And the gold for endurance goes to...

Fancy a fortnight of fast food, snatched sleep and frantic deadlines? It's not only the athletes who face a test of stamina at the Olympic Games.

"A metaphorical hell"; "horrific hard work"; "constant agitation"; "a frenzy". What is this nightmare assignment journalists are describing? A Kurdish refugee camp? The Tory party conference? Surely not the highlight of the sporting calendar?

"A metaphorical hell"; "horrific hard work"; "constant agitation"; "a frenzy". What is this nightmare assignment journalists are describing? A Kurdish refugee camp? The Tory party conference? Surely not the highlight of the sporting calendar?

In fact, far from being the top sporting jolly that most journalists suspect, for sportsdesk veterans of summer Olympics, says James Lawton, who has covered seven such Games, the Olympics is an assignment about which "you feel as much trepidation as anticipation".

Lawton, who flew out yesterday to cover Sydney 2000 for The Independent, adds: "It's the toughest job you can do. It's usually mediocre accommodation, long hours, little sleep and constant agitation about whether you're in the right place at the right time. It's no bowl of cherries."

"Frankly," says Richard Williams of The Guardian, on his third Olympics run, "people think sports writing is a holiday. But we end up working horrifically hard."

Now semi-retired but freelancing for The Daily Telegraph, David Miller, who has reported on every summer Olympics since Rome in 1960, has decided that this year enough is enough. The former chief sports writer for The Times will watch the Sydney Games on the TV at home. Covering the Games, he says "used to be like the event itself; much more intimate, friendly, informal, accessible. There was continuity and the re-forming every four years of a kind of international press club. Now, since Seoul in particular, it's become much more of a frenzy."

Access to competitors is no longer the joy it used to be, he adds. "In Montreal in 1976 Ed Moses was emerging who everyone had heard of on the grapevine and knew was going to be special. In the week prior to the event I was able to go to the training ground, find Moses, talk to him for half an hour without the slightest problem and get a really nice feature.

"You could go to the training camp then, you could walk around. That's almost impossible now. Interviews have to be scheduled and you have to ring about 10 people. It takes hours. The growth of journalistic coverage has made the Games 10 or 20 times more difficult."

To make things worse, there is very little in preparation that journalists can do before arriving at their hotels or specially rented houses and apartments in the Olympic city. They can read the cuts, follow the wires, pinpoint possible feature ideas, introduce themselves to the British team, pull all their facts and figures together (Pat Sheehan of The Sun says a quarter of his luggage allowance will be taken up with documents to help him).

But the Olympic Games is always something of an unknown quantity. If it's not a political, administrative or terrorist scandal that takes journalists by surprise, then - horror of horrors - it's a sporting one. Eleanor Oldroyd, this year covering her third summer Games for BBC Radio, has hardly bothered with swotting for this year's Games. She has learned her lesson. Sent to cover the judo eight years ago in Barcelona with only half an hour's notice and little background knowledge, she made sure she knew her judo stuff in time for the Atlanta games.

"I'd been caught out before so I went to the European Judo Championships beforehand and read up all about the sport," she says. "You can't become a world expert in a matter of weeks but I did enough. Then, we won not a single medal for the first time in umpteen games."

Says Williams: "You really don't know until you get there where the stories are going to come from, particularly if you're thinking about the British team this year. We're not in a year where it's possible to say British athletes are going to be in with a very good chance on the track so the medals could be from anywhere - from small-bore rifle shooting or three-day eventing. You just have to be prepared to get to grips with sports that you're not familiar with."

And the stars of the Games will make themselves headline news for more than just their sporting prowess, adding to the journalists' difficulties. In Montreal in 1976, James Lawton found himself on the wrong side of town when he heard the news that the Soviet athlete Boris Onyshchenko had been caught cheating in the fencing section of the modern pentathlon by wiring up his épée to record misses as hits against his opponent.

In 1988 in Seoul, it was half an hour before Lawton's first-edition time when the much-whispered rumour of Ben Johnson's drug-taking was confirmed by officials. He had to write 2,000 words pretty smartly. It was," he says, "an ordeal."

But Lawton was named sports journalist of the year for that effort - as he admits, covering the Olympics can be draining, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

If they weren't fired up with an adrenalin count that compares well with the athletes', it would be any wonder the journalists could cope at all. Sheehan says in Atlanta he was leaving his hotel for events at 5am "and that was after shutting down my computer at 1am".

Oldroyd says that in Barcelona she ate nothing but takeaway pizzas. "I put on two stone," she laughs.

Together with the usual administrative difficulties of getting passes to the big events (needed on top of journalistic accreditation) and sorting transport to the different venues (Atlanta was a particular, and well-documented, logistical disaster), it all adds up to a fair headache.

In Sydney all the usual problems will be exacerbated by the time-differences. Fitting in the day's events in Sydney with writing for London deadlines will mean a 20-hour operation. And Sheehan says he knows that production staff back in London - motivated by need rather than vindictiveness - will not hesitate to call him at any hour, regardless of his need to catch a few hours' shut-eye.

Even in Barcelona, says Miller, "you were having to file your copy at midnight, snatch a late meal, then take a two-mile walk to the hotel because you couldn't grab a taxi and the metro had been closed because there were so many people. No one ever moans because it's great to be there but it can be a metaphorical hell."

A problem which will probably not be experienced by some of the "celebrity" writers that have become a feature of this year's coverage. The Independent and its Sunday sister, for example, have Clive James and novelist Kathy Lette, while The Times has Bill Bryson.

So what are the compensations? It is worth remembering that anybody who goes into sports journalism is, above all, absolutely nuts about sport. So first there's being at the sporting world's biggest event. "It's more than a week of watching sport," enthuses Sheehan.

Then there can be the discovery of an unexpected pleasure. "I do find that you get beguiled by something you might not have given much thought to before. I spent a lot of time in Atlanta watching the US women's gymnastics. It was a fantastic, compelling performance," says Williams.

Then there are those one-off Olympic moments. Oldroyd, who is taking her eight-month-old baby to enjoy the Sydney extravaganza, recalls the night that Linford Christie won the gold and was brought into the studio to be interviewed. "I thought, 'This is the most famous man on the planet'. It was a massive thrill - a highlight of my career."

As Lawton says: "You do have to get a huge buzz out of it."

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