With the Winter Olympics in full swing, Auburn University's Ric Smith knows firsthand what it’s all about.
Smith, a current instructor and internship director for the School of Communications and Journalism, worked as the sports information manager between athletes and rights-holding broadcasters including NBC or Canada’s CBC at specific venues in the Atlanta, Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens games from 1996-2004.
“Whatever the television organization was that had the rights for that country, that’s who I was working with to help them get the information they needed," Smith said. "[I helped] them be in the places they needed to be for the coverage or interviews and part of that was to keep them out of the places they weren’t supposed to be.”
Smith said the memories and connections made through his time at the Olympics have given him one of the greatest experiences he could ask for.
Smith served his position for four Olympics, each at a different venue. For the 1996 Summer Olympics, Smith worked at the Main Press Center in Atlanta. He did Water Polo in Sydney for the 2000 Summer Olympics and long-track speed skating in Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics. For the 2004 Summer Olympics, Smith worked Outside Races in Athens.
“They were all very exciting because each one is unique in its way," Smith said."Atlanta is special because that was first, and that was home for me in a way."
Smith said Sydney was special not only because it was an amazing city, but it was the first Olympics he was involved with outside the country.
"Salt Lake City was the only Winter Olympics I did, so that was unique," Smith said. "Athens is the home of the original modern games and just incredible.”
Smith’s work with the games was not a full-time job, he said. He’d be away from home for about a month, two weeks before to prepare and two weeks for the games themselves, then he would return home.
But what he learned during his time, Smith said, was priceless.
“It gave me real world experience that’s unique," Smith said. "Not too many people get the opportunity to do that, so it gives me stories to tell in class and students love stories.”
Smith said his real-world experience with the Olympics greatly impacted his teaching at Auburn.
“I think it makes these ideas and concepts we talk about more real," Smith said. "I can say, ‘Here’s the concept for you to understand, and here’s a way that I’ve seen it be applied.’"
Smith said he created the potential for guest speakers and contacts for students for networking opportunities through the people he would meet during his experiences.
When Smith discovered the 1996 Games were to be held in Atlanta, he said he knew he wanted to be involved in some way.
“I’ve been a fan of the games all my life, and with Atlanta, I knew I at least wanted to watch the competition," Smith said. "I also knew I wanted to be involved in some way. I was willing to volunteer, I just wanted to be connected.”
Each Olympics has a host broadcaster that provides coverage of the entire Olympics. This broadcaster has a host-broadcasting training program in which they involve students in entry-level positions.
Atlanta Olympic Broadcasting served as the Atlanta Olympics’ host broadcaster, and Auburn’s vicinity to Atlanta ensured that Auburn University would serve as a recruitment point for the program.
Smith worked as the contact point for students to set up meetings, and through working with AOB, Smith got his dream.
“It’s true with most things in life – one connection can lead to another connection and to another connection, and when I met that person, I told him this is who I am, and this is what I’ve done and I explained the experience I’ve had and how I’d love to be involved in some way,” he said.
After numerous meetings following, Smith received an offer to serve as information manager for the Atlanta Games.
“Then once you’re in, and you do a good job and go about your business properly, then that leads to other opportunities," Smith said. "That’s what led to Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens.”
Upon arriving in Atlanta at the Main Press Center, Smith said he couldn’t have been more excited.
“I understood how big it is and what a dream it is and how cool it is to be a part of that and the responsibility that comes with it,” he said.
Smith said the thing that stands out the most from his time working the Olympics is all the incredible people he met and formed relations with over the course of his eight years.
“Since I was involved in four games, what I find is in that type of setting, you see a lot of the same people again and again," Smith said. "It’s an amazing thing to have that connection with different people from different parts of the world who you then come back together with and you pick up where you were before.”
Smith said while issues may have occurred, there’s more camaraderie in the competition between the countries’ rights holders.
“You know, NBC is trying to get the interview, and Australia Seven is trying to get the interview, but there’s also a very tight protocol on how interviews work," Smith said. "NBC has the coverage for the United States, they aren’t competing with any other American television so that allows the rights holders from each country to cooperate with each other."
Smith said, to some degree, they are competing, but there’s another aspect in which they’re more coordinating in the way they work.
During his time working the Olympics, Smith had the opportunity to interact with some of the athletes and said he loved getting to know them as more than what we see on television.
“What you recognize is that they’re just normal people," Smith said. "They’re amazing athletes, and you see them perform, and it’s just stunning. But at the same time, you have an opportunity to get to know them as real live people just like everyone else.”
Smith said, occasionally, athletes would have interviews after winning their gold medals and would bring the medals with them.
“I’ve actually had an opportunity to wear a gold medal," he said. "An athlete came and had his medal with him and asked me if I wanted to put it on. It was every bit as heavy as I thought it would’ve been.”
Smith not only had the opportunity to meet athletes but also celebrities. Smith had the opportunity to meet comedian Conan O’Brien in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games at the long-track speed skating.
“He came out to do a bit for the show," Smith said. "You can’t miss him because he’s very tall; he’s like 6'7". I was the only guy, so all the girls wanted to take a picture with him one at a time."
For students interested in getting involved in an experience such as his, Smith advised to get involved and get as much experience as they possibly can. Experience, he said, is key.
“That’s what led to my first connection in Atlanta because of all the work that I had done before," Smith said. "It all connects. It’s all important in its own way. The work that I had done in radio and television, some sports work that I had done, that’s what made me stand out and what prepared me.”
After entering the 2004 Athens Games, Smith said he knew it would be his last as he wanted to focus on other things – like his dedication to Auburn University.
Smith currently serves as the stadium announcer for Auburn football and teaches a variety of courses in the School of Communication and Journalism, eagerly sharing his experience and memories of his Olympics adventures with his students.
“All of that experience helps build you into who you are as a professional in that field and helps prepare you, especially for high-stress, fast-paced circumstances, which the Olympics is as high-stress and fast-paced as it can be,” Smith said.