Work in Sports
Thanks for the memories
SI writers weigh in with their favorite Sydney moments
Sports Illustrated writers had the Sydney Games covered, both for the magazine and CNNSI.com. We asked them to share with us their favorite memories of the XXVII Olympiad.
Here's what I'll remember: The night of Monday, Sept. 25. Every minute of it.
Monday was the day the C.J. Hunter drug scandal broke in earnest, darkening the Games. Hunter would like to think that we, as journalists, were thrilled to see him busted. Not true. I was saddened because while working the Olympics is a professional, newsgathering, writing and reporting venture, it is also a labor of love. For me, there is no sports setting like the Olympic track and field stadium. Not Super Bowls, not World Series, not Final Fours. Not even close. On Monday, the drug scandal took the fun out of the work.
Then something happened. Athlete after athlete, event after event, my cynicism was transformed. Cathy Freeman carried a country around the track. Michael Johnson won his second straight 400, proving himself the consummate Olympic professional. Haile Gebrselassie outkicked Paul Tergat in the 10,000 meters, winning not with fitness, but from memory. Two athletes I know and like very much won gold medals, distance runner Gabriela Szabo and triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, whom I have known for five years and consider as close a friend as a journalist can have in an athlete.
The stadium was charged with energy and emotion, building with each passing moment. I do not expect the drug issue to disappear in track and field. I expect to deal with it painfully often and with passion and vigor. I also expect the sport itself to let me occasionally escape. That is what happened here in Sydney.
Mike Neill stood transfixed at home plate as the ball finished making its arc on to the knoll beyond the rightfield fence. It was the kind of loitering that might have earned him a Rawlings lobotomy if this were the major leagues. Of course, this wasn't. That was the point. These were the Olympics, where the the baseball stadium was not called Your Company's Name Here Park but The Baseball Stadium, where the Centre Field Cafe was located in the stands behind home plate, where the only scoreboard-watching occurred when it helpfully flashed the definitions of terms like "pop-up," where 30-year-old Class AAA sluggers can step out of obscurity and into the glare of a five-ringed circus. Neill is a Seattle Mariners farmhand who can't do a lot of the things Alex Rodriguez does, but then the left fielder did the one thing A-Rod probably never will. He hit a game-winning, two-run home run in the 13th inning, a rainbow that beat Japan 4-2 on Sept. 17. His 15 minutes of fame lasted four or five seconds longer than baseball, if not Games, protocol allows. I forgave him immediately.
Lucky me, I got to go two Opening Days in 2000.
My favorite memory? Too many to choose one. I've already shared a couple on CNNSI.com over the course of the Games: the 13-year-old swimmer from the soon-to-be-sunk island nation of the Maldives, who clocked a personal best in her heat in the 50-meter freestyle; and virtually any night at Heineken House, headquarters for the unprecedentedly successful Dutch team, which won 11 gold medals.
But I loved a lot of other things about these Olympics. I loved how a basketball player from Angola, a nation mired in an unyielding civil war that has lasted longer than the lives of most of his teammates, gave a pin to one of the Tall Blacks of New Zealand in the standard pregame ritual . . . and then detoured to the wheelchair-bound spectators courtside to give all of them pins, too. Spend a day in Luanda, Angola's capital, where the limbless stumble around the streets, and you too would understand this solicitude for the disabled.
And I loved the U.S. swim team's two dead heats at the Aquatics Centre. Gary Hall and Anthony Ervin's tie for the gold in the 50-meter freestyle was improbable enough. But nothing could beat Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres touching out at the same instant for the 100-meter freestyle bronze. Because of their rift, the American coaching staff's toughest task was determining rooming assignments. And here, on the medal stand, Thompson and Torres had to keep their bodies rigid as torpedoes, and fix their faces with beauty-pageant smiles. A wag in one of Sydney's morning dailies put it best: "Just goes to show that God has a sense of humor."
During the medal ceremony for women's basketball, the U.S. women had received their gold medals and were hugging and pointing at friends in the stands while the Australian players were being introduced as the silver medal winners. While her teammates were busy celebrating, U.S. captain Teresa Edwards was the only American player to turn toward the Aussie women and applaud as each of their names were announced.
