A decade worth of Olympic memories

by Gary Shelton on August 4, 2016 · 0 comments

in general, Olympics

Thursday, 5:30 a.m.

The anthems. I was always a sucker for the anthems.

The flags. I always loved the flags.

The stories. The stories were rich and wonderful.

Through 10 Olympics, I was there. In great moments, and in tragic ones. In silly moments, and in solemn ones. I was there when a nutjob blew up a park in Atlanta. I was there when Tonya and Nancy shared a patch of ice. I was there when Kerri Strug landed on an ankle she thought was broken. I was there when

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Tommy Lasorda turned into Betsy Ross at a baseball park. I was there when Michael Phelps dove into the water for the first time. I was there for FloJo, for Carl Lewis, for the original Dream Team, for Michael Johnson, for Nicole Haislett, for Brook Bennett.

Zika and all, I miss it like crazy.

Here's the thing no one ever wanted to hear. The accommodations were crap. Really. You stayed in bare rooms about the size (and comfort) of a college dorm. My friend Filip Bondy and I used to argue over who had the worst room. The truth is, we were both right. They were bare and ugly. In Australia, the media village was later turned into in a mental facility. Some say it got a head start. In Atlanta, they found a body. In London, I dared to ask for a fresh towel. “Next week,” I was told.

Ah, but the moments. Every day was a dream. Every story was magical.

In 1992, in Spain, my first assignment was Nicole Haislett, a rather cool young woman who was a great swimmer. When she won, the p.r. Director turned to me and said “Gary, I've got to get back. You're in charge." And things went off without a hitch. Today, there would be assistants and sub-directors and agents running things. I remember a young swimmer named Ron Karnaugh, whose father had died during the opening ceremonies. Karnaugh kept fingering his father's hat as he spoke with a jagged voice I'll never forget. I remember Derek Redmond falling on the track, then rising and finishing his race. His father came onto the track for support. I remember the original Dream Team.

In 1994, it was Tonya and Nancy. Notice how the name of the villainess always come first? I remember an igloo city, where people carved their own accommodations out of the ice. One guy offered me part of his food. “It tastes like dead men in a tin,” he said. I passed. I remember a small couple whose home had been destroyed as they blasted an ice rink into a mountain. I remembered standing on a mountain with members of the Olympic staff, watching the Northern Lights. I remember Dan Jansen looking toward the heavens.

In 1996, the Olympics came to Atlanta in all of their commercial glory. I remember computer snarls and bus drivers getting lost. But I remember Michael Johnson blowing away the field. I remember pick-up trucks in the opening ceremonies. I remember Muhammad Ali lightning the torch. I remember Kerri Strug being carried around by Bela Karolyi.

In 1998, Nagano hosted the Olympics. I remember an earthquake while I napped one day; I thought I was home and my son was shaking the bed. I remember a cold rain, and a stranger holding her umbrella over my head out of kindness. I remember the greatest sushi dinner any journalists ever had. I remember falling in love with the Japanese hockey jersey, and Mike Wilbon scoring us a couple. I still have mine. I remember flag-bearer Chris Witty, brave enough to talk about the sexual abuse she endured as a child.

In 2000, the great summer games of all were held in Sydney, a magnificent city with magnificent games. I remember the Aboriginal part of town where everyone advice for torch-lighter Kathy Freeman. I remember the huge bridge over the harbor. I remember Lasorda gushing endlessly after beating the Cubans for the gold. I remember walking through the harbor on the last night as the people broke into “The Land Down Under,” a song they had considered trivial. I remembered wanting to go back.

In 2002, I had a hotel. Not a great hotel, but a good one. We were in Salt Lake. I remember not feeling as secure as possible. One of guards took my cell phone. He asked the other if he should turn it on. “No, man. Face it down first. It could take your hand,” the second guy said. Wouldn't it take your hand regardless? I remember judging controversies in skating. I remember the Bucs hired Jon Gruden, and I wrote football for days in the middle of the Games.

In 2004, the Games returned to Athens. The entire country was convinced there would be terrorism, and several journalists took safety courses. My boss? “You want a safety course?” he said. “Duck.” Our first night there, a bird dumped on my shoulder. Twice. I remember John Romano ordered a vile appetizer for the table. “Sheep's stomach” we were told. I remember the first Israeli medal, and how the eyes of old men glistened.

By 2006, the Games had gone to Italy to Turin, which I figured was the 89th city in Italy anyone would ever want to visit. I remember standing on a veranda with Sauro Toma, the former soccer player who had missed the flight that crashed, killing all of his teammates. He still kept photos of them in his wall of death. I remembered visiting the shrine, which wasn't being displayed.

In 2008, the Games were in China. I remember trying to capture the spirit of the games by attending a badminton game, which is a cultural phenomenon there. I have never felt so foreign. I remember the Forbidden City and riding in a rickshaw. I remember the odd food. I remember the opening ceremonies, and a guy grabbing my computer bag instead of his. By the time I finally tracked him down, and got the venue to swap, he had the nerve to check to see if his stuff was still intact. “Hey, you stole my bag,” I said. I remember Phelps' greatness.

In 2012, I covered my last Olympics in London. It was a fantastic Games, although the winding roads made the bus travel hard. I spent one day covering as many sports as possible, archery and volleyball and tennis. Phelps was great again despite a slow start. Gabby Douglas was amazing. I remember Usain Bolt. I remember falling for the story of Oscar Pistorius.

I remember. I remember the endless bus rides. I remember the cafeteria food. I remember track and basketball and gymnastics and skating and baseball and weightlifting. I remember wrestling and field hockey and stories and people.

I remember the Olympics.

The best sports event of all.

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