MUST-SEE TV? GOTTA TELL A TALE

NEWS ITEM: For its Summer Games coverage, NBC has produced more than 140
“Olympic Profiles.” Critics wonder if these aren’t overdramatizing the competitors.

ATLANTA — I was born in a hut, in a poor village, in a tiny country that no one ever heard of. My father was a Greek shepherd who loved to pole vault. My mother was a Russian seamstress and part-time volleyball player. They had 25 children. I was the youngest.

“How’m I doin’?” I ask the NBC person.

“Keep going,” he says.

Our family had no money for athletic training. During the day, I would race the goats. At night I would jump fences with the sheep. This is how I developed my extraordinary leaping talent.

“Good?” I ask.

“Fascinating,” he says.

It was my father’s dream that I compete in the Olympics. My great-uncle was in the 1896 Games in Athens, in the equestrian events. Unfortunately, his horse galloped off a cliff.

“Never heard from him again,” I say softly.

“Your great-uncle?”

“The horse.”

A tear rolls down my cheek.

“Please, go on,” the NBC man says, taking out a notepad.

Well, I say, my grandfather was also a promising athlete. A sprinter. He qualified for the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. But a week before the Games, as part of his training, he went to Pamplona to run with the bulls.

“He figured if he could outrun a bull, he could outrun anyone,” I say.

“What happened?” the NBC man asks.

What happened? I wipe away my tears. I tell him what happened. I tell him how my grandfather jumped in front of a bull just as it was about to plow into

a fruit stand. How the bull flipped my grandfather, who landed on his head. How he developed amnesia, forgot all about the Games, and became a barber.

“In Pamplona?” the TV man asks.

“In Seville,” I say.

“Your grandfather was a barber of Seville?”

“Yes,” I sigh. “It is true.”

“Wow!” he says. “Let me call my cameraman.”

And then, tragedy struck

I tell him about my athletic career. As a child, I was separated from my fraternal twin, Elvis. To make up for my loneliness, I began to swim. I swam every day, 100 laps. By age 8, I was the best in my village.

“Until the asthma,” I say.

“Asthma?” says the NBC man, his face lighting up.

That’s when I switched sports. I took up long jumping. I jumped streams and rivers. I jumped cliffs and canyons. I was a jumping machine, the best in the world, a sure gold medalist.

And then, as Dick Enberg might say, tragedy struck.

“Asthma?” asks the TV man.

“Vertigo,” I say.

He scribbles quickly, sweating from excitement.

“Which is . . . when I entered the monastery,” I say.

“The monastery?”

Yes, I explain. The monastery. I lived in total silence for six years. To make up for my loneliness, I ran through the mountains. I ran in snow. I ran in rain. Some days, when the monks needed milk or coffee, I ran all the way down the mountain and all the way back up.

“Wait,” the TV man says, “monks don’t drink coffee.”

“Did I say coffee?” I say. “I meant . . . toffee. They loved toffee. They had so few pleasures in life, you know.”

“Of course,” says the TV man.

A cameo by Drew Barrymore

I can see that I am making progress. His cameraman arrives, and the NBC man tells him to “zoom in tight.” I cross my arms and stare into space. I look wistful. I look forlorn. Then I run in slow motion.

“Did I mention my teddy bear?” I say.

“A teddy bear, too!”

Oh, yes. I never compete without my teddy bear. And my lucky ring. And a small photo of my great-uncle on his horse, just before he jumped off the cliff. I always have these things with me when I go to the gym.

“The gym? You mean the track?”

“No,” I say. “I had to give up distance running.”

“Asthma?”

“Anorexia.”

“JACKPOT!” he says.

I explain how, after all those years in the mountains, I forgot how to eat. The monks sent me to America, where doctors fed me hamburgers and milk shakes. This is how I ballooned to my current weight. It is also how I fell in love with my current girlfriend, Drew Barrymore.

“DREW BARRYMORE!”

“Yes,” I say. “We met in McDonald’s. Now she comes to all my competitions.

She should be here any minute.”

The NBC man is ready to explode. He has the cameraman shoot me from every angle. He picks dramatic music — I believe it is Kenny G., or maybe John Tesh
— and he lays it behind the footage of my training.

I tell him how I cried the day I got my citizenship. I tell him how just making the Games is a gold medal accomplishment. I tell him how, when this is all over, I hope that Drew and I can live a quiet life in the mountains.

He races off with my Olympic Profile. I realize, after he goes, that I never told him what sport I am competing in.

Then again, he never asked.

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