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Brian Cazeneuve
Sports Writer
New York City, New York
Written By: Anna Martemucci
Posted: 08/27/2006

Paul and I met with sports writer Brian Cazeneuve at the Sports Illustrated offices at the Time Warner building, where the security men in the lobby did everything short of frisk us. Once we were in, we sat surrounded by views of midtown Manhattan in the posh conference room and chatted about badminton, chocolate, football phones, and swimsuit issues. Mostly though, we talked about the interesting set of circumstances that led Cazeneuve to his position as a respected sport’s writer, journalist, and Olympics authority.

CCB: Did you always know that you would be a sports writer?

BC: I was always interested in sports, but I also had an interest in broadcasts and I’ve done a bunch of that. Especially now, that’s very common because most media outlets encourage writers to branch out and do things for, in our case, the web site and TV appearances and so forth.

I went to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, which was a high school graduation gift. I was very subtle about it, I mentioned it to my parents about five times a day, and so they “surprised” me with a trip to Los Angeles. I went there, and during the opening ceremonies, I had one of those moments; a very emotional moment. There were all of the people from all of the different countries and then the final torchbearer was Rafer Johnson who was one of my sporting heroes growing up. I just thought he was a great, cool, dignified person, and he lit the torch.

In the middle of the ceremonies, I remember writing notes, trying to figure out how I could graduate college early because the winter Olympics in ’88 were going to be in Calgary. So, I was trying to graduate in three years instead of four because then I could go to the next winter games too. I was making notes about AP credits and summer school and so forth. After the ceremonies were over, I went to the exit and looked everything over, looked at the athletes, and just sort of said, “OK, this is going to be my career, I’m not going to miss another Olympics.”  That was July 28th 1984, but whose counting. (Laughs)

It so happens that it was a much more accessible route to do that on the print side than on the broadcast side. Now for example the New York Times and Washington Post have correspondents in Europe to cover stories. At the time, they didn’t. So I got out of college in ‘87, worked for Time for a year, and then freelanced in Europe from ‘89 on during the summers. That’s the “Reader’s Digest” version.

CCB: What is it specifically about the Olympics that you feel so passionately about?

BC: I like the energy of it, the ideal of it, and the global nature of it. From a journalist’s perspective because there are so many different sports and so many people from so many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, you never have to write the same story twice. I’m a baseball fan, but I don’t want to cover baseball because I think that you’d find yourself writing the same story over and over again. Olympic athletes run the gamut, but many of them are not spoiled at all and are grateful to tell their stories.  And as I said, because you get every sort of component of the social-economic stratosphere, you get to meet people from all these walks of life. Its young people, it’s an ideal that is not hampered too much by commercialization and doping and so forth. It just has a really great vibe to it.

CCB: Where did you go to college?

BC: Boston University. I studied Journalism and I did make it out in three years. The story after that was that I managed to get hired by Time Magazine. I talked to one of the editors while I was a senior, which would have been 1987. I expressed interest in helping them with their coverage of the winter games. I offered to do absolutely everything: pour the coffee, carry the bags, run the Xerox machine, you name it. I was very lucky because the editor, a guy named Joe Ferrer, who ran the international edition at the time, happened to be going on vacation. We talked about some story ideas because the winter and summer games were at the same time, so they really did need an extra person. He said, “I’m going to be away on vacation for three-plus weeks. Can you come up with a list of story ideas for Calgary and Seoul that we can look into? We’ll set up a meeting when I get back.”  So I said “sure.”  I think he expected a sheet of paper. When he got back, I gave him a book. It had a hundred and fifty story suggestions. They were individual profiles, they were theme stories, and historical pieces. It really ran the gamut. He started to look through it and I remember the look on his face when I gave it to him. He had already forewarned me that he wasn’t sure what they’d be able to do at Time, but by the end of the day he had hired me, so that was great.

Then, I didn’t expect to write anything for them, but they had assigned three different people over the course of a few months to write Olympic stories for the international edition and I think one of them got hired away by the UN, one of them got transferred within the company, and one of them went on maternity leave. So I kept raising my hand to say “I’ll do it” and finally Joe let me write a small story and then finally the biweekly stories that they were running in the international edition leading up to the games, he finally decided to just go ahead and let me do that. That was a huge break and it sort of set up everything else.

Going back to your question about school, when I was at B.U., I wrote for the school paper.  They still have the same paper there, the Daily Free Press, which is a very good college paper, and I wrote for them as often as possible. That was a great experience because it was a newspaper newsroom environment and it was all done by students, right up to the managing editor. It was a great feeling of being able to participate and being part of that environment to see if it was something I would want to do later on. I kind of knew then that I would be heading in the print direction rather than the broadcasting direction. I had a lot of clips that I was able to put together and show Joe, not only from there but from a lot of other local publications. That’s a good thing to mention to prospective journalists. There are bound to be publications with limited budgets that would welcome a student who says, “I will not charge you a nickel of expense money and if you like my stories you can use them.”  It’s a very appealing thing to publications that are looking after their bottom line and it’s an appealing thing for students who are interested in publishing their work.

