With the 2020 Summer Games now a bit behind us and the 2022 Winter games on the horizon, we've gotten a nice reprieve from the drama that comes with the world of ultra-competitive athletic events. During this time, Ari Saperstein has been hard at work investigating a series of miscalculations and mistakes that may have changed the lives of some gymnasts forever.
In his podcast Blind Landing, Ari goes into some of the stories and happenings behind one of the biggest untold mistakes in competitive sports history. We were lucky enough to spend some time with Ari recently, and asked him about his life, his interest in broadcasting and podcasting, and, of course, his investigative journey.
Check out some of his thoughts, and use the link at the bottom of the page to check out Blind Landing. If you've got questions for us, or Ari, leave them in the comment section below.
Spotify Podcasts: First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself, Ari? What's your history in broadcasting and podcasting?
Ari: Yeah, so I've been a long, long-time podcast listener, really since the early days of podcasting when I was a middle-schooler in the mid-2000s. Audio storytelling has always interested me. I worked for my college radio station, and after graduating from college—plus a short stint in film and documentary production— I joined KPCC, the NPR Los Angeles affiliate. I was at KPCC for a couple of years, and that's where I learned how to produce and edit and report audio pieces. While I was there, I started working on my own podcast, Blind Landing. Most recently I've been working at This American Life and Serial, which has been an education in and of itself, especially as I've been making Blind Landing.
So for anyone that doesn't know, can you tell us a little bit about Blind Landing and what the first season is about?
At the 2000 Summer Games, in Sydney, Australia, there was this really strange thing that happened during the women's gymnastics all-around final: gymnasts were falling. Like a lot. Way more than you’d ever see in competition, and specifically on vault. As it turned out (spoiler alert) the vault was set at the wrong height; it was two inches too low. That might not sound like a lot… two inches is the length of a chapstick...but when you're doing death-defying acrobatic feats, two inches can be the difference between life and, well, death. And for some gymnasts that day it almost was. The problem was discovered halfway through the competition, after a number of frontrunners had fallen, and the officials had to figure out how to remedy the situation in the moment, live on TV, with the world watching. And their hasty solution to clean up one of the biggest messes in sports history is really the biggest controversy of all.
So that was the original five-part series. And then this fall, we made a two-part follow up special where we spoke with gymnasts who competed at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer about the current state of safety at gymnastics competitions… and it turns out that twenty years after the Sydney vault controversy, problems still abound when it comes to ensuring gymnasts’ physical safety on the competition floor.
Can you tell us the backstory of how the first season of Blind Landing came together? Were you always interested in sports? Were you a gymnastics fan?
Not at all whatsoever! This was so not my field of expertise. I used to work on a show called Take Two which was hosted by A Martinez (who now hosts Morning Edition for NPR) and he is the biggest sports fanatic there is. A few times he gave all of the producers a sports quiz... and even amongst the least sports-literate of us, I got the lowest score on the quiz every time. So to answer your question: no, I literally knew (and cared) as little as possible about sports.
For me, a great story is a great story is a great story. I randomly stumbled across the Sydney vault controversy back in 2019 and was enraptured by this huge, consequential moment in sports history. I had so many questions, and realized that virtually nothing in the way of a satisfying answer had been written or reported. I pretty much just started calling up professional gymnasts to ask if this was something they wanted to talk about.
If the answer had been no, I think it would have felt kind of exploitative or voyeuristic to go through with the podcast. But unanimously the response from the gymnasts was essentially like I'm so happy to get a chance to talk about this because no one has really asked me about it before. So that made me feel like this story had a purpose, beyond just being an interesting and compelling story, which was to give these women a space to be heard.
I was still in my first year in audio and didn't really know what I was doing in terms of making a serialized podcast, but I corralled a few journalist friends to help me out –– Christian Green, Myka Kielbon and Jessica Taylor Price –– and we kind of figured it all out together, both the writing, structuring and editing of a multi-part story, and the distribution and marketing of a podcast.
Who are some of the people that you interviewed for Blind Landing? And how did they react once it was out?
Over the course of those original five episodes, there’s five gymnasts at the center of the story, and each episode focuses on a different person. It’s almost like each episode ends with one gymnast passing the baton to the next gymnast to tell the next part of the story. So they were the core of the show. We also talked to a couple of officials who worked at the Sydney games along with a few experts, like sports scientists, ethicists, lawyers and psychologists.
Across the board, everyone was so positive about the show –– most of the gymnasts sent me really nice notes after it came out, happy to have been included and happy with the way the story was told. It might sound very cheesy, but that was probably the best part of making this series. You never know how the interviewees might feel. It's a lot of trust to give your story over to someone else to put together… so hearing from them was such an unexpected and amazing gift.
Can you tell us about your journalistic process in getting your interviews and answers? Surely it took an amount of digging to get to your findings.
Yeah, a lot of digging. First off, I had to learn a lot about women's gymnastics and become an expert on the topic, which was months and months of reading and watching and learning about the sport. Second, it took a good amount of time to track people down. Both getting contact information for some of the interviewees and making my pitch to people about why they should talk to me. I've found that sometimes, in insular worlds, like gymnastics, it helps to have the co-sign of one or two known figures in the field when getting others to trust that you'll do a good job of telling the story. Because, especially when the games roll around, journalists who know nothing about gymnastics will be assigned to cover the sport and do a really bad job, buying into generalizations about the sport, asking generic questions. But once one or two gymnasts agreed to chat and knew that I was being thoughtful in my approach, most everyone else I wanted to talk with was happy to chat.
