball tournament to Iran, even though over the summer, they had another volleyball tournament in Tehran, and women were not allowed in the stadiums and were turned away by police or arrested. But the volleyball association just went right back to Iran, maybe because they see that Iran has a lot of people and could raise volleyball’s popularity. But I think that they are cowards for not allowing women in. They should say, “You know what? We’re just not going to go there, guys, if you’re not going to allow women to just watch, much less play the sport. Sorry, we can go somewhere else.” They don’t do that because it’s all about money. I really disagree with it, and I don’t think they use their power in ways that help women and other minorities around the world.

Gate: During the World Championships for women’s artistic gymnastics for vault, American Simone Biles got silver behind Hong un-Jong of North Korea. People talk about how sports is the great equalizer—and it was a nice moment to see a North Korean and American athlete share the podium together. In your experience talking to athletes, do you think sports is an equalizer? Are there any politics behind-the-scenes in Olympic Village or among the athletes themselves? Or is it mainly about the sport for them, and the politics are what we bring to the situation as observers?

Macur: It’s amazing walking into Olympic Village, where you see all these people from countries that don’t get along. In some cases, they still don’t want to talk to each other. But for the most part, they are pretty open and realize that this is their opportunity to talk to people as humans, and not necessarily fight just because their countries are fighting. I think sports can be an equalizer, but I don’t think people use it enough as one. Over the years, the IOC hasn’t shown that much power, given the power that it has. The IOC is just not doing it in the right way for me. For example, there was some Middle Eastern country that backed out of some event because the Israeli national team was participating in it, so in some cases, the athletes are suffering because of some kind of political policies. I think it could be an equalizer, but I don’t think it is used enough.

Gate: One final question, who are your sports icons? Who do you look up to? Are there any athletes that you are interested in interviewing in the future?

Macur: I’ve talked to almost everybody, so that’s kind of hard. When I was a kid, I had some sports icons. I had this one guy who was an American hurdler, Edwin Moses, and I had his picture up on my wall. He was a 400 meter hurdler and that’s what I did in high school. I loved Mary Decker, who was a runner, and she was tripped up by a South African athlete in one of the Olympics and was crying about it. It was this really dramatic moment in the Olympics. Later on, she was sanctioned for having high testosterone levels, which signaled that she might’ve been on some illegal testosterone. And I look back and I think, “Well of course. She was way above the maximum that she should’ve had.” But this guy, Edwin Moses, he’s on the board of the US Anti-Doping Agency, and I had the chance to meet him a couple years ago. I can never know whether he was clean, but the fact that he’s leading the anti-doping movement in the US was pretty cool because I had his picture on my wall growing up. In the grand scheme of things, I don’t look to any sports figures as heroes because I know they are all fallible and they’re just people. A lot of them don’t follow the rules because they want to win. I don’t know how they do it—sometimes they cheat. You just can’t trust anybody in sports because you don’t know how they are training.

Liz Stark and Chelsea Fine


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