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Veteran TV director Henry Irizawa covering his 10th Olympics this year in Rio

Henry Irizawa and Don Cherry swapped stories on their way to the Sochi Olympics.

Henry Irizawa’s 10th Olympic Games could well be his most interesting.

Irizawa is a freelance producer/director for Sportsnet television and is preparing to head to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, which run Aug. 5-21.

Early reports of the Zika virus, polluted water at rowing venues and bans on Russian athletes for  doping have been followed this week with reports that Australia is refusing to allow its athletes to move into the Rio Olympic Village (blocked toilets, leaking pipes and exposed wiring), and a martial artist being kidnapped by men in police uniforms and forced to withdraw money from an ATM.

“We were told to travel in groups around the city. We’ll see what happens!” a cheerful Irizawa said on the eve of his departure.

“There’s some concerns about Rio,” Irizawa said. “Of all the different Olympics, this one could be fraught with all kinds of problems. Unfinished venues, safety concerns, Zika virus. Who knows? It wasn’t to this level before. Previous Olympics always had stories about venues won’t be completed on time, that kind of stuff, but somehow or other they managed to pull it off.”

Irizawa, who lives in Comox, was in Rio for the 2007 Pan Am Games and despite the concerns this year says he is looking forward to returning.

Among the highlights of his Olympics coverage was skiing in the Italian Alps during a day off at Turin in 2006, and a particularly memorable moment with longtime friend John McKeachie (former BCTV and CKNW sports reporter) at Lillehammer in 1994.

“I was directing hockey for the host feed and McKeachie was the feature reporter for CTV. The Olympic torch is downtown, they do a story, and he’s standing there roasting a hot dog over the Olympic flame. Only McKeachie could do that and get away with it.”

In almost 50 years of directing sports, Irizawa has covered many big events outside of the Olympics. Working for Sportsnet, the lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan enjoyed covering Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers during their Stanley Cup heydays in the mid-1980s to early-1990s.

“In those days you could go out and have a beer with some of the boys. Nowadays not so much. Not when they’re 19-year-old millionaires. It’s totally different. It’s a business now,” Irizawa said.

The one event that really stands out for Irizawa was not sports, it was Terry Fox’s funeral.

“I was with BCTV. I got told I’d be directing local coverage at (Terry’s) small church in Coquitlam,” recalled Irizawa. Rushing back from doing a Vancouver Whitecaps soccer game in San Diego, he flew into Vancouver the morning of the funeral.

“Customs is jammed… I scoot to the front of the Canada Customs guy, show my ID and said I had to get to the church. He just said go.

“Terry being the national, world-wide hero that he was…I think to me that was the most important live-for-television show I’ve ever done - and I’ve done Stanley Cup finals and Olympic gold medal games and things like that. They’re there as well. But I think (Terry) was the one that had the most meaning.”

Irizawa’s interest in directing sports developed at an early age when Hockey Night In Canada was on TV. “I’d watch the credits that said ‘Produced and directed by George Retzlaff.’ I never forgot that name. I said, ‘One day I’m gonna do that.’”

Born in Kelowna, he started his television career at the small hometown station CHBC. He took a winter off to “ski my brains out” at Whistler, and when ski season ended he went to CBC Vancouver to see if they had any job openings. “One thing led to another and I started within two days,” he said.

“The second year at CBC Vancouver I got promoted into the sports department and two years after that I was directing HNIC Vancouver games.”

Irizawa will have a new role at the Rio Olympics.

“Normally I’m directing the host feed of different sports. This time I’m the production manager for volleyball, men’s and women’s. It goes the entire length of the Games.

“The Olympics hire crews who have expertise in sports. I’m more familiar with Winter Games. The IOC has created Olympic Broadcast Services. They hire people in countries that have expertise in certain sports.

“At Winter Games it’s always Canadian crews that will produce hockey, curling, figure skating and short track. Finnish TV will produce biathlon. In Summer Games, Japan will be producing volleyball, China badminton, U.S. golf - they hire globally to get the best people for the sport.

“My job is to make sure that our coverage meets the standards of the OBS and the rights holders, in Canada CBC and in the States NBC, get fair, totally unbiased coverage using the latest in technology.”

Why volleyball in Rio? “I directed the Pan Am Games volleyball last summer in Toronto. That was my first extensive experience with volleyball and I liked it.

“A friend of mine works for the OBS main office in Madrid, Spain. He gave me a call and said, ‘Would you like to try a different job?’ I can speak a little Japanese, not to be an interpreter, but just make sure they follow the OBS method of televising the Games.”

With 20 years at Sportsnet, 23 at BCTV and six at CBC Vancouver to his credit, Irizawa has done a lot of travelling. “I’m an Air Canada Super Elite (frequent flyer level), which is 100 flights or 100,000 miles a year,” he notes.

He and wife Judie landed in the Comox Valley to visit family, fell in love with the place, and moved here seven years ago. Irizawa said his wife enjoys accompanying him on road trips. When they go to New York to cover Vancouver, Edmonton or Calgary playing the Devils, Rangers and Islanders, they stay at the same classy Times Square hotels the teams do and have time to take in a Broadway show.

What’s next after Rio? “I’ve been doing this 46 years. As long as I enjoy directing, and I’m excited about the next telecast, and I enjoy the people that I work with, I’ll do this as long as I can. I really don’t see any reason to stop.

“As long as someone is giving me the forum to allow me to do this and appreciates what we do and the product that we put on the air, my career will continue to be worthwhile, fun and satisfying.”


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