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The international language

Sports provide clarity during exciting, 17-day Babel of babble

Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 9:35AM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 9:35AM
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2004 Olympic Games
Thanks for the memories
• Rick Reilly: Greece overcame paranoia
• Steve Rushin: The international language
• S.L. Price: Gods and monsters in Greece
• Richard Deitsch: Moved to tears by perfection
• E.M. Swift: Soccer ref learns the hard way
• Jack McCallum: Women's wrestling emotions
• Michael Farber: Seventeen days of Hellas
• Tim Layden: The best moments aren't televised
• Kelli Anderson: My sense of Athens
• Don Yaeger: Hamm touched by special honor
• Brian Cazeneuve: Gardner's golden moment
• Bill Frakes: Indelible images of the Games

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

Mark Twain said, "The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."

And likewise, the English-speaking visitor to Greece has little advantage over the illiterate tourist in Athens. The Greek alphabet is impenetrable, and with the lone exception of CNN International, all 17 channels on my hotel's cable television were in a language (Greek, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and French) other than English.

The city, for 17 days, was an exciting Babel of babble.

And yet, in every overheard conversation, you would recognize the most startling English words. At swimming, the Russian next to me uttered, in the middle of an otherwise incomprehensible sentence, the phrase "dolphin-kick."

At track, a Greek man shouted, during a soliloquy in his native tongue, the phrase "Photo finish!"

The basketball announcer on the German network whose coverage was carried in my hotel called everyone -- Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Allen Iverson -- a "zupastar."

Basketball has made English-speakers out of everyone at the Olympics: On the long gray clothesline of a Russian sentence, you would find flapping the phrase "coast-to-coast." A German filibuster was enlivened by the hyphenate "pick-and-roll."

And so the international language isn't love or Esperanto or even the Eminem that always played during basketball warmups in Athens. It is sports. The Greek letters for M, V and P aren't the same as ours. But the phrase MVP, evidently, is.

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