We are big fans of Golf Channel host Damon Hack, for a variety of reasons: Because he shares an unabashed enthusiasm for golf; because we've seen his golf swing and there's no confusing it with David Duval's; and because he doesn't take himself or his job too seriously. Which brings us to his latest assignment covering the Winter Olympics for NBC, where he's part of the network's biathlon coverage in PyeongChang. If you found yourself tempted to Google the definition of biathlon—it's that hybrid of cross-country skiing and shooting that Jerry Seinfeld once likened to "swimming and strangling a guy"—you're not too far behind Hack. Having covered a variety of sports for the New York Times and Sports Illustrated in his two-decade-plus career, Hack has been mostly ensconced in the golf world since joining Golf Channel in 2012. But when given the opportunity to expand his repertoire at the Winter Games, he jumped at the chance. We asked the affable father of three about boning up on this curious sport, its similarities to golf, and which biathlon phrase he would have had no reason to use until recently.
The Loop: So what happens first — they tell you they want you to cover the Olympics, or they tell you they want you to cover the biathlon in the Olympics?
Damon Hack: The latter! Packaged deal. I was actually in Scotland covering the Scottish Open at Dundonald Links when Rebecca Chatman (NBC’s VP and Coordinating Producer of Olympic Production) called and asked me if I was interested. I was vaguely familiar with biathlon because I’m a ski addict and I immediately said yes. I was in Athens for the Olympics in 2004 for the New York Times and it remains my favorite assignment ever. I imagine I’ll feel similarly about PyeongChang.
The Loop: So I take it you're play-by-play? And how much biathlon cramming have you done in recent weeks? Like, give me a biathlon phrase you wouldn’t have ever used until recently.
Damon Hack: I am doing interviews and reports from the Alpensia Biathlon Center, similar to the role I do during tournaments for Golf Channel. My prep work has involved weeks of learning the pronunciation of Norwegian athletes' names - they tend to dominate this event - and trying to understand the intricacies of this Nordic survivalist endeavor that combines the ultimate in endurance (cross-country skiing) with the ultimate in Zen-like focus (hitting grapefruit and golf-ball sized targets from 50 meters away with a .22 caliber rifle). Some cool biathlon terms I’ve learned? “Shooting clean” which means missing no targets during the shooting discipline. “Dead snow” means the course is slow and difficult to traverse. One term that I already knew but didn’t know applied to biathlon? “Yard sale” which means a bad fall with skis flying all over the place.
The Loop: Oh yeah, there’s nothing worse than a biathlon yard sale, or so I’ve heard. So now that you’re there, what’s the best part about the Winter Olympics?
Damon Hack: Besides the hot chocolate and kimchi? (Not together, of course.) It’s the unique energy of being at a place where the world has literally come together. You hear dozens of languages, meet athletes and journalists from all over the globe, and for a few weeks our fragmented planet feels more united and more hopeful. And did you know that the biathlon venue doubles as a golf course in the spring and summer? Seriously! Clearly, they want to make me feel right at home.
The Loop: I was actually wondering if there were some parallels between golf and biathlon. You know motion followed by standing still and trying to hit a target. Of course time is less of a factor in golf, for better or worse.
Damon Hack: It’s fun trying to find the ties between golf and biathlon. Here’s one. Try sprinting at full speed on the hilly, back to back par 5 17th and 18th holes at Baltusrol - I’d check with the membership committee first - and then try and sink 5 straight 10 footers at 18. And for each miss you have to sprint a longer distance next time. Do this for an hour. Oh, and the trees here are not 90 percent air.
The Loop: You came to golf by way of covering other sports first. I know you love golf, but how important is it to you to still dip your toe into other arenas as well from time to time?
Damon Hack: I love that NBC gave me this opportunity to branch out once again. I’ve covered the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals and the NHL All-Star Game but also lesser-known entities like the United Football League and Roller Hockey International, where one night for the Sacramento Bee I dressed up as the Sacramento team mascot, Ricky the River Rat, and wrote about the experience. It was my George Plimpton Paper Lion moment. There are great stories to be told no matter the sport.