CCB: So you started at Time and then…

BC: I did a lot of work for Time in 1988. It was towards the end of ’87 that they took me on and it was for a project basis, meaning that I was paid by the hour and I wasn’t on staff, no medical benefits, nothing like that. When you’re right out of college obviously, that’s fine. So I did that for about a year and after that I was able to use those clips and approach the New York Times, the Washington Post and tell them that I was planning to go overseas during the summer. I gave them a list of story ideas and also a master calendar of events and I said, “Are you interested in anything?” I also sent it to People, the AP, Reuters, and some other newspapers. Slowly people started to fill in the blanks in the calendar.

I also got really lucky because the first event that I covered I was covering on spec for the New York Times. It was a track meet, the Belt Plaza track meet. It was in Zurich, Switzerland. They were not necessarily going to take something from me and they said, “We’ll see, maybe we’ll run something small.”  It so happened that that night, in the first race there was a world record set in the 110-meter hurdles. Roger Kingdom had broken a record set by Renaldo Nehemiah who had left track and field to go play in the NFL and Renaldo was slowly working his way back into track and field.

There were some other things that happened as well. Carl Lewis was supposed to run in the meet as well but excused himself because he didn’t get enough appearance money. The set up in the stadium was such that there was no press box. You ended up sitting in the stands and you could be sitting next to anybody. I ended up sitting off to the side; I didn’t really get a prime spot. Sitting next to me, were Renaldo Nehemiah and Carl Lewis just by chance. So I was able to get comments from Renaldo and Carl that no one else had; Renaldo about his record being broken in front of his eyes, and Carl about not competing in this meet.

I called up the editor and said, “This is the world record, and this is what happened, are you interested in something small, you said you might be?” He said, “Well actually no, we’re interested in something big. You see, the Mets and the Yankees were playing in different cities and they’ve both been rained out.” Suddenly I went from nothing to being the lead story in sports. I had thirty minutes to write the story because of their deadline. I was typing away furiously on this really old computer—a Tandy Radio Shack, which they called a “trash” which is basically what it was. You had to really hold down with great effort and force the earpiece in order for the transmission to go through, and that was if you were sending across the street, you can imagine if you were sending across the Atlantic Ocean.  But somehow it managed to get through. That led to thirteen or fourteen bylines with The Times that summer.

The first four track meets I went to that summer in Europe happened to be the four meets during the summer where world records were set. So I was ridiculously lucky, absurdly lucky. Everything that could have gone right that summer went right, and it allowed me to get my foot in the door with The New York Times, The Post, The International Herald Tribune, and the wires, AP and Reuters.

I remember after the summer, going back to New York and adding up my expenses and my income. Adding them up and adding them up and adding them up…. it was very helpful that I had a Euro rail youth pass, and I didn’t mind sleeping on trains or floors etcetera. I remember at the end, I came out ahead by seventeen dollars and I was absolutely thrilled. After four or five months of being away, that’s what it came down to.

So from there, I had a really good clip file and chose to stay freelance for a number of years because I could do that and could work overseas. I did that until Sports Illustrated hired me in 1995.

CCB: Was it stressful being a freelancer all that time?

BC: It wasn’t stressful from an economic standpoint, and as much as there was stress, there was a lot of fun because every acceptance was kind of a new step forward. I speak to a lot of college classes, at B.U., N.Y.U., and Columbia. One of the things I had going for me was that I really didn’t have any problems with rejection at all. When I speak to these classes, I bring in a stack of about 25 rejection notices from a lot of different people. I accepted the fact and I understood the fact that that was part of the growth process, and that it was fine. I knew that there were a lot of people who were very happy and successful in the careers in Journalism who had gone through the same thing.

If I had a bit of advice to give someone, it would definitely try to adopt that attitude. That rejection is going to be, not maybe, but will be part of your growth process. Don’t worry about it. Go on to the next opportunity and always look for opportunities. Don’t stress or fret about one thing that you really really have your heart set on because it may fall through, and it’s not a reflection on you, it may just be that the publication simply isn’t looking for somebody at that time, that your experience level isn’t there yet, but in a couple of years it might be. If you have a passion for the field, ambition will do you a world of good and second and third efforts will do you a world of good.

CCB: What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

BC: (He hesitates)

CCB: You really like it, don’t you?

BC: (Laughs) Yeah, I do. You know, it’s more personal than professional. The people here are really good. That goes for the writers, editors, photographers, the copy-editing department, which catches a million different little things—they’re all terrific. The hard part would really be the personal juggling act that you have to do; this somewhat nomadic existence. The personal relationships that you’d like to keep as though you happened to be in the same city 365 days out of the year. So that’s definitely it. Professionally, I really like what I do. It would be hard to pick out something that was enough of a pet peeve to qualify as a really bad part of working here.

CCB: What are your hours in the office like?

