The Olympics, outside the camera angles
So I understand that the Parthenon is somewhere around here. That's the old broken-down building with no roof, right? I haven't seen that since before the opening ceremonies. Living on Athens time, that seems like about 1983.Skip to next paragraph
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Surely, NBC has inundated you with sparkling shots of the Aegean and perfectly lighted images of the Acropolis twinkling in the summer night.
Let me tell you about the Athens and the Olympics that I have come to know.
Some of it must be what is being beamed back stateside - the Olympic Stadium lighting up like a terrestrial constellation at the beginning of the 100-meter dash, Michael Phelps pushing water like an aquatic locomotive.
But it is also something completely different. It is a never-ending string of nights that seamlessly seep into the wee hours of morning. It is the skitter of fencing sabers and the unexpected elation that a Russian pole-vaulter can inspire. And it is astonishingly bad food.
The Olympics are where you look for them, whether in the ill temper of a thousand protests, the unspeakable beauty of an earnest handshake, or the unlooked-for moments - both exciting and infuriating - that bring the Games out of TV memories and into reality.
I mean, does the sheer majesty of the Olympic Stadium come across on TV? I don't know. But I was not prepared for it. It is magnificent in conception, stunning in scale, breathtaking in intricacy. At one point beforehand, when Athens' Olympic effort appeared to be tilting toward disaster, the International Olympic Committee suggested that organizers simply forget the roof. Organizers were adamant it go up.
I understand why. To step beneath its spindly web of steel and glass is to be at once humbled and awed, to feel instantly more important.
Last week, a Greek man stood outside the stadium speaking to a child in English, pointing to the massive steel bows and sinuous filaments that snatch the canopy into a weightless suspension. With the rapture in his voice, he might as well have been talking about the Acropolis.
These Games have stirred a sense of possibility in the Greek mind that has been sleeping for millenniums. This stadium is an heirloom of a seemingly spent culture that has awakened to realize the power of its own potential.
Tellingly, after a Greek sprinter surprisingly won gold in the 400-meter hurdles Wednesday night, she told a press conference: "No one expects the Greeks to have such achievements.... I wanted to prove that when the Greeks put their mind to it, they can step up to the highest spot on the podium."
Most definitely, there is a bootstrap mentality here - a sense that if the oven doesn't blow up when you turn it on, that's good enough. When I first arrived, the man who showed me to my room had a bit of advice. Turning to the circuit breakers, he said: "Before you take a shower, make sure to turn this one off or there's a chance you might get electrocuted."
Good to know.
For an American, there are many things that are foreign here. For one, the ancient plumbing means toilet paper cannot be put in the toilet. For another, the designations of "a.m." and "p.m." seem to have no significance. These words have come out of my mouth here: "Can we meet for dinner at midnight?" When we finished at about 2:30 a.m., the streets were still teeming.