by Ray Olsen
Preliminary games of both the Women’s and Men’s Beach Volleyball were on the very first day of Olympic events. A great way to start. Although it is a luck of the draw as to who you see in the prelims, the day included the eventual undefeated Women’s gold medal team from the USA, Misty May (a Long Beach State grad) and Kerry Walsh. (No, the US men’s team didn’t medal but the other US women’s team got the Bronze.) The players skills and the timeout Beach Volleyball bikini clad dancers were a sight to behold.
The afternoon of the second day was something I had rally been looking forward to. The Athens Olympic Committee had placed the Archery venue in the infield of the original marble Olympic stadium built for the first of the modern Olympic Games in 1896. That stadium, in turn, had been built on the site of the Athenian Panhellenic Games that had taken placed during the later period of the ancient Games in Olympia. The marble steps and seats seemed to echo the athletes and spectators watching the games so many years ago. It had special meaning that day, as in the morning I had attended my first quadrennial meeting of the International Society of Olympic Historians and had met fellow members from all over the world.
Even more memorable was the evening on the middle Sunday of the Games when I joined thousands of Greeks and other spectators filing into the 1896 Olympic Stadium to witness the finish of the Women’s Marathon. It was run on roughly the same course as when the ancient Athenian Phidippides ran to report victory in the battle of Marathon over the Persians. It was also the site of the first ever Marathon run as an athletic event finishing in the same stadium in
1896. A huge surprise was the last minutes third place victory in 100 degree heat by an American, Deena Kaster, for the first US Olympic medal in the event since 1984 in Los Angeles. Equally unpredictable was the US silver medal Men’s win a week later on the last night of the Games in the same stadium by Mcbrahtom Keflezighi, a graduate of UCLA.
I always try to see any new Olympic sport, and was able to be at the first Trampoline event. It was amazing how high they could get at the beginning of each routine and the number and difficulty of twists and turns they could
execute between the bounces.
For pure endurance, you can’t beat a sport included in the Olympics for only
the second time – Triathlon. In Sydney, we saw it by the famous Opera House as the first event of the 2000 Games. In 2004, it was at a venue that was the farthest from the apartment (Over two hours by foot, metro, Olympic bus, light rail and public bus.), but it was worth it. The stadium was set up so you could see the swim, the transitions to bike and run, intermediate laps, and the finish line. An Australian was ahead the entire race, but an Austrian passed her with a kick in the last 100 meters. An American, Susan Williams, was another surprise for the bronze.
You probably saw much of the five Track and Field sessions that I attended
and I’m sure the triumphs and disappointments for the US have been highlighted over and over on TV. I always try to attend as much of the Men’s Decathlon’s four morning and evening sessions that I can and managed to see three of them. It was quite exciting to see the battle between the top three from the beginning with an American, Bryon Clay from Hawaii, leading after each of the first two events. The World’s champion form the Czech Republic finally won the gold, but Bryon, a virtual unknown, won the silver with a tremendous effort and several personal bests. I met his grandparents just before he received his medal the next evening.
My seats were close to both the Men’s and Women’s Pole Vault events and
enjoyed the US men back and forth wins for the gold and silver medals and a new Olympic record. In the women’s, a Russian also set a new Olympic record and came close to a world’s. Of course, I have to mention the start to finish lead in the Javelin, leading to a gold by the Norwegian, Andreas Thorkildsen.
For sheer spectacle, nothing can beat the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. While you at home can better see the details with close ups, and the fireworks made for TV, I can’t imagine that you can see the scope of everything that is going on throughout the field and see and feel the reaction and interaction with the crowd in the stands. The Opening was probably the most unique that I have seen. The Closing, other than the traditional Olympic portions, was the most nationalistic with the exclusive Greek staging, dancing and singing. However, the spectators really got into it and were ready to participate and party all night.
