SEAL HARBOR, Maine — Amid the curiosities and delicacies for sale at the checkout counter of The Naturalist’s Notebook in Seal Harbor is something that does not have a price tag: the track shoes worn by a bronze-medal winning Olympian in 1992 in Barcelona.
It might seem an unusual display piece for a nature, art and science-themed shop and exploratorium, but in fact 10,000-meter medalist Lynn Jennings’ shoes fit right in. That’s because shop co-owner and co-creator Craig Neff is a longtime writer and editor for Sports Illustrated, and has covered the Olympic Games since 1979.
He is now in London, where he is overseeing a team of more than 50 writers, photographers and others who are busy producing coverage for the weekly magazine, for the website SI.com and for a daily magazine app called Sports Illustrated Live From London. It is the 11th Olympic Games he has attended, and his enthusiasm and love for the events sound like it has only grown over the years.
“Covering the Olympics is both grueling and exhilarating,” he wrote this weekend in an email sent from London. “There’s a palpable energy and excitement, and great stories everywhere — just what you hope for as a journalist. There’s no other peaceful gathering of so many people from so many countries.”
Neff, 54, who lives in Trenton with his wife, artist and photographer Pamelia Markwood, said each Olympics leaves “indelible” memories and images.
“I’ll never forget the electricity and deafening roar in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney in 2000 when Australian track star Cathy Freeman, who is Aboriginal, won the 400 meters — a watershed moment for her country,” he wrote. “I remember running through the streets of Atlanta, working around barricades, to get to a phone after the park bombing there. I remember how bitterly cold it was on the cross-country skiing course in Lillehammer, Norway, in 1994 — but also how tremendously warm the Norwegian people were.”
The 1988 Seoul Games provided some memorable moments as well. Neff slipped and badly strained ligaments in his foot while racing to answer a call from a Sports Illustrated editor, which he called an Olympic low point.
But that didn’t stop him from doing his best to chase down the news. He covered Greg Louganis’ head-bashing dive, met with protesting South Korean dissidents and tried to contribute to the magazine’s breaking coverage of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson’s doping scandal.
So far, the London Olympics is running very smoothly, Neff said.
“Now that the British team is winning more medals, the crowd enthusiasm is growing,” he wrote.
On a typical day, he catches a red double-decker media bus in the morning and heads to the Olympic Park in East London along with journalists from all over the world.
Sports Illustrated has an office in the Main Press Center which looks out at the Olympic Stadium, Neff said. Over the course of the next 16 hours, he will assign and direct writers, edit text, communicate with the magazine’s main New York office, send commentary on major events via Twitter, occasionally go to a venue to watch an event in person, and try to stay on top of all the needs of Sports Illustrated’s various media platforms.
So far, he has seen basketball and field hockey, and expects this week to be at some track and field events and wrestling.
“Sometime close to midnight, after we’ve finished closing our daily edition for the iPad, I hike back to the media buses and ride home with another batch of global journalists chatting in multiple languages and punching messages into their smartphones,” Neff wrote.
The biggest change he’s seen in Olympic coverage over the years has to do with technology. Now, the news cycle never ends, and journalists work 14, 16 or 18 hour days for three weeks trying to keep up with everything for the broad range of media platforms.
After the Olympics end, Neff is looking forward to returning home to Maine, but the spirit of the games will stay alive when he and Markwood welcome Jennings to their shop later this month. The distance runner and naturalist will host an Olympic picnic from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 21 on the Seal Harbor Village Green.
Neff said he feels lucky to have been able to do his job from Maine for the last five years after living in New York City for more than two decades. But during the Olympics, he travels the world.
“The Olympics are all-consuming for me from months in advance until the Olympic cauldron is extinguished at closing ceremonies,” he said. “There’s no place else I’d rather be, and that’s true of virtually everyone else here.”