Citius, Altius, FortiusWritten August 21-28, 2004
I am an Olympic nut. I am absolutely glued to the television from the opening to the closing ceremonies. I like the winter Olympics a lot, but the summer games are my favorite. I am annoyed that I must go to work each day. I am annoyed that I must clean house, pay bills, buy groceries. I am especially annoyed if the phone rings during an exciting final.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by these wondrous athletes — swimming, running, jumping, throwing — grinning, waving, weeping, crowing. I hold my breath when the races are close. I shout encouragement to my favorites. I rejoice with the winners and I suffer with the losers.
Why is it? Why do I so enjoy watching these Olympic gods and goddesses perform inhuman feats of strength and speed? I am not an athlete myself. Far from it. I have been terrible at almost every sport I have ever tried. Gym class in school was nothing but failure and humiliation. I was the last picked for every team. I excelled at nothing. I liked swimming best because it was the only activity where I was not conspicuous by my ineptitude. Not that I was good. I was mediocre, and therefore, invisible — a state that I fervently wished for during every gym class.
My sophomore year in high school, I had no gym teacher for the first three weeks of school. She was late because she was a gymnast participating in the Rome Olympics. You can guess what we did for the entire first semester. What chance did I have? I couldn’t even turn a straight summersault. I scored a B for the semester by virtue of my straight-A written work and my A+ notebook that consisted of step-by-step drawings of every exercise. My father, the athletic type, was befuddled. "How can you get As in every subject but gym?"
But I digress. Right now, as I tap away at the keyboard, I am pausing to watch the heats of the 400m hurdles in Athens. For this entire week, as I have observed the games, my mind keeps wandering back to 1976 and Montreal — the year I watched the Olympics in person.
By 1976 I had lived in Los Angeles for three years, paused to travel the U.S. and Mexico for eight months, settled briefly in Ann Arbor, then moved back to Los Angeles. I had been saving my money for three years. My ultimate goal was Europe, but I figured I could swing the Olympics as well. Who knew when they would again be so close when I could actually afford the time and the expense. I asked my sister Holly (another Olympic nut) if she wanted to go. Her answer was an enthusiastic "Yes!"
I sent away for the ticket and travel package as soon as the American allotment was released. We decided we were going to attend as many events as we could. Let me tell you, requesting tickets was a daunting task. I had schedules and venues and subway maps spread all over the table. I had to figure out which events conflicted with each other and estimate how much time it would take to travel between venues. Fortunately, Holly gave me carte blanche to select the events we would see. We liked the same sports and she trusted my judgement.
When I received the tickets, we were disappointed to find we could not attend many of the events we wanted. The American allotments were sold out already. No opening ceremony, only one session of gymnastics, one session of swimming, and standing room for all the track and field. They substituted other simultaneous events for the tickets we couldn’t get. Many of them, I sent back — no judo or field hockey please. In the end, there were not many gaps in our days.
We opted to rent an apartment from a Montreal resident who decided the money was more attractive than the games. And — one of our best decisions — we decided to travel to Montreal by train and fly home. The trip lasted 3 1/2 weeks. I can’t remember exactly how much it cost, but by any standards, it was dirt cheap compared to today.
We were so excited when we boarded the train in Los Angeles. We took Amtrak to Vancouver and spent a day sightseeing. Then we switched to the Canadian train. Amtrak was a real disappointment, but the train and the trip from Vancouver to Montreal exceeded all our expectations. We had two tiny cabins across the hall from each other. There was a bench on the back wall, a sink and small vanity on the front wall, and a little toilet that doubled as a stool in front of the sink. The bench folded out into a bed. When it was extended, it covered the toilet and filled every square inch of the cabin. In fact, you had to get ready for bed, then leave the cabin to fold out the bed — then climb in from the doorway.
And there was a big window.
That first night we started late. It was already bedtime, but we are night owls and we talked into the wee hours as the train climbed into the mountains of British Columbia. It turned out that I had the good side of the train. Holly’s window faced the mountain, mine the valley. The moon was full and shone down on the Fraser river far below as the train hugged the cliffs all night long. I could see for miles and the view was breathtaking. I tried to sleep, but every time I lay down I thought about the beautiful sight I was missing and I had to return to my vigil at the window.
I slept very little that night, but those were the days when I was little affected by a loss of sleep. In the morning, we went exploring and found the two cars where we would spend all of our waking hours — the dining car and the lounge car. It is really fun eating in a dining car with a tablecloth and cloth napkins. It was reminiscent of the heyday of trains when it was the preferred means of travel for the nation’s elite. We have traded a lot of quality in our modern lives for the sake of speed.
The lounge car was the best. It was higher than the other cars and topped by a dome of windows to maximize the view. And what a view it was. That first day, we travelled through Jasper and Banff National Parks, surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains. We left only to eat and eventually to sleep.
But the best part of the lounge car was the people we met there. Everyone on the train was travelling to Montreal to see the Olympics, so we had something huge in common right away. We were all excited and no matter what our ages or backgrounds, our minds were all directed to the same goal. We spent 3 1/2 days on that train and by the time we arrived in Montreal we had made friends from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. We had talked, and played cards and games, and talked, and eaten together, and talked some more.
There was George, the Aussie. He was much older than us and talked about his family. And Bruce from Vancouver. He correctly named 49 of the states (I missed one of the provinces). And there was Ian from New Zealand. He had only one goal in mind — "To see the 1500 meters. To see John Walker, mate."
