Q&A with Dylan Howlett, researcher for NBC Olympics

Dylan Howlett is a researcher for NBC Olympics, helping the network prepare for the summer games in Brazil. In this interview, conducted by email, Howlett talks about his job and his journalism education. He also gives us a preview of what we might see in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Q. Describe your job at NBC. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day, the Olympics department serves the mission of readying our broadcasters, producers, marketers and digital writers for the upcoming Olympic Games. How, exactly, we serve that mission differs greatly. The ultimate goal remains assembling “The Manual,” a veritable bible that provides all Olympic employees with everything they need to know — and don’t need to know — about the host country, the games and Olympic athletes.

We don’t do this out of bravado, but rather out of necessity, because the breadth of the Olympics is staggering: In Rio, more than 10,500 athletes from about 205 nations will compete in 35 sports.

I think the undertaking falls somewhere between Quixotic and delusional, but NBC has routinely proven itself up to the task. I just try my best to not screw up a pristine operation.

Because of the magnitude of the games, NBC’s team of five Olympic researchers divides among themselves the 35 sports. We then fan out across the country and globe, traveling to world championships and other internationally attended events to speak with athletes and learn about  their personal stories. These help lend substance to, or even identify subjects for, NBC’s renowned “Up Close and Personal” profile pieces — those weepy, uber-inspiring tales that induce eye moisture in the most stoic people you know.

They also bolster our preparation for specific events: It’s helpful on multiple fronts to know that an Egyptian fencer once used makeshift weaponry to help protect his Alexandria home from roving bandits during the Egyptian revolution AND that he faces stiff competition, namely from three Americans, as he vies to defend his 2012 London silver medal. That fusion of the compelling and pedantic ensures we can serve our whole Olympic audience, from those who are there purely for sport to those who want a compelling reason to root for someone.

My Rio portfolio includes handball, weightlifting, fencing, rugby and golf. I have the attention span of a goldfish, so I typically allot my time according to my upcoming travel schedule. With two international rugby events slated for early March, I’m now immersed in scrums and rucks and the Haka tribal dance.

Rugby presents an ideal example of what we try to do with every sport, mostly because its return to the Olympics after a 92-year absence means we’re starting from scratch. We produce entries in The Manual on Rules, Olympic Venues, Olympic Schedule, History of Sport, Olympic History and a Glossary for every sport, as well as brief biographies on as many athletes as possible.

With those main entries completed, I’ve turned my attention to reading articles on players from around the world to prepare for, I hope, insightful interviews on the ground at those tournaments in March. The catch, however, is this: All reporting and research is strictly internal. I don’t produce any external editorial content. Everything I gather at events gets dumped into a virtual notebook, and those facts, quotes and anecdotes will eventually be repurposed throughout The Manual. Though I do love the sound of my own voice, we don’t want to tip off any other outlets to our precious information.

The gratification comes during the Olympics when someone learns something about an athlete that makes their heart skip a beat. Be on the lookout, for instance, for an American athlete who as a teenager ate dog food while in foster care.

Each day brings something unexpected because we are, at least in theory, the keepers of Olympic knowledge and arcane statistics. That means we often get solicitations from NBC’s promo department, marketing department, graphics coordinators, producers and anyone with intellectual curiosities about Rio de Janeiro or the 1936 Olympic bid process or how Michael Phelps performed at an international swimming meet in 2005 (we are not to question the relevance of any of these queries). It’s simply another chance to masquerade as an expert.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying this: Most days, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and concepts that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. Thanks, Andy, for reminding me that I’ve left the Southern Part of Heaven for the prickly environs of the Real World.

My job proves emphatically a maxim that my newswriting professor, Keith King, and my good friend John Robinson both imparted to me early on at the j-school: Journalism is constant learning. You wade into something you either don’t understand or wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, you learn what you don’t know from those who know, and then you synthesize everything you’re learned into a clear, concise and correct piece of writing that creates this wonderful illusion of expertise.

That’s pretty much my whole job. I’m not a connoisseur of fencing or weightlifting by any means, but after spending time with athletes and coaches, I can at least speak of both pursuits without sounding like I’m having an aneurysm. And what’s not to love about learning?

For every bit of inconsequential minutiae (Albertson Van Zo Post won the United States’ last men’s fencing gold medal in 1904) there’s a bit of something fascinating, like how much money Qatar makes every year from its lucrative oil contracts (an unspeakable sum) and how much of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed (an area about 160 times the size of Manhattan). It’s hard to beat free, constant learning.

The other bit of j-school resonance in this job comes from the teachings of John and the inimitable Tim Crothers: Everyone — EVERYONE — has a story, and everyone whose story you think you know has an even better one.

I think it’s fair to say that most prospective sportswriters or broadcasters aspire to high-profile subjects: the Super Bowl, LeBron James, the Yankees beat. But deeply moving and largely unknown stories lie in everyone.

Peter King, Sports Illustrated’s tour-de-force football writer, once said that famed SI feature writer Gary Smith almost exclusively delved into “the marginalia of life” — a black high school basketball coach in Amish country, a young man with intellectual disabilities helping out a high school football team, a mediocre baseball player haunted by an accidental murder from his childhood.

