SORRY, OLYMPICS – I MEANT TO SAY . . .

LAKELAND, Fla. — Forget the dateline. This has nothing to do with baseball or Florida. It has to do with the Winter Olympics, which ended nearly two weeks ago. It’s something I would like to get off my chest.

The last piece I wrote about that event was a long wrap-up which came after 19 days in Calgary. It was meant to poke fun at the Games. The Olympics, by that point — to a journalist who had chased buses, hunted athletes, and worked through translators every day — had lost much of their luster. I guess I wrote my mood. Parts were sarcastic and parts were simply nasty. I was tired. I sent it in.

The next day, a few of us drove to Banff, a small resort town in the Canadian Rockies. We pulled onto the main street, and there was a huge banner draped between two poles:

“CONGRATULATIONS KAREN PERCY, OUR BRONZE MEDALIST. YOU DID GREAT.”

Who is Karen Percy? A Canadian skier. She finished third in two Olympic events you’ve probably already forgotten about. This was her hometown.

Everywhere we went there were signs. “You made us proud.” “Thank you.” One store, a T-shirt shop, had a little cardboard note taped above the doorknob.
“Way to go, Karen!” it read.

“Amazing,” I mumbled to a colleague, “all this for a bronze medalist.”

“This is her country,” he said. My stinging words provoked a backlash

Later that night, at the airport, I discovered an entire Olympic team booked on my flight. They wore blue jackets and white hats.

“Where are you from?” I asked one of them.

“San Marino,” he said.

San Marino? Can you even find that on a map? And yet here were these athletes, their Olympics complete, buying souvenirs at the gift shop and joking with the Canadian workers. If they were upset over their lack of notoriety, they sure didn’t show it. As I watched them, and thought about the scene in Banff, and saw the photos in the Calgary newspapers of the closing ceremonies, I began to get a bad feeling in my stomach. I shouldn’t have been so negative in that last column, shouldn’t have joked so much about the United States’ poor performance. I knew better than that. Privately, I hoped the article would bring a few shrugs and be forgotten. When I got to Lakeland, I would write another, detailing all the nice Olympic scenes I had left out.

No such luck.

By the time I called the office the following day, things were frantic. Phones had been ringing off the hook. Readers were livid. Not only had many not found that piece funny, many found it hurtful. A columnist is free to express his opinions. So are readers. And they were doing it. All day long.

Now, I should say this: The Olympics you saw on TV and the Olympics that really took place were different events. The glitz, the melodrama, the constant “Up Close and Personal” segments by the ABC network — it all contributed to a wonderful piece of theater. But it wasn’t reality.

The reality was long delays, numerous mishaps by U.S. athletes, and some tedious competitions.

But the reality was also this: Debi Thomas, just hours after her ill-fated performance, saying: “It’s OK. I’ve learned that life isn’t all Cinderella.” And East Germany’s Katarina Witt, a little tipsy from her first beer, sharing a laugh with Western journalists.

The reality was blind cross-country skiers being led along trails by former world champions. And the British press offering to buy Eddie Edwards a drink after his final ski jump. (He accepted.)

The reality was Brian Boitano — whom I teased shamelessly in that final article — returning to the athletes’ village about 3 a.m. following his gold medal figure skating performance, and finding the hallways taped with
“CONGRATULATIONS!” signs. The U.S. bobsledders had done it.

Because they felt it. Meaning lost out to meanness

You didn’t see a lot of that stuff. I did. On a better day, a day with more patience and less smart-aleck, I would have written it.

I never got the chance. The backlash from that last column was overwhelming, and then I went to Lakeland and got ice water dumped on me, and there was a whole new crisis to deal with.

In the letters that followed, some of the readers wanted me dead. Some wanted my body parts littered over Calgary. Their comments were more vicious than anything I had written. But that didn’t surprise me. Mean only leads to meaner.

Then, the other day, I was sitting with Paul Gibson, a pitcher for the Tigers. He’s a real nice guy and he has been in the minor leagues his whole career. “I just don’t want to wake up one day and say, ‘I should have stuck with it,’ you know?” he told me. “That’s why I’m still here.”

He’s 28.

That really got me, for some reason. And it’s why I wanted to write this. Sports — Olympic or otherwise — are not about winning. Not about medals. They’re about trying. I know that. I always have. And if any kids are reading this, they should know it, too.

I just wish, on that one lousy day, I had written it in the first place.

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