BC: I don’t have to be in the office at all. I’m not crazy about working from my apartment all the time, so I do come in. But I can pretty much make my own hours. The editors have regular hours, the reporters have regular hours, but the writers don’t.

CCB: How often do you end up traveling with your work?

BC: The busiest year was 2000, which was the Sydney Olympics and it was more than half the year: more days on the road than at home.  In an Olympic year, it usually has two really thick stretches. For me, that’s the summer and the winter. The springtime and the fall, there’s not as much. I probably do something every other week. Occasionally there’s a story that can be done out of New York, but more often than not, it involves travel. There are a lot of frequent flyer miles and a lot of frequent hotel points. In 2002 the Olympics were in Salt Lake City. I got to the airport ticket counter and the woman knew me by name before I got to the ticket counter. I had seven trips within a year. On the fifth or sixth trip, she had my name down.

CCB: What is the most rewarding thing about the job?

BC: The most rewarding thing is that you get to write about interesting people and you get to tell their stories to the readership. I think everybody, regardless of what they do, wants to do their job well. The affirmation from your peers, who I respect a lot and from people who read the magazine, is definitely the best part. It’s great to be able to travel to different places and see different cities, but to do something that you enjoy and have that kind of feedback is irreplaceable. It makes it more than a just a job and a way to pay your bills.

CCB: Did you read Sports Illustrated as a kid?

BC: Oh yeah, my subscription goes back to 1972.

CCB: Do you have a favorite Olympic moment?

BC: I’m a sap, a really bad sap. I love stories that make you appreciate the human spirit. One of my favorites was always Dan Janssen, the speed skater who lost his sister on Valentines Day in 1988, which happened to be her birthday. Dan came from a family of, I think, nine kids and his sister was the one who taught him to speed skate. He was due to skate on her birthday in Calgary. She had been suffering from leukemia for some time and he had gotten the call that morning saying that he might want to say something into the phone to Jane, that she might be able to hear him, but she couldn’t say anything. So he told her he loved her and so forth. Then it was within hours that he found out that she had passed away. Dan was the world record holder. He went out and skated and for the first time in years, he fell. This was in the 500 meters, the event that he was favored to win. He then went out a couple days later in the 1000 and for the second time he fell. He was favored to win gold in both races. There were all sort of psychological evaluations as to why this had never happened and why it happened then; about Dan’s guilt over not being able to share his crowning moment with Jane.

In the four years after that, he broke a couple of other world records and he went to Albertville again as the favorite to win the 500 and one of the favorites to win the 1000. He had been having a great winter leading up to that and all of the stories were of course about Jane and her memory and so forth. He went out and in the 500 was way ahead of world record pace and in the final turn, slipped again, and did not fall but finished fourth by hundredths of a second. In the 1000 he adopted a somewhat silly strategy of going out as fast as he could and at the 600-meter mark he was ahead of world record pace and then he just faded.

He would have retired because he had gotten married, and his wife ended up having a baby who they named Jane, after his sister. But it was an odd time because the Olympics had been on this four-year cycle where the summer and winter games were in the same year. They happened to break that up that year so they had a ‘92 Winter Olympics and a ‘94 Winter Olympics, in Lillehammer. Only because of that did he continue. Leading up to the ‘94 year, he did something a little different in that he focused in on the 500, figuring that the 1000 was out of his reach. He really didn’t have the strength to hold his form for that entire race. He broke his record before the games again.

He went to Lillehammer and again ahead of world record pace, slipped and missed out on another medal in the 500. His only 1000-meter race the entire season was the US trials, which he won, because the team really wasn’t that strong. So he had the 1000 a couple days later, which he chose to, do anyway. This time he slipped a little bit early in the race but he pushed himself up with his hand and I remember him being very mad at himself because he kept doing this and kept doing this and kept doing this. He managed to right himself though and ended up breaking the world record and winning the gold medal in the last race of his career. The follow up to that was that he did his victory lap with his daughter, Jane on his shoulders. One of my favorite lines that I ever wrote and I did it for the wires, I didn’t do it for SI, was that in the period up to the games everyone was talking about how he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. So I described the scene of Dan going around on the victory lap with Jane on his shoulders and I described his shoulders, and I said, “At last they only carried the weight of new life.” 

That was probably my favorite story. I absolutely remember fighting back tears, as everybody did when he finally won. He was a really good guy and we all had gotten to appreciate his humility and what a decent person he was and what a horrible thing it was for him to get teased every single time. He skated these races that he felt too guilty to win. He finally ended up winning and being able to appreciate it with a Jane in his life after all.

CCB: In the big picture, why do you think people so embrace sports?

BC: Sports are fun. Sports are fun to play because they’re a release of energy. Sports are fun to watch because it’s like going to a play or watching a movie, but it doesn’t matter how bad the acting is because even the actors don’t know the outcome. There is real drama and there’s conflict. There are heroes and villains and yet the outcome is not going to change the world. There are a lot of areas of conflict in the world where the losers suffer a pretty bad fate. In the field of sports the losers simply say, “OK, we’ll get them next year.”