The night before, the Lithuanians had nearly beaten the Dream Team, and after the game, while some of the American coaches were berating the referees and some U.S. players were trash-talking the Lithuanians, point guard Jason Kidd quietly went over and hugged Lithuanian guard Sarunas Jasikevicius and congratulated him on playing a great game.
Contrary to what some might think, American athletes showed a great deal of class and dignity. You just had to know where to look.
I produce words for a living and yet the greatest thing about soccer is how, on occasion, I'm hopelessly powerless to describe the sensory eruption, the visceral rush of an amazing goal. One of those moments happened in the dying seconds of the women's gold medal game. Down 2-1 and desperate, Mia Hamm launched a Hail Mary--a Hail Mia?--into Norway's penalty box. This is what I remember: The ball floating, floating, floating goalward; Kristine Lilly leaping for -- and missing -- the ball; and then 5' 2" Tiffeny Milbrett, the shortest player on the field, racing in and nodding it sharply, improbably, majestically into the net.
Up in the press tribune, Sports Illustrated's Steve Rushin and I had been bantering for most of the game, two cynical sportswriters doing what comes naturally. Now we shut up, our mouths agape, our custom -- finding words -- overridden by an instinctive adrenaline-filled silence, as though we had touched a hot frying pan and pulled our hands back without thinking.
It was the most dramatic goal in women's soccer history. The U.S. didn't end win the game, but that didn't matter. For those kinds of gut-stirring jolts, there's no sport better than soccer -- and no Olympic memory, in my mind, that can touch this one.
For me it's not even close: Cathy Freeman's 400-meter race defined what I love about the Olympics. It was a moment that transcended sport, when she finished, sank to the track from the weight of a nation's and a people's expectations, and collected herself as the noise in the stadium continued to grow around her, an unbelievable din. As its focal point, Freeman sat alone, the embodiment of dignity and humility.
I was in Olympic Stadium on the evening of Sept. 25, not as a journalist covering track and field ("athletics" in Olympic-speak) but as a fan. I saw two of the greatest races of all time: Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie outsprinting Kenya's Paul Tergat down the final stretch of the 10,000-meter final, and Ireland's Sonia O'Sullivan issuing a surprising challenge to Romania's 5,000-meter queen, Gabriela Szabo. Judged strictly on result, the women's 400 that evening was nothing compared to those spectacular finish-line dramas. But I will never forget the roar of the crowd, the utter din, the sheer, magnitude of the sound when the starting gun fired and homegirl Cathy Freeman took off in pursuit of Australia's first gold medal in athletics. The hopes and dreams of every Aussie, it seemed, were riding with Freeman, and they let her know it with a cacophony of noise, the likes of which I have never heard. I was sitting with two Sports Illustrated editors, Craig Neff and Rich O'Brien, and we looked at each other in awe because we couldn't have begun to make ourselves heard had we wanted to speak. (Which we didn't, because there was nothing to say.) Was there some guilt or, worse, even some paternalism in the support for Freeman, who is of Aboriginal descent? I suppose so. But I found the ear-splitting cheerleading wonderful and unforgettable, and, from the comments she made later, so did Freeman.
Some of my favorite Olympic memories were of things I will never see or hear in the U.S.:
*Going through security at Olympic Park and being asked, "Any bombs, knives or guns in your bag?"
*Listening to the volunteers with bullhorns who sat on lifeguard stands throughout Olympic Park, there, it seemed, just to defuse potential crowd-induced pissiness. (Not that that was ever a problem here.) As the throngs headed for the train station after the Closing Ceremonies, one guy shouted through his bullhorn, "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands! If you're lousy and you know it scream out loud!" Because everyone was burdened with complimentary styrofoam coolers (Eskys) from the show, no one clapped. But no one screamed, either. Indeed, somewhere in that surging mass of humanity, people were singing. Around the corner, as people piled up behind a barrier in front of a stairway to the trains, a CityRail employee led them all through a rousing rendition of "Waltzing Matilda."
For me, every new minute of the Olympics trumped the previous one. So my
favorite moment was the last: Singing Waltzing Matilda with 110,000 other
souls in Olympic Stadium. Prior to that, we all sang "Down Under"with
Men at Work. I said, Do you speak-a my language? He just smiled and gave me a
Vegemite sandwich. Beautiful. Thanks,