There's just such little information out there about how the vault error came to be, how the gymnasts felt and what the gymnastics establishment did to investigate it and take safety more seriously going forward. I spent a lot of time going back to articles from 2000, in the days after it happened, along with TV newscasts from 2000, because that’s where most of the info was to be found. Digging through that archival material is how I found a lot of quotes and names and details that were essential to constructing a timeline of what statements were said when, who took responsibility and what people felt in the moment.
What made you want to independently produce and release Blind Landing while also working for these public radio companies? Did you think about partnering with a production company on the series?
What is cool about the podcasting landscape right now is that if you make a really good show, and if it's unique, and topical, you have a good chance of finding an audience, without having to sell the rights or compromise your creative vision. Over the past few years, it's something I've seen other public radio producers do –– as in, make a calling card passion project independently. When I say "independently", I mean without the backing of a large production company. One thing that makes it possible is consumer technology is really good and affordable, meaning that it's easy to make a show that sounds (almost) as good as the most expensive shows.
As I was starting out my journalism career, I had that knowledge in the back of my head that if I found a good story, one that I wanted to put my stamp on, I could make it on my own and maybe reach an audience. Really, the only thing I didn't foresee was just how big of an audience the show would end up reaching… even now, six months after the first season was released, I think I'm still kind of surprised by that.
What exactly was surprising to you about the reception to the first season?
Well, because the release was timed with the 2020 Tokyo games, the show came out when there was a high level of interest in gymnastics from people who don't normally follow it –– so we saw a lot of publications, like The New York Times and Rolling Stone, write about it, and saw podcast platforms like Spotify feature it on the home page. All that added up to reach an audience beyond just die-hard gymnastics fans, but a wide array of people listening to the show. And a lot of the reactions we saw and heard from listeners was that they were surprised to find themselves caring about the intricacies of the world of gymnastics… and I think that's because it's not really a "gymnastics" story –– it's a story about what it means to be heard, and it happens to be set in the world of gymnastics. And we heard from a lot of listeners who felt like they could relate to the story even if they weren’t professional athletes, weren’t gymnasts, weren’t athletes at all, because that theme is so universal.
Can you tell us a little about the two-part follow up story, "A Look At Safety In Gymnastics"? Was that made as a result of the reaction to the original Sydney vault story?
After the original story came out, we were hearing from a lot of listeners that they wanted us to do something about the 2020 Tokyo games. So we started planning a tiny bonus episode where we were going to talk about the big headlines from gymnastics at the games. But what happened is that when we started talking to gymnasts, we quickly learned that there's a lot of safety issues in the sport at large. Things that ––much like the vault controversy–– seem kind of small on the surface, but make a really big difference to the gymnasts: the equipment they get access to, the rules for warming up, the training set-up at the Games… we just kept hearing these same things again and again from gymnasts around the world. So we tried to figure out what was going on behind the scenes, why these problems were so prevalent.
What was the biggest shock or discovery you found in making A Look At Safety In Gymnastics?
Without a doubt, the lack of information gymnasts have was pretty shocking to me. We spoke to a dozen elite gymnasts from around the world and not a single one of them knew what the system was for reporting a problem. Can you imagine something bad happening at work and not knowing how to contact HR? Or not knowing who the principal of your school is and how to reach them? That's the level of disorganization within the gymnastics establishment, the FIG, the group in charge of international gymnastics. They don't communicate with the gymnasts and do a bad job of helping gymnasts to communicate with them. And it's been this way for years. I think these episodes raise some really concerning questions about the people in charge, if they're doing their jobs well and if they should be holding positions of authority. The thing here is we are talking about minors. There are so many teenagers at World Championships and at the summer games, and so this isn't just about athletes' safety, but about the safety and protection of children.
What else can listeners look for both from the Blind Landing feed, as well as more of your work?
We've got a whole new season coming out in 2022... about figure skating!
We decided to take on another sport this season and make it an anthology, meaning that each episode will be focused on a different person or topic. It'll be coming out in time with the Winter games in February and I think what's cool about this season is that we're profiling some pretty big figures in the sport through interesting angles, letting our audience see a different side of some of the biggest skaters in the world. I don't want to give too much away or spoil anything, but I think listeners are going to be surprised by just how special and personal these stories are going to be.
Finally, what other shows should we be subscribing to?
So many! Poog might be my favorite show right now. It's really blown up over the past few months which is cool to see. For news, I love Post Reports. Can't recommend it enough. I listen to a lot of culture commentary shows, of which Still Processing is probably my top pick. A couple of relatively new shows that are worth checking out: The Grandma Files and Appearances. I’ll also shout out some of my all time favorite podcasts: Song Exploder, Mystery Show and season two of In The Dark.
A huge thanks to Ari for sitting down with our team and hashing through all of the details of Blind Landing. You can find a link to the show below, and we hope you'll join us in listening to the upcoming season in February 2022.