Feb. 26, 2008
'THE GODFATHER': An American's Touch on the Beijing Olympics
By Rene A. Henry
Beijing, China, Feb. 26 – (Special to HNN) - Jeff Ruffolo has an enviable position. He is the only American working in media relations along with more than 2,000 Chinese for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. Some could call his job an overwhelming challenge.
The Olympic organizers hired Ruffolo this past March and now he is the point man for all foreign media. “I’m the tip of the spear for the committee dealing with all international journalists,” he says. “Also, the entire staff knows that if anyone has an issue, my job is to help.”
Since joining the organizing committee he has been writing the English language versions of the periodic newsletters and magazines and rewriting news releases to eliminate any “Chinglish.” Now his bosses even have him rewriting speeches for leaders of the Communist party. “How many Italian Americans have ever done that?” says Ruffolo. “I see things behind the scenes that no one else sees and they have allowed me to do things no other person has done for them.”
Ruffolo has been involved in sports most of his professional life in both public relations and as a broadcast journalist. During the 1996 Atlanta, 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympic Games he was behind a microphone commenting on various sports for the Westwood One Radio Network when it was owned by NBC and later CBS.
He began campaigning for his job with BOCOG when he was covering volleyball and beach volleyball at the Games in Athens four years ago. There he met Chen Ping, who this year will manage the Beijing venues for tennis, field hockey and archery. Ping opened the doors for him to the BOCOG leaders and has become his best friend.
“In September 2007 I was in Guangzhou, China doing work for my client China Southern Airlines and received a call from Madam Wang Hui, the committee’s head of communications,” says Ruffolo. “The next month I was in Shanghai speaking at a conference and was called to see if I was still interested in a job. Another month went by and in December we finally met. Because of holidays and the Chinese New Year, I was not hired until late February and began working March 15.” He had to leave his family including 13-year-old daughter at home in Los Angeles since this will only be an 18-month project. He celebrated his 50th birthday alone in Beijing.
He says that BOCOG had three criteria for this senior position - someone who had previous Olympic experience, could communicate and write in English and had senior management experience working with a state-owned enterprise in China. Ruffolo has an extensive background consulting in aviation and has been a senior advisor for nine years to China Southern Airlines, the country’s largest. So clearly he understood the importance of cultural sensitivity in a nation with citizens who can trace back their linage some 5,000 years.
He recently started teaching the staff in English about the spiritual and philosophical traditions of the Olympic Games and the cultural and social commonalities between East and West. “I never ever talk about politics or religion,” he points out. “I talk about our parents, food, the deep rooted passion I share for the Olympics and we discuss the symbolism and importance of the 2008 Olympics theme, ‘One World, One Dream.’”
Ruffolo focuses not on speaking Mandarin, but encourages all of his colleagues to constantly speak English (the #1 spoken language of the Olympic Games) so there are few communications problems except sometimes for a definition. There are more people learning English today in China than the entire population of the U.S. “I’ve learned so much from the Chinese and especially in relationships with people,” he adds. “As former Chairman Deng Xiaoping said, ‘it does not matter whether the cat is black or white so long as it catches the mouse.’ I am the big kitty. Stroke me and I purr”.
He began his sports career as the first sports information director for Laie, Hawaii Campus of Brigham Young University before going onto Brigham Young University in Utah where he received his degree in 1982. Prior to college graduation, he wrote more than 3,000 newspaper and magazine articles, served on the White House Advance Staff for President Ronald Reagan, ran the communications for two U.S. Congressional campaigns and even served as assistant marketing director for a major Utah ski resort.
He established Ruffolo Communications when he graduated and then began to specialize in the aviation and travel industries and sports marketing. A subsequent eight year stint as the radio play-by-play commentator for the University of Hawaii Athletics - as well as creating the world’s first internet sports radio network in 1993 featuring UCLA, USC and Stanford - helped secure his first broadcasting role with Westwood One/CBS Radio at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Being of Southern Italian descent, his new colleagues and friends in Beijing have nicknamed him “The Godfather.” And, August 24, when the Olympic flame is extinguished in Beijing, Ruffolo plans to start his next campaign to be part of the Games in London in 2012.
Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV, lives in Seattle, has authored six books and writes on a variety of subjects including sports, customer service, crisis management and communications, and marketing public relations. His widely published commentaries can be read on his website at www.renehenry.com.

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