The Tour de France started this week, and I’m watching in unusual circumstances. This is a mid-winter event in Australia, so usually I’d be wearing three hoodies, tights under my trackies, and a cat up my jumper for extra warmth; here, we’re in the searing heat of mid-summer in as few clothes as is decent, given our flimsy curtains and Mrs Kong’s tendency to peer in the windows at all hours. And also our cats got eaten by village dogs earlier this year, so I guess it’s lucky we only need the lightest summer ensemble for Hong Kong Tour-watching. RIP, cats 😦
The other difference is that I’m watching it like most other people do: on their arse on the couch. In recent years before we left Australia, I was the lucky captioner who got to cover the Tour de France, and it was always one of the highlights of my year. Unlike the entire body of stenographers at the company I used to work for, I love watching sport. The first year we all worked together, they were all fighting to caption Dancing with the Stars and Big Brother Unplugged. At the other end of the roster, where lonely dust spores blew across the wasteland and crickets were the only sound that could be heard, was me, putting my name down for the Tour de France, the Footy Show, Wimbledon, the Australian Open, Friday Night Football, and the Ashes. It was like a fantasy: get paid to stay up all night watching something you’d be staying up all night watching anyway, and then not have to go to work in the day! With the added winning element of not having to watch Daryl Somers and Sonia Kruger do awkward ad-libs about the paso doble, or a bunch of bogans trying to get naked in a hot-tub in night vision.
The Tour de France (TDF) was a very challenging job. I started my prep a few months out from the event when the teams were named. There are about 200 cyclists who start the TDF, nearly all with unpronounceable surnames like Txurruka, Szmyd and Jeandezbos. They ride for teams with names like Vacansoleil-DCM and Euskaltel-Euskadi. And there are things like directeurs sportif and domestiques and all manner of French terminology. I would also carefully study the map, breaking it down stage by stage and researching notable landmarks, water bodies, geographical features, historical events, and information on all the local manses and chateaux the commentators would ramble on about to pad time during the long stretches.
As a bonus, the Australian broadcast also included a French cooking segment hosted by renowned (for his unintelligibly thick accent) chef Gabriel Gate, his mate the nonsensical sommelier, and his brother who was always dressed as a gendarme. So there was a whole bunch of extra food and wine preparation to do.
As the event neared I would print out my lists of terms and shortforms and glue them, kindergarten styles, to big coloured A3 sheets of paper. There was no other way to have that much information to hand.
I was lucky enough to be able to work from home during overnight sports events. It was cheaper for my company to send one nerd out to set up my computer, and create a remote routing connection, than have to open up and staff the office overnight. Here is the nerd setting up my computer on the first day of my first Tour – why do they universally refuse to sit on chairs?
The TDF was an endurance event to caption. Like the cyclists, I couldn’t take my eyes off the road for a moment lest I fall off my bike and crash down a steep rocky incline in the French countryside. That’s a metaphor for dropping a few sentences and accidentally stroking the shortform for Gough Whitlam instead of Alberto Contador. Unlike the cyclists, I got to take a “nature break” in the bathroom instead of on the side of the road; and I was fuelled by Coke, instead of glucose gels. And unlike them in their unflattering white lycra and teardrop helmets, I got to wear pyjamas or tracks (admittedly no more flattering):
(A) – Lightning-fast lappy connected by Moxa box directly to the SBS broadcast centre. This meant completely avoiding the use of a tieline, which tend to be prone to drop-outs and idiots at other sites hanging them up mid-show. Pictured onscreen is an unfortunate translation error caused by distraction at having photo taken.
(B) – Low-tech SRT400 steno machine. You can seriously buy these on eBay for about $100 now – AND THEY’RE STILL AWESOME!
(C) – Non-essential large teddy bear.
(D) – Essential, though ill-advised during pregnancy, cola-ic bev. It was my second kid, what are you gonna do.
(E) – Enormous 17-week fundus.
(F) – Large smile never seen when on-site at work, due to lack of (G).
(G) – Terrible trackpants. These are the “good” ones, too, without the hole in the arse, especially for the photo. I almost wish I’d brushed my hair and put some face on too. Though on principle, when working from home you should look as ungroomed as possible. It’s pretty much an obligation to look full bushpig.
And now, a selection of my posters adorned with approximately 6,397 french shortforms. And a cat.
I admit to feeling a large twinge of disappointment to not be captioning the Tour anymore. It was a thrill for me to be involved in such a big worldwide event and try to keep up with thousands of new names and terms. My brain is still firing random shortforms at me even as I watch now, two years after I captioned my last Tour.
Another favourite sporting event of mine to caption was the Australian Rules Football. Thursday-Friday was my one-two footy hit, with The Footy Show live from the studio at GTV on Thursday night, and then Friday Night Footy. I looked forward to it all week. Except if it was a game like Fremantle v Port Adelaide, that was just shit.
