In a soft whisper, Hannah asks if I'm comfortable. Her hands begin to knead my neck. They tip-toe along the arches connecting to my shoulders and pull the skin taut. Candlelight shivers along dark walls. Folk music oozes from a small ghetto blaster on the carpeted floor. Hannah's hands creep lower down my back. They flutter across my spine. I stare at a Greek head sculpture, wrought from imitation marble, mounted to a column in the centre of the room, surrounded by smooth, tiny stones. Rosewater fumes soften the air. Hannah squeezes the flesh below my armpits. She burrows palms into my shoulder blades. "Okay, all done," she says.
I sit up from my blue-padded massage chair, almost intoxicated. Six other chairs form a small circumference around the Greek sculpture. I watch an older man soften under the gentle pats of his masseuse. "Are these real?" I ask, rubbing green leaves from a potted plant between my fingers. "No, I don't think so," Hannah replies.
Thousands of media personnel now walk the linoleum hallways and carpeted chambers of the Main Press Centre for the 2010 Winter Games. It's an exclusive bubble, sealed from Vancouver by accreditation and security. Media gain access by paying large sums of money. I got in with a temporary day pass procured by a colleague. I ate McDonalds, studied dead animals, chugged Coke and got my back rubbed by Hannah for free.
'You pay to plug your computer in'
It would appear media centre staff are trained to ignore journalists who know what they're doing, and pounce on the ones that don't. It happens several times during my visit. Present an innocent question, hesitant step or shaky glance and suddenly bubbly helpers in light-blue Vancouver 2010 sweaters come to the rescue. That's how I get my tour of Ballroom B, the cavernous bullpen where Olympics news comes from. Picture row upon row of long desks receding into the distance. Reporters hunched over laptops, or groaning when a snowboarder wipes out on the widescreen TVs that seem to be everywhere.
Jordan, my helper at the moment, leads me across the newsroom floor. "You pay to plug your computer in," he says. (That's not quite true -- I later power up at no cost. But with two weeks of wireless going for $260, it might as well be.)
Jordan and I stop at a wall of blue cardboard shelves, each slotted from top to bottom. "This is the Olympics news service," he says. Eye-level labels read "Biathlon" and "Figure Skating." At regular intervals, blue-sweatered staff fill slots with race-time printouts and news releases.
"If you miss a press conference it's okay," Jordan says, "you can let the ONS do the work for you." I tell him I've been hearing rumours of free coffee and massages. I'm not mistaken. The massages are upstairs he tells me matter-of-factly, and I make a mental note to wind back that direction.
"The coffee's this way," Jordan says. He departs as I fill the first of way-too-many free cups.
'Double cheeseburger meal with Coke please'
Geographically, the Main Press Centre resembles such head-scratchers as Gibraltar and Point Roberts. It's housed at Canada Place, a long pier jutting into Burrard Inlet. White security tents keep anyone but accredited personnel out. Staff open a tall gate when you'd like to leave. The MPC is even cut off from the gleaming, $883 million Vancouver Convention Centre just down the waterfront. That's for broadcaster pass holders, I'm told, when I ask directions there.
After several hours wandering up and down Canada Place's delegate concourse, I get hungry. The most convenient option is Ballroom C. The former conference hall has been converted into a temporary McDonald's with Coke-sponsored food court alongside. Imagine a high-school cafeteria with carpeted floors. The "Canadian Carvery" food station offers daily roasts, Nanaimo bars and an inexplicable "Lemon curd slice." No thanks. I'd rather eat at the Golden Arches.
"One double cheeseburger meal with Coke please," I ask a smiling McEmployee. My fingers drum the counter. It's like every McDonald's I've ever been to. Yet something feels off. I sit at an olive-green fast-food booth with artificial flowers on the table. An electric fireplace simulates flames beside plump purple chairs. My french-fry container has greasy fingerprints down the side. Between gulps of Coke, I eavesdrop on two German reporters. I'm informed later all the deep-fryers, cash registers and burger photography will be taken away once the Olympics are over. For now, the mobile McDonald's is open 24/7. I can't help but wonder how long it'll take the smell of grease to go away.
Beaver pelts + stuffed pheasants = Canada?
Olympics host cities are like nervous teenagers throwing a house party. Desperately wanting visitors to think they're cool, they're worried even the slightest misstep could ruin everything. For all the talk and hype surrounding Vancouver's Games, the foreign media are here, watching and recording and typing and filing. It's a cliché, but they're actually telling our story to the world.
That can be hard work. For journalists looking to unwind, the MPC has set up a temporary bar on the premises. To get there, you exit the delegate concourse and walk north along Canada Place's western promenade. The bar is a modest, tent-like structure with floor-to-ceiling windows. It's closed when I get there, so I cup my hands to look through the glass. Sleek, metal chairs surround counters with lime-green sides. A chandelier made from antlers hangs above. Logs have been laid against a section of wall, presumably to evoke a winter chalet. Assorted knickknacks adorn this rustic feature-wall. A painted canoe oar. Old-fashioned snowshoes. Moose antlers and a beaver pelt. But what really grabs me is a stuffed pheasant, seemingly pinned to the wall mid-flight. I stare hard. Standing on the promenade, enclosed by ocean and security barriers, dehydrated from Coke and free coffee, McDonald's salt on my lips, neck sore and stiff, I feel incapable of movement. It's been one more brutal day covering the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Really, I could use another massage.
Read more: 2010 Olympics