Talking to fencers and weightlifters and handball players has reminded me that the human spirit is indefatigable, and it is not the exclusive domain of those athletes we know by heart. That is, perhaps, the most compelling part of this job: finding untold stories that are worth telling the world.

I also have other j-school reminders: a copy of the 2013 AP Stylebook, the conventions of reporting from J153 and J253 and an eye for editing from your News Editing course. As for new skills (besides finding out that I screw up prolifically, and sometimes publicly), I’ve harkened back to my J153 days and learned how to write simply, clearly and effectively. Most of the written material we produce is designed to be told over the air, and there’s little room for overwrought, flowery language.

I am a repeated perpetrator of said language. I’ve found it challenging at times to rein it in, but there’s certainly something to be said for writing copy like you would say it (hat tip to Dave Cupp). There is singular eloquence in simplicity. It’s good to be reminded of that once in a while.

Q. What advice do you have for journalism students interested in sportswriting?

A. First, drown out all of the masochists who have been singing the dirge of journalism for God knows how long. Yes, Buzzfeed pisses me off too, but its sheer existence doesn’t mean we’re all doomed to some sort of hellscape where a Snapchatting Tupac hologram constitutes our only news source.

Second, there are so many opportunities in this business to contribute in a creative and writing capacity beyond traditional reporting roles. I had no idea my current job existed until my boss emailed me and asked whether I’d be interested in applying.

Sure, I miss writing stories on deadline and working on longer feature stories, but it’s a job in sports, and it’s a job in sports that allows me to, at the very least, afford the McDonald’s Dollar Menu. In other words, there are many ways to get to the same place.

Speaking directly to anyone who’s foolish enough to care about what I have to say: I know you’ve probably heard a lot of defeatist proclamations about journalism and the insane level of competition in broadcasting and all sorts of dire projections about your desired career path. To all of that apocalyptic noise I say this: Who made those people the arbiter of your dreams? If this is what you love, if this is what vaults you out of bed every morning, if this is what makes you happy, then who is anyone to tell you “no”? Go for it.

Q. So. Based on your research so far, what storylines and fun facts can we expect to hear about from Rio? And will you get to go?

A. A breeding pool of 30 baby alligators sits behind the 13th green on the Olympic golf course. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, has an approval rating that is 12 percentage points lower than Richard Nixon’s was the day he resigned from office (24 percent). The 1920 Brazilian water polo team featured a player known as Chocolate. If that doesn’t get you excited for Rio, I don’t know what will.

It’s impossible to discuss the Rio Olympics without addressing the negativity that has strangled the latest Olympic news cycle. The United States Olympic Committee denies it told its sports federations that they could give female athletes and staffers the option to skip the games if they didn’t want to risk the health of their future children by contracting the Zika virus (it’s been attributed to cases of microcephaly in newborns). There’s a severe shortage of available doctors in the city. The games are wildly over budget, and some venues have either been downsized or compromised. As part of its successful bid in 2009, Rio promised to sanitize 80 percent of its filthy Guanabara Bay. With 150,000 gallons of raw sewage still spilling into the bay every minute, organizers have now conceded their promise will go unfulfilled. They will instead have 20 “eco boats” patrolling the waters during sailing and swimming competitions to scoop up, say, floating sofas before they obstruct competitors.

This is all part of the six-month ritual that precedes the Olympics: Nothing is getting done, nothing will get done and the games will be an unremitting disaster. And then all of that magically disappears for 16 days in August (though I’m sure Brazilians will argue rather audibly that the nation’s issues, some of which the organizing committee vowed to ameliorate, will not disappear after August 2016).

Returning to competition, I’m looking forward to these three storylines:

  • Michael Phelps says he’s in the best shape of his life. Michael Phelps says he has never been more committed to swimming. Michael Phelps says he’s anxious to see what he can accomplish while giving swimming his unconditional all. Michael Phelps’s greatest was already pretty damn great. He might set a new threshold in Rio. And even if he doesn’t, it will likely be everyone’s last chance to watch one of the world’s most extraordinary athletes.
  • Allyson Felix, the American sprinter who already has four gold medals and two silver, will attempt something in Rio that only two other women have ever accomplished at the Olympics: winning the 200m and 400m, both of which are held on the same day. The other women were 24 and 28, respectively, when they pulled off “the double.” Felix is 30. It would be a remarkable, if not unprecedented, feat for a 30-year-old Olympian.
  • This is how much Brazilians care about soccer: Brazil lost on home soil to Uruguay in the final match of the 1950 World Cup. It is regarded as the nation’s greatest embarrassment, so much so that Brazilians consider the loss an equivalent tragedy to 9/11 and the bombing of Hiroshima. Then there was the 2014 World Cup, again on home soil, when they lost, 7-1, to Germany in the semifinals. A tabloid declared the defeat “Humiliation for Eternity.” Brazil has never won an Olympic gold medal in soccer. For the sake of its people’s psychological, emotional and physical well-being, it would be nice for Brazil to experience soccer bliss. They’re running out of morbid analogies, anyway.

I’m not sure whether I’ll be in Rio or working with a dedicated studio team at our NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Either way, I’ll be part of the production, which represents a serious lapse in judgment on the part of my supervisors. I won’t ask too many questions.