I’ve captioned two Olympics, Athens and Beijing; and the Winter Olympics in Turin. The Winter Olympics wasn’t particularly enjoyable for me because I don’t care about nearly all the featured sports. Who invented the biathlon? “I know, let’s put shooting and skiing, two wholly and comically unrelated activities, together in one big stupid irrelevant sport! I AM A GENIUS!” And curling – what even is that? Captioning an ice hockey match between Iceland and Finland was one of the biggest headaches – and longest hours – of my whole career.
The Summer Olympics were obviously always a much coveted job. We would start the day doing the morning wrap-up show on the Seven Network, and then take half-hour turns captioning the day’s events. It was difficult to prep for because although the broadcast would follow a schedule, it was constantly changing as results were updated and network eggheads assessed where the viewership’s patriotism could be best hooked. So in any half-hour you could jump from equestrian to gymnastics to archery, live action or highlights from previous days, and would have to have all those words/names already prepped – or be very, very good at fingerspelling. Each team of two stenos would work with a support captioner, whose job it was to follow the schedule as far as possible and print out team lists for upcoming events. In the half-hour when you weren’t on air, you’d have 2.35 minutes for a toilet break, about the same for a sip of water, and then it would be maniacal prepping for the rest of the time. Again, JUST LIKE THE ATHLETES. Minus the medals and international kudos. We did usually get a letter of appreciation from the network which my family can hock if we ever fall on bad times, I guess…
Wimbledon is also on at the moment, which fills me with wist because tennis was another of my sports captioning favourites. Again, it involved a simply enormous amount of preparation, but the good thing was that after the first year (where you’d have to prep for probably a solid month leading up to the first slam), you had a pretty good working dictionary to build on for future years. All the slams – Wimbledon, French and US – are on overnight Australian time, so it was always a late job, but our own slam, the Australian Open, often also went late into the night too. The coverage would begin a 7.30pm with the women’s match on centre court, followed by the men’s. If it happened to finish before midnight, we would have to caption a replay of any match earlier in the day that had involves Aussies, which was inevitably some shit doubles match which no-one cares about but because of the Woodies, all Australians have to pretend to be interested in.
No-one cares, Woodies.
One of my most memorable nights was the epic semifinal between Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis at the Australian Open in 2008. I think it set a new record at the time, finishing sometime after 5am. My colleague and I were sharewriting in the office in 30-minute turns. After about 2am, we would spend our “down time” sleeping on the office floor, rising after a 28-minute nap with sisal imprints on our cheeks and shortforms still blurring into sheep jumping fences.
Cricket was another of my loves, Tests and one-dayers alike. Like cycling, I love cricket for its tactics and strategy; not so much for its proliferation of Indian and Sri Lankan names like Wriddhiman Saha and Muthumudalige Pushpakumara. I’ve spent many wonderful nights getting paid good money to watch the Ashes with my husband.
Even after everything I’ve written above, my biggest challenge in captioning, sports or otherwise? The Melbourne Cup horseracing. We’d cover the whole Spring Racing Carnival. It was kind of like interval training for steno, with the unimaginable speed of a race call followed by never-ending pieces to camera about idiot C-listers wearing ugly fascinators (women) and fluorescent sunglasses (men). Three years in a row I had the “privilege” of captioning the Melbourne Cup itself, which is 3.5 minutes of adrenaline as 24 horses tear around the track and the racecaller tears after them, building in speed on a decreasing corollary to elocution. The entire office staff of about 30 would gather around my workstation to watch the race. It was simply a matter of keeping my eyes on the screen, my volume turned up, and my brain closed to everything but horse names as they flashed past in a mix of syllables and thundering hooves and coloured jockey kits. Each time I captioned “the race that stops the nation” was a proud and exhilarating moment. As the winning horse steamed over the line and into the slow-down, pursued by the network rider who would conduct the post-match interview, I allowed myself to relax and breathe again as I enjoyed the unquantifiably slower interview (filled mainly with “Oh yeah! Whoo!” etc.), knowing I only had to hang on another 30 seconds or so for an ad break.
For work enjoyment, to me, nothing can beat sports captioning. Nothing will make you a better fingerspeller, either. The emotional intensity of covering breaking worldwide news, often for days at a time, like the London bombings of July 2005 or the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, is a challenge of a different kind. Covering the BBC World News is a never-ending dictionary-building challenge of the highest order. Covering breakfast “infotainment” programs are a challenge in staying alert enough to do a good job. There’s something to be said for all the types of broadcast captioning I did. But for a merging of professional and personal enjoyment, this is the ultimate.
I miss it.
Vive le Tour!
All content copyright Jade King 2011