I’ve been lucky enough to cover the last 10 Olympics, both winter and summer, from Sarajevo to Sydney. This time, for the first time, I came home a day early.
Early enough to see a night of the TV coverage you got in America.
Which means early enough to be depressed.
Ladies and gentlemen, sports fans and non-sports fans, couch potatoes across the USA, if you believe nothing else I write here, believe this: What you saw on television was not the Olympic Games.
In fact, it was not even close.
The Olympics are about emotion, and not just the jubilation of victory — which television loves — but the more subtle shades, the waiting, the hand-wringing, the nerves and the sweat, and not the kind that comes from teasing and tape-delaying an event long enough for the medalists to actually fly home and watch it.
No. I am talking about an Olympics that obviously was completely missed by the NBC coverage. Perfect example: The night I watched, they were showing a pole vault competition. Never mind that this competition had finished 12 to 15 hours earlier in Australia. That’s the elephant in the room that NBC executives want to ignore. They undersold the intelligence of American viewers, figured they were too dumb or too lazy to find out the results ahead of time, that they just wanted to be entertained, sit back, watch the Olympics like another episode of “ER.”
Bad enough, that. But what they did show — for example, in this pole vault competition — completely missed the actual touch of the Games.
The TV version went like this:
* Opening tease by anchor, telling us how long it has been since the United States has won this medal (which means you already know an American is going to win, otherwise, why bother showing it?).
* Immediate cut to first American vaulting, up and over. And as soon as he lands, one replay, and then …
* Immediate cut to next competitor. Up and over, one replay, and then . . .
* Immediate cut to next competitor. Up and over, one replay …
* Immediate cut to Americans celebrating.
* Immediate cut to interview of winners.
* Commercial break.
Whoa. If competitions actually moved like that, the Olympics would be over in three days.
But as someone who was actually there in that stadium, actually there watching those competitions, actually there taking in what the Olympics really look like and sound like and feel like, I have only one word for the TV version:
The Olympic rhythm
The Olympics don’t move like that. They are not an ESPN “SportsCenter” package. There is a wondrous rhythm to it all, a rhythm that reflects the world at play, and the largesse of that notion. It is a glorious, meandering rhythm, not meant to be packaged in neat five-minute blocks between commercials. You should no more speed up the Olympics than you should speed up a old man’s heartbeat.
There is, for example, the string-a-long pace of the heats in track and field and swimming, where through Heat 1, Heat 2, Heat 3, Heat 4, Heat 5, Heat 6, Heat 7, Heat 8, you get a feel for the magnitude of the Olympics. When you see a swimmer from Qatar lining up against a swimmer from Egypt, and you know neither has a chance of wining a medal, but they race anyhow, and the crowd cheers them on, and the winner of that heat gets a brief moment to wave at the crowd and hear a return of applause — those are the Olympics.
Or when an Aussie Olympic walker is just outside the stadium, having completed miles of racing, and is now just 200 meters from the finish, in first place, and in her wild enthusiasm she lifts both feet off the ground, just for an instant, and an official dashes out and flags her with a red card, her third, meaning disqualification, and she cries, “No! Not me! Not me!” and this is happening in real time, which means the people inside the stadium are seeing the confused activity on the giant screen scoreboard, and one moment they are cheering and singing Aussie songs and the next moment the first woman to enter the stadium is not Aussie but Chinese, and the buzz of confusion and frustration, the people turning to one another and saying, “What happened to our girl?” the slow spreading of the disastrous news, that in the shadow of glory, a gold medal was forfeited — those are the Olympics.
Or on Bondi Beach, at the beach volleyball competition, when between the matches, the “host” — who calls himself a DJ — plays rock ‘n’ roll music for the crowd, and booms over the sound system, “ISN’T THIS A GORGEOUS DAY AT THE BEACH?” And the crowd explodes because, well, heck yes, with the blue water just a few yards from your seat and a group of brave surfers just out there to your right, and a coast full of Aussie beauties, male and female, tanning themselves — well, yeah, it is a gorgeous day at the beach.
Those are the Olympics.
The thrill of Olympic watching always has been the sense that you are seeing history unfold before your eyes. You were there. You saw it happen. You saw Bob Beamon make that one jump for eternity. You saw Mark Spitz touch the wall. You saw that Russian make that basket between two U.S. players to rob them of a gold.