"Who is John Walkermate?" we enquired. We had never heard of John Walker and Ian was aghast.
"You don’t know John Walker, mate? He’s only the best 1500 meter runner in the world! And he’s a Kiwi!"
"Ooooh. Okay. We’ll watch for John Walkermate. Don’t worry."
As it turned out, Ian had not exaggerated his talent. Not only did he win, but he was perfection personified, a veritable Greek god in action with long hair streaming behind in the wind that he created. We gave him the gold medal for best body. And he has always been John Walkermate to us.
And there was Rob from California. I can still see him grinning through that bushy mustache. He taught us this bizarre game card game called Sneeho and we laughed and laughed together while we played. Rob celebrated a birthday while we were in Montreal and Holly and I set out one day to buy a birthday cake. We couldn’t find a single bakery with any English speaking staff, so we gestured and wrote down our birthday message to be written on the cake — The King of Sneeho. They thought we were nuts, but we didn’t care. We had such a good laugh when we invited Rob to our apartment and presented it to him. Rob came to visit us in Las Vegas after the games. We dressed my mother up in jewels and furs and a crown and introduced her as the Queen of Sneeho. Rob instantly dropped to one knee and bowed his head. "Your majesty," he murmured as he kissed her outstretched hand. Rob fit in very well with my family. I was in a relationship at the time, but there was no denying the attraction between us. I sometimes wonder how big was the opportunity I let slip through my fingers.
When we reached Montreal, we all exchanged our local addresses and phone numbers. We were not alone in a big strange city. We had friends all over.
Holly and I were pleased to see there was a TV in the apartment we rented. As we watched the Opening Ceremony on that first day, they started to talk about the Olympic flame winding its way through the streets of Montreal. Suddenly we realized that they had just mentioned our street. We flew to the window, and sure enough, there were people lining the road as far as we could see. We raced down and within minutes the torch bearer ran right by us. We felt consoled for missing out on the Opening Ceremony.
Where do I begin to talk about the games? The feats of strength and stamina look amazing enough on TV, but in person, I saw feats that looked downright impossible. Until you watch the javelin leave the athletes’s hand and sail though the air for nearly the distance of the field, you can’t appreciate how far it really is. The camera misses the context as it follows only the spear. It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon in person for the first time. You have seen pictures of it all your life, but only when you stand on the edge can you appreciate the size, the grandeur.
I found the gymnastics particularly amazing — especially the still rings with these amazing men stretched out parallel to the floor, holding only two metal rings dangling on chains. And the high jump. These guys are jumping up in the air and their back is clearing a bar that is two feet taller than they are. It doesn’t look possible.
We had tickets to all of the track and field sessions, but they were standing room. The standing room was like a big cattle pen and after about a half hour we decided it wouldn’t do. Way up high, in the nosebleed section, we noticed a lot of empty blue seats. We decided to see if we could sneak in. There were guards checking tickets everywhere, but we noticed that from up high, the standing room section looked very crowded. So we conjured up a story for the guard.
"The standing room was full, so the guy down there told us to come up here."
The guard glanced down at the standing room and it did, indeed, look full. He let us in. I was chicken to tell so blatant a lie that first time, so I made Holly do it. But after a few days, I gained confidence. We never had to stand after that. And those nosebleed seats were full of Americans, so we could all cheer our athletes together.
During the women’s 4 X 400 relay final, we noticed a woman in the row below us get extremely vocal after a baton pass. Suddenly, she turned around and screamed at the top of her lungs. "That’s my daughter!" Then we all got extremely vocal. If shouting could have helped them run faster, they would have won by a wide margin. As it was, they took second. She was happy. We were all happy.
There were so many memorable moments. Everyone remembers Nadia Comanici, Lasse Viren winning the 5 and 10,000 meters, Bruce Jenner in the decathlon. The East German women were so dominant in swimming and athletics that, by the end of the games, we could hum their National Anthem flawlessly. And there was one runner I will never forget. He was so slow running in his heat of the 10,000m, they had to put cones on the track to cordon him off from the runners in the next heat. But he finished, and when he did, the crowd cheered as if he had won, demonstrating the true spirit of the games.
My brother drove up during the games and stayed with us. He even managed to score some tickets to events. When we weren’t watching the games, we gathered with our new friends to eat and laugh and exchange wonderments. And then, all too soon, it was the last day.
The Closing Ceremony was one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed. Watching them lower the flag and extinguish the flame brought us to tears. And then to watch all the athletes milling around in the center of the field, laughing and hugging and dancing. It was very possible that some of those beautiful young people would face each other at some later date on the fields of war. But at that moment, there was nothing but love between them. And nothing but good will between us all.
We were given lightsticks as we entered the stadium with instructions to break them at a given signal, lighting up the darkness. Later, we all gathered in Old Montreal to say our farewells. We were still basking in the glow of the Closing Ceremony, and we all carried our lightsticks in our pockets, a badge of sorts, a secret shared by the chosen few, a special moment of brotherhood. When we saw a lightstick, we exchanged smiles of understanding with its owner. We knew it was about more than winning and losing, more than swiftest, highest, strongest. But we also knew that the glow would fade, that the realities of life would impose themselves upon us again. Still, I think I had a glimpse of what true world peace would feel like and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.