Bernd Schmelzer has been a sports reporter for over 35 years. The passion for his job is still unbroken, even if the conditions have changed massively. In the interview, the 57-year-old talks about what fascinates him, what bothers him, what he doesn’t understand – and why he wrote a book about his previous career as a commentator.
ntv.de: Mr. Schmelzer, you have just written a book, a declaration of love for your reporter job. In view of war, energy, corona and climate crises as well as major events in politically highly controversial countries, how much fun is work really?
Bernd Schmelzer: Well, actually a lot to me. Anything that has to do with alpine skiing, the joy is unclouded by all the things that happen outside. Of course, that doesn’t make it any easier. But the job is still just as much fun on the first day.
But the situation in alpine skiing has changed dramatically. Melting glaciers, races on a white ribbon in a green landscape… How do you perceive these changes in winter sports? Or do you ignore that at work?
No, of course you do. My heart bleeds every day when I see this. This is a development that makes you think a lot. One then asks oneself: How much sense does the whole thing still make? Does it still make any sense? But I do believe that it is worth fighting for this sport and against the negative image from outside. Of course there are things that can be discussed, but I can’t understand everything. Of course, it is difficult and difficult to explain when I prepare a white ribbon to hold a ski race, but on the other hand, there are tens of floodlit football matches every week. There is no discussion, just teasing. That’s why the massive criticism of skiing is a bit too one-sided.
A large part of the criticism is sparked by the megalomania of the FIS boss Johan Carl Eliasch …
Yes, skiing has actually fallen a bit victim to megalomania. Wanting to turn the Alpines into the Formula 1 of the winter, which was already up for debate, was and remains an exaggeration. Especially now the story about the descents on the Matterhorn. But the idea of trying something new, bringing about change, I think is basically a good thing. However, the way we communicated with the races on the Matterhorn is devastating from my point of view.
Editor’s note: The FIS wanted to push through the mega races on the Matterhorn regardless of the climatic conditions in the pre-winter period – currently too little snow, much too warm and threatening wind – and the dangers for the drivers at the start of one of the seasons and only gave up on the after the very last push.
What goes through your mind when you hear that the 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held in Saudi Arabia, at a desert ski resort that hasn’t even been built yet?
This is a decision that fits perfectly into the picture of all those decisions for the major events of the past few years. The big associations do everything wrong that can be done wrong. You are giving a signal to the outside world, it is so deterrent and negative. You stand there, amazed and ask yourself: don’t they read newspapers? Don’t they watch TV? Don’t they talk to people? These decisions come out of such an enraptured inner bubble that you can still think: They really didn’t hear the bell ringing.
Right at the beginning you said that despite all the crises, you still enjoy the job as much as on the first day. What is it that makes you so fascinated by the Alpine?
The fascination is of course the work in the great outdoors. You have your “office” in exposed locations. Standing on the mountain at 7 a.m. in the morning at sunrise, wherever in the world, that’s a privilege. But it is above all the people who are out and about here. They are just so incredibly nice and open-minded characters. It’s still like one big family. No matter in which direction skiing is developing, no matter how strong the criticism from outside is, no matter how difficult the situation with Corona or other crises was or is, we always try to help each other and stick together.
Her second great passion as a reporter is women’s soccer. How much can the scene be compared to the alpine family and how different is it than in the men’s area?
Let’s start with men’s football, which has not only said goodbye to the fans in recent years, but also to any normality. The working conditions are extremely professional, but the sense of togetherness has been lost. With a few exceptions. A few weeks ago I bumped into Oliver Kahn and had a nice chat with him. He still remembered that I had already reported on him when he was active. It’s always nice with Thomas Müller too. Or with Philipp Lahm. But overall, a certain distance has already been built up, it’s completely different in other sports or in women’s football.
How exactly does working or dealing with the players differ in comparison to the players?
You just get a lot closer to the players. You have a real contact. You can still talk to people. It’s just very different. How do you want to talk to a soccer player from the Bundesliga outside of an arranged interview? In training, for example, that is no longer possible. That’s how closed they are, but I’m not so sure if they even want that. For example, if you happen to meet a Hansi Flick in the national team, he talks to you quite normally and openly. And I’m also not sure if the players always know that you want to talk to them. I’ve often noticed that the footballers said: Hey, I didn’t know anything about that.
And when it does work out, a lot of things seem to be closely coordinated with the club…
… yes, and goes through the hands of communications consultants, press officers and is then improved 33 times. That’s very strange. And then quite differently than with the Alpine and the women.
So the two scenes can still be compared?
Yes, I think so. Not completely, but that’s also due to the established structures in women’s football. The team used to stay in the same hotel. As is still common with the Alpines. Today that doesn’t happen anymore, but also more because the team and the staff have grown and we, as reporters, are traveling with larger and larger groups. But basically I think: Why shouldn’t you be in the same hotel?
What are the reservations about the same hotels for teams and reporters?
There is a general prejudice that one always wants something bad for the athletes. But that’s not the case at all! I don’t work there as an outrage person, it’s a lot about getting to know something from the athletes. That we can feed our reports with good information. And in the end, the exchange is a win-win situation for reporters and athletes. If you can explain to the viewers why an athlete is not doing well. Because of illness, an injury, a fall or something. If you don’t have to be surprised if the athlete suddenly does something unusual.
You’ve been a sports reporter for over 35 years now, in your book “Ja, what’s he doing there?” wrote down many anecdotes. How did this journey through your own professional life feel for you?
A few weeks ago I met my old radio boss Franz Muxeneder. It was he who first sent me to an appointment. I was able to tell him in great detail how it all started back then. And when you then deal with how it all started and what comes back to you, that was very emotional at times. And writing for me was a return to my roots. I’m originally from the newspaper (Editor’s note: Augsburger Allgemeine/Allgäuer Zeitung) and it was incredibly fun, even if it was a lot more work than I ever imagined. I wrote everything down by myself and I’m super proud of it now.
How did the idea come about?
People kept writing to me that I should make a book about all the nice stories. I always thought the idea was a good one, but never got around to it until I was approached by an agent last year. Shortly before that someone had written to me again and the idea for the book. So then I thought, well, let’s do it now. That’s how it turned out.
When you look back on your reporting career, what were your one or two highlights?
What you will always remember is your first race. But of course also Thomas Dreßen’s triumph in Kitzbühel. Oh, there’s just so much. Ester Ledecka’s surprise Olympic victory in Pyeongchang, or gold for Maria-Höfl-Riesch, Felix Neureuther’s last race. But I was also at Markus Wasmeier’s amazing win in Lillehammer. You can’t prioritize that. But what I do know: I won’t be going to Megève for a long time (a winter sports resort in the French Alps, editor’s note) drive. Then, as I wrote in the book, I caught some strange allergy in a woolen blanket that accompanied me for weeks with some kind of ointment.
You just mentioned Felix Neureuther. When you hear the two of you on the microphone, you get the feeling that this isn’t just a collegial relationship, it’s also a friendship. Is that another proof of how personal things are in the ski scene?
Yes, that is a very good example. I’ve known him since 2003, that’s when he drove his first world championship race. I’ve been with him for almost his entire career, up to the last race in Kranjska Gora. I find that amazing. And then there is the fact that I have already commented with his dad Christian. I am very connected to the Neureuther house. But that’s no different with Maria Höfl-Riesch and Markus Wasmeier to this day. I can’t imagine that it would be possible in other areas.
Tobias Nordmann spoke to Bernd Schmelzer