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VOL. 131 | NO. 105 | Thursday, May 26, 2016

University of Memphis Students to Cover Rio Olympics

By Don Wade

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When Chip Williams came to the University of Memphis he never could have imagined that he would be going to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

A group of University of Memphis journalism students will earn college credit while getting the experience of a lifetime by covering the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I started as an accounting major,” he said. “I was sort of blinded by the money.”

Well, he’s over that given that he’s now a journalism major. Williams will be one of 14 U of M journalism students going to Brazil this summer to cover the Olympic Games. So begins his journey of being paid in life experiences.

The University of Memphis and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are the only two universities that have an agreement with Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee to bring students there as interns.

And it’s only happening because Dr. Roxane Coche, assistant professor in the U of M’s Department of Journalism and Strategic Media, is a hockey fan. Specifically, a Wayne Gretzky fan.

Gretzky’s mantra: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

With that in mind, Coche decided to take her shot at getting students to Rio for the Olympics. Her shots were taken in the form of about two dozen emails. It was, by her own admission, a rather scattershot approach. To this day, she’s not even sure which email got through to the right person with Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee and set things in motion.

Because she didn’t have enough qualified students to fill all the intern slots, she reached out to her contacts at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she completed her Ph.D. at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“All thanks to Dr. C.,” said Rebecca Butcher, a Memphis senior going on the trip.

Coche will supervise the program, for which the students will receive three hours of credit. Soon, they will be assigned one or more sports that they will cover at the Olympics and begin researching and writing in preparation for the Games, which start with Opening Ceremonies Aug. 5. The students will arrive several days earlier and will be housed in the Olympic Media Village, where they will be surrounded by media professionals from all across the globe.

It is, to say the least, a unique networking opportunity.

“Honestly, I’m hoping to get a job out of this,” said Butcher, whose interest is on the broadcast side of the business even though she will be exclusively writing for the Olympic News Service (ONS), as will all the other interns.

“It’s a good opportunity to present yourself,” Butcher said. “But it’s a little bit of pressure writing multiple stories every day.”

Coche says the relentlessness of the experience is one of the main benefits. Students will be immersed in their craft for three solid weeks. Williams isn’t about to complain.

“Plenty of journalists would love to go to the Olympics,” he said. “And I’m just a student.”

He’s a student who hopes to one day be a full-time sports writer and, yes, he understands that likely means starting in some backwater town writing about high school sports – or even youth sports – for the competitors’ family and friends.

Williams will be editor of U of M’s campus newspaper, The Daily Helmsman, next fall. He has covered U of M sports and the Grizzlies and that star-struck feeling of being in an NBA locker room has mostly faded.

Both Butcher and Williams have some trepidation about being assigned a sport about which they have little knowledge – Butcher would love to get track & field because she ran track in high school – but she also is fascinated by all the other stories swirling around these Olympic Games.

From the Zika virus and the poor quality of water in Guanabara Bay to the suspension of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, to the country’s worst recession in decades, to ongoing corruption scandals tied to Brazil’s infrastructure, there is a lot to consider beyond the medal count.

Butcher’s ultimate goal: become a foreign correspondent one day.

“I like writing,” she said. “I like relating to people, interviewing them, telling their stories to people who might not know.”

That, in essence, is the narrative of the Olympics. There are as many stories as there are athletes. And thus journalists are needed to tell the stories.

Coche says when Butcher and Williams interviewed with the U of M Journalism Department staff they proved beyond a doubt they are ready for the assignments that await them.

“They killed it,” she said.

Now, they get their chance to prove her right, to make some memories, and to put something on their resumes even most veteran journalists cannot.

Said Williams: “I’m treating it as a business trip.”

Editor's note: The university has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help the students offset the program costs.

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