LONDON — The closing band at the Closing Ceremony was The Who, and the last song was My Generation, but for the blog, the last sport — the last real part of these Olympics — was handball. Team handball, France beating Sweden for gold in a temporary bubble called the “Basketball Arena,” while five miles south in a much bigger venue, the U.S. was beating Spain in an arena the Londoners named something else. I was watching the hoops stream on my laptop while the French handballers celebrated on the sport-court below, and the joy/agony dichotomy after the handball final was far more extreme than what happened after the basketball buzzer.
The basketball players are millionaires for whom the Olympics is a diversion from the NBA. The handballers are minor club pros for whom the Olympics are everything. France’s Thierry Omeyer, who dominated the tournament, is the greatest handball goalkeeper of all time, but by the time I make it back to New York tomorrow, he will have returned to total anonymity … and I will be back covering basketball.
In London, I avoided seeing a second of Olympic basketball in person, and have no regrets about that. The goal for the blog’s first Summer Olympics was to see everything else. After the Opening Ceremony, it was off to badminton, then beach volleyball, gymnastics, beach volleyball again (the scene was just too good), time-trial cycling, table tennis, archery, triathlon, tennis, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, fencing, more women’s boxing (for Magnificent Mery Kom), three sessions of track and field, BMX, handball, race-walking and handball again. Sixteen sports in 16 days. Seventeen if you count pin-trading.
I figured we’d be treated to Pink Floyd at the Closing — it turned out to be Ed Sheeran covering Wish You Were Here — but did not come to the Olympics expecting to interview the illustrator who did the famous cover of Dark Side of The Moon … and somehow weave that into a post about Usain Bolt. Nor did I think that a Q&A with an Indian graphic novelist about his Gallery of Olympic Losers would lead me to the women’s boxing debut of against-the-odds story Mery Kom. Or that going to beach volleyball to see a party would lead to me to write about the sport’s first-ever Muslim female referee, presiding over that scene in a hijab. You can try to plan your Olympics, but the best stuff is what you stumble upon once you’re there.
I went to the souvenir store outside the Athletes’ Village yesterday to get a shirt for my mom, because my initial idea to freeze-dry strawberries and cream from Wimbledon, or as she says it, Wimble-ton, was deemed unfeasible. (Don’t worry, mom: Your shirt isn’t a Bosco.) The most photogenic part of the Athletes’ Village, or at least the part of the Village the media was allowed to see, was the giant, world-map pin-board in the store’s lobby, where athletes and officials posted notes of encouragement for anyone they felt like encouraging. The notes ranged from the lipstick-good-luck variety (is this considered racy in Oman?) …
… to this plea for Michael Phelps to win seven golds, set seven new world records and enjoy the comfy chairs in some other athlete’s village dorm room:
That note-writer didn’t get what she wanted (in the pool, at least; it’s unknown if Phelps tried the chairs). It’s advisable to arrive at the Olympics without any demands, and collect experiences as they come. I did not expect to show up at the 50k race walk and meet the son of Great Britain’s gold medalist from 1936, with the medal in tow; or to show up at Wimbledon and see Serena Williams do the Crip Walk; or to find myself in a third-row press seat for David Rudisha’s 800-meter world record, which all the track gurus claim was the race of the Olympics. Nor did I think Usain Bolt would stop moving long enough to let me get this on Instagram after his 200:
I didn’t expect to get quoted anonymously in the The New York Times, either, after helping a few of their confused reporters find the press seats at Horse Guards Parade (for beach volleyball) on day three. From their subsequent article on the scene:
Oddly enough, a fair number of spectators said that when it came right down to it, they wished they were somewhere else. …
“I don’t cover this normally,” said a reporter for Sports Illustrated, scurrying into the stadium.
The quote is accurate, but not the context. I don’t cover beach volleyball or the Olympics normally — does anyone? — but wasn’t exactly itching to be elsewhere. Working in the sun at a makeshift beach next to 10 Downing Street? Seeing 16 sports in 16 days, including world records by Bolt and Rudisha? Paul McCartney closing the Opening, The Who closing the Closing? What a miserable assignment, what a miserable experience.