There were opportunities taken to see some of Greece. Besides the Rhodes stay, there was a day trip to Delphi to see the Oracle (it’s a place, not a person) and another to ancient Olympia. In addition to experiencing the location of the original games from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D. in Olympia, these trips allowed me to see three of the four sites of the Panhellenic Games in Delphi, Athens and Isthmia near Corinth. I walked the still existing tracks in Olympia and Delphi, saw the foundations of two stadiums in Isthmia and watched Archery and the Marathon finish while sitting in the stands of the stadium on the original site in Athens. An hour was also spent exploring the extensive ruins of Corinth on the way to Olympia. You could walk the same streets in the market place where Paul did. All of these locations had excellent museums and the sites themselves were fantastic. In Athens, a morning was spent on the Acropolis and an afternoon at the famous National Archeological Museum. There even were a few good Greek meals enjoyed in restaurants, outside of the menu of sandwiches and Cokes in the venues.
At the beginning of the Games, I made a prediction that China would surprise with medals in newer sports to them, to be followed with the most gold and overall medals in Beijing in 2008. The first part of the prediction came through with gold medals in nontraditional Chinese sports such as Track and Field, Tennis, Swimming and Canoeing, for a total of 32, second only to the US number of 35 gold medals. They were also the only major power to not have any drug problems. Over the next four years, they will put much effort into developing athletes in all sports, with the advantage of being able to qualify them as the host country, as Greece did such as with Baseball.
When I was in Beijing before the Sydney Olympics, I interviewed a top official of their Olympic Committee for my Olympic Newsletter. At that time they were having drug testing problems and he stated flatly that there would be none in Sydney. With their determination, and at the cost of dropping 27 promising athletes before the Games, there were no Chinese drug failures. He also indicated that they would be getting more medals by fair means in ensuing Games. Well, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens can be moved from their homes and businesses to clear the way for new venues, and related civic and environmental improvements costing over 60 billion dollars, they probably have the determination to be able to increase their medal count as well. We should get used to not having the most successful athletes for many Olympic Games to come.
However, hopefully more of the Olsen/Russ family will be in Beijing to still enjoy the greatest international gathering of athletes and ordinary citizens of any kind in the world. In spite of the nationalistic overlays, the Olympic spirit prevails among the athletes and the spectators. The Greek people certainly felt it. Ask any of the athletes while tears are streaming down their faces on the podiums or when they and their fans are cheering for the other teams at the medal ceremonies. Or more important, see the spirit of the thousands of athletes who come to Athens knowing that they will not be a medal winner, but after all their sacrifices and postponing of family and careers, know that for the rest of their lives they had been an Olympian.
You can feel the spirit when the crowd stays and cheers every Marathon runner, for over an hour after the winner has crossed the line. Where else can you look at a field during the Opening or Closing Ceremonies, and see people literally from every country on earth at one time and in one place; as well as run into and interact with them, their friends and their supporters throughout the 16 days. I don’t think I have ever talked to people from Bangladesh or Nigeria before, as well as families from all over Greece.
The frosting on the cake is to witness the best athletes in the world competing in familiar and unknown sports and events: I enjoyed Rhythmic Gymnastics, and could see in the gold medal game close up why Justine Henin Hardenne, with her precision, is currently ranked the number one Tennis player. Imagine seeing someone can hit a dead center bulls eye in Archery on her last chance to win a gold medal, or return a Table Tennis ball successfully that hard and from that far away. Who knew that Team Handball could be fascinating, or that the Points Race in Track Cycling requires 23 Cyclists to go at top speed for over 48 minutes straight in the crowded banked circular velodrome? Even Volleyball was more interesting with the international rules of having every serve and rally score, service balls that hit the net stay in play, and the use of the defensive specialist “libero” player wearing a different color jersey staying in the game.
Feeling and sharing the Olympic spirit and enjoying all the sports – is the Olympics! Mixed with lots of walking, meeting friendly and interesting people, and having new experiences and places to see.
See you in Beijing!