I love the Olympics.
Let me amend that. I love the concept of the Olympics. I love what the Olympics have often been and could be again. If only . . .
If only they were run by better people.
But of course we should not be having Olympics in 2021, and certainly not in a country and city where they are a most unwelcome guest. It was never my goal to be an Olympic writer, and yet covering 11 Olympics (six Summer, five Winter) turned out to be the most pleasant journalistic surprise of a 44-year writing career.
Yes, I had grown up as a proper Olympic fan, going as far back as 1956, when I read about them in Sports Illustrated. I knew about decathlete Rafer Johnson. I knew about sprinter Bobby Morrow. I knew about Russian long-distance runner Vladimir Kuts.
Olympics came and went from 1968 through 1988 without me having any journalistic involvement. Then came the Dream Team. You know I wanted a piece of that. I covered every aspect of both men’s and women’s basketball in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I moonlighted twice. I did a column on UMass pitcher Ron Villone, playing for the Olympic baseball team. I also did a column on the notorious cheating sprinter Ben Johnson. I hauled out the meat cleaver for that one.
When I wasn’t covering basketball I was trying to give myself a complete Olympic experience. I tried to see as many other sports as I could. I took in all the sights and sounds, not just of a great city but of any and all things Olympic. It was a fascinating lifestyle break in the middle of a pennant race. I was hooked. I couldn’t get enough Olympics.
Two years later, I experienced my first Winter Olympics. Lillehammer was a Central Casting Winter Games experience. The only sport I was truly familiar with was hockey. I wasn’t enthralled by the Nancy-Tonya circus, but I did my duty and was there to report on the famous first practice and the climactic evening when they were upstaged by Oksana Baiul.
It was in Lillehammer that I became fascinated by the amazing cross-country skiers. It was in Lillehammer that I stumbled upon the astonishing 40K relay rivalry between Norway and Italy. The two had dueled to the finish line two years earlier in Albertville. Italian Silvio Fauner nipped Norwegian hero Bjorn Daehlie by four-10ths of a second this time. Four years later, Norway’s Thomas Alsgaard edged Fauner by 0.2 seconds. This means that in three successive Olympic races, covering 120 kilometers (74.5 miles) the teams had been separated by a cumulative length of half a human foot. And you want to talk Red Sox and Yankees?
Competition. Pageantry. Passion. That’s what the Olympics can be all about. Sometimes they’re even about — are you ready? — sportsmanship. Take the 2000 women’s water polo final in Sydney. The host team prevailed when the Americans were called for an “exclusion” (i.e. penalty) with 1.3 seconds left in a 3-3 match, and Australia’s Yvette Higgins took advantage of some kind of confusion to fire the winner past American goalkeeper Bernice Orwig.
The post-match news conference was unique in my experience, and perhaps anyone’s. The respective coaches hugged. The Australians saluted American grande dame Maureen O’Toole. Everybody was weeping, and I mean everybody. It was impossible for anyone just walking in to know who had won and who had lost. It was a true Olympic moment. I wrote, “All I know is that somewhere in that big IOC in the Sky good ol’ Baron de Coubertin is telling people it was a good idea to let those folks into his little soiree.” It was what covering the Olympics has always been: lucking out into being at the right place at the right time.
Anyone who covers multiple Olympics has a similar story to tell. We all have our individual Olympics, and it has nothing to do with the one seen on American TV. Not to demean the marquee performers in the marquee sports, but it’s these behind-the-headlines stories that have always captivated me, and I know I’m not alone.
I know about the bad stuff. I know about the cheating, I know about the bribery that has so often brought the Olympics to the wrong place. I know about the bloated costs that have now discouraged so many cities from making a bid. I know about the white elephant venues left behind in so many cities (Hi there, Athens, how’s it going? And what’s up, Rio?). It’s all avoidable.
I’m just here to tell you that the experience is not all bad. I can’t tell you to how much fun it was to see the international fans roaming all over. When you go to the Summer Olympics you are going to see happy Brazilians and Swedes. When you go to the Winter Olympics you are going to see happy Norwegians. The collective joie de vivre on display each and every day is almost measurable.
Unlike many people, I was rooting for a Boston Olympics. Put the money out of your head for a minute. I am here to tell you we would have been an ideal venue. One essential for a successful Olympics is a good public gathering place or two for people when they’re not attending events. We’ve got the Common and Public Garden. And I could picture the Commonwealth Avenue strip from Kenmore Square up to the Public Garden laden with kiosks and buskers. We could have gussied up the waterfront. I’m telling you, the world would have fallen in love with us.
I know what has been and what could still be. But this Tokyo idea is a farce. The principals will all be, as the estimable John Powers says, under de facto house arrest. The Olympics are about far more than just the events themselves. There will be none of that this time. So, why bother?
Yes, I know. (TV) M-O-N-E-Y. I’m not naive. I’m just sad.
Bob Ryan can be reached at email@example.com.