Take away that belief that you are watching real history in real time — as NBC did when it decided to tape-delay everything — and you have already ripped the organs out of the Games.
Take away the pacing, the waiting, and all the wonderful stuff that happens in between, and you might as well throw the bones out, too.
The Olympic spirit
Coming home to a nation that has only seen the TV version is like coming home from summer camp and finding out none of your weekly letters got through. Let me briefly share a few things that never made it to the little box in your living room, but may give you a sense of the real Summer Games that just came to a close.
Like the smell of hot corn, with butter sauce on the side, that they sell everywhere on the Sydney streets.
Like the mock bungee jump they have set up in Darling Harbor.
Like the Australian long jumper who walked out of the stadium after winning a silver medal and went right into a bar and bought everyone drinks, and let them all wear his medal until the place closed at 4 a.m.
Like the Australian guy sitting in his car who saw me walking one night with a
(typical) confused look on my face, and he asked where I was going, and when I told him I was trying to meet someone at a designated spot, he invited me into his car, and drove me for the next half-hour, making five stops, two phone calls and a visit to a bar, all in a quest to get the proper address. He did not work for the Olympics. He was not a professional driver — in fact, his job was to fill ATM machines. He just wanted to help out in his own little way, make the visitors feel good about being in Australia.
Those are the Olympics.
Like the 18-year-old boxer who failed to make his weight, didn’t get to compete, but was still there in the boxing stands every day, cheering on his teammates.
Like the swimmer from Equitorial Guinea, who barely survived his heat without drowning, but was given a brand new black speed suit from the Australian team, which posed for photos and hugged him as if he were one of its own.
Like the U.S. men’s basketball team, after blowing out New Zealand, standing there, mouths agape, as the Kiwi team did a traditional dance.
Like the mass of beer-chugging fans who stood in a designated “box” outside Sydney’s oldest pub, and waited for someone from another country to walk past in the street, at which point they all yelled the name of that country in unison and kept yelling, yelling, yelling until the person threw his hands into the air, at which point they toasted and chugged back a swig.
Like the volunteers on the blue and yellow megaphones, who directed thousands of spectators to the trains, adding little lines like “Hope you enjoyed the Olympics; isn’t it great the rain went away?”
Like the marathoner from war-torn East Timor, who never thought her team would get to these Games, and she made it to the stadium after 26 miles, dropped to the track in prayer when she thought she’d reached the finish line — only to be told she had one more lap to go. And she took that lap with the ring of 90,000 cheers in her ears.
Like the owner at a tiny cafe down the block from where I stayed, offering visitors to leave her a shopping list and an address and she would pick up groceries for them so they’d have food when they came home.
Like the TV sets they rolled into even the finest restaurants, giving you the odd combination of white linen, candlelight and Sony.
Like the way the nation buzzed for 24 hours about “our Cathy” running in the 400 meters, and the nearly embarrassing national gushing over Freeman’s victory, which they hoped would unite the Aboriginal and white factions more effectively than years of attempted negotiations.
Like the way an Aussie stranger would yell out “My shout! My shout!” — meaning he was buying the drinks or the food, no questions asked.
Like this: Night after night, day after day, when I would walk back to my place, I would pass small houses with the windows open. And through those windows, if anyone was home, you knew it, because you heard the wafting sound of the radio, always on, always broadcasting the results, always saying, in that thick Australian drawl, “What a fine performance he has given here today!
. . .” “Good ‘on her, she did us proud! . . .”
It’s the collective house of these snapshots that make up an Olympics, any Olympics. In fairness, no TV broadcast can truly do them justice. But one so late and so packaged doesn’t stand a chance.
What you saw and what really happened, like war and love, are not the same things. I wish, as someone who tries to paint pictures with words, that you could instead have been there, taken it all in yourself, felt the warm Sydney sun, heard the waves, seen the smiles. These Games may have had their blemishes — drug tests, a bad vaulting horse — but they were fleas on a camel. What Sydney gave the world was 16 peaceful days of non-boycotted, mostly apolitical, fair and honorable competition. That is an accomplishment these days, one not meant to be produced like a sappy sitcom, or slid between commercial breaks.
The sound that rings in my ears this morning, the sound you were most likely to hear during those 16 days — whether in a stadium full of 110,000 people, or from two kids at the train station with their faces painted green and yellow — was this:
“Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!”
Nice job, kookaburras. Your shout indeed.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).