The most memorable moments covering an Olympics aren't televised
Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 7:03AM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 4:20PM
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
Back home, the Olympic Games are a television show. This I know because when I call home each day from Athens, it is pre-dawn here and dinner time in the U.S.A. "Can we make this quick?" some member of my family will say to me. "The Olympics are coming on."
Coming on. Like Fear Factor.
I hear there was a lot of Michael Phelps and Paul Hamm, and then some more Michael Phelps and Paul Hamm and then a few minutes of Rulon Gardner. But that's OK. Without NBC, I'm not sure we'd even have an Olympics, and on a warm August night there's nothing quite like grilled burgers and the women's all-around. And I've got the ratings to prove it.
But here on the ancient ground in Athens, the Games are an entirely different proposition. They are a daily cavalcade of desperation in pursuit of efficient transportation, familiar food, fresh quotes and, at the end of it all, a few hours' fitful sleep. I have been to seven Olympics, and the assignment is absolutely a privilege and a burden. When I return home, I will be asked by my 9-to-5 brethren to describe for them the experience of witnessing firsthand what they saw in high-def. Those are not my Olympics, I will tell them. My Olympic moments are always smaller.
Like in 1992, when a Korean journalist scooped me up off a Barcelona bathroom floor, where I lay wracked with food poisoning, read my credential and delivered me to my colleagues, who in turn got me medical attention.
Like in 2000, when I walked into a Sydney McDonald's with Maurice Greene hours after he won the 100 meters. There is nothing quite like watching a man order a Filet O'Fish with the most prized gold medal in track and field dangling from his neck.
Or like these in Athens:
On the Friday night of the Opening Ceremonies, I am leaving the Sports Illustrated office in the media center when my Greek cell phone rings. "Tim, this is Michael Phelps," says the voice on the other end of the call. I want to make this clear: I am not moved by conversations with celebrities or famous athletes. Been there, done that. I am moved when a 19-year-old who on the next morning will begin the most ambitious, pressurized Olympic swimming program in history, gets a message to please call a writer, dials his own phone and makes the call. Given SI's deadlines and high standards, I needed a few minutes with Phelps away from the horde. We knew each other a little, from time spent together as I reported SI's Olympic preview cover story, but we are obviously not tight. His call was a huge professional courtesy that allowed me to write a much better story about the start of his medal quest. It was a call he didn't have to make and, frankly, I didn't expect him to make.
On the first Tuesday of the Games, I drove 220 miles to Ancient Olympia with colleague and friend, Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune. On the next afternoon, we would watch the shot put competition contested at the ancient stadium where the original Olympics took place. Early in the evening on Tuesday, however, we went for a run past the stadium, and then strolled down onto the site. The sun was setting behind a stand of Cypress trees and a gentle breeze was taking some of the bite out of the bludgeoning heat. Just a few volunteers milled about as we stood beneath the arch beneath which the first Olympians passed to begin their Games. I will say this: It is one thing to read in a book about the history of the Olympics, but quite another to stand at the entrance to very arena and scuff the dirt with the heel of a modern running shoe. It is the sort of moment that calls for silent reflection and that is exactly what I gave it.
On the second Wednesday, I watched a Greek woman named Fani Haklia become an instant national hero by winning a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles. The Olympic Stadium shook as she approached the finish line and then fell to the track, overcome with the enormity of her accomplishment. It was a galvanizing moment along the lines of Cathy Freeman's 400-meter gold in Sydney, but what I will remember best is how it how was tempered by the press conference that followed, during which Haklia was justifiably flogged with 30 minutes of relentless, leading questions about her dramatic improvement, 3.63 seconds in one year. A day later as I entered the stadium grounds, I ran into Jonathan Edwards, the retired triple jump world-record holder who I have known for nearly a decade and whom even the most cynical among the track media presume to have competed drug-free. We talked for a moment about our families and the Games and then Edwards said, "So, is the drug test back yet on the Greek hurdler?" Such is track and field in 2004. Sigh.
And one more.
A Greek cab driver dumps me off on a busy road near the media center. I pay him the fare, snatch my receipt, slam the door and being walking away. He drives off. I reflexively tap my back pocket to ensure that my wallet is there and, in fact, it is not. I remember pulling it out in the cab to re-arrange my Euros and dollars and papers. The cab driver is pulling away. I sprint toward him, slaloming among journalists and volunteers on the street, screaming, "Wait! Stop!" Just as he is about to merge into screaming, 60 mile-an-hour traffic, by some unearthly force, he slows and looks in the mirror. Dropping my backpack to the ground, I throw myself across the trunk of his car and bang on the metal with my fist. The driver stops and holds my wallet out his window. I take it back from him, sweating buckets, my pulse hammering in relief. I bow at the waist as if the driver is a diety. He smiles back. I stuff my wallet into my pocket.
That's an Olympic moment.