A reporter’s journey through the Olympics

He encounters consistently friendly Chinese volunteers, lamb skewers at 3 a.m., Swedish ping-pong, and the arcane rules of fencing.

By , Staff writer

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    Convivial hosts: Chinese volunteers like this one at a soccer training field were everywhere during the Games, rain or shine, and they were inevitably cheery.
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It is 2:30 a.m. I have no idea what day it is. The men’s 200-meter dash finished a few hours ago. One measures time by events here, not by days or hours.

I am walking back from the Bird’s Nest in a light drizzle, thinking that, for journalists, the Olympics are nearly as much about these moments – in the wee hours of the night, story freshly finished – as they are about the actual events. The Olympics seem mine now, personal. Other than a Russian TV crew doing a daily wrap-up in front of the glowing red spaceship of the Bird’s Nest, I am alone.

Or so I thought.

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Without warning, four Chinese volunteers appear from nowhere in some sort of über golf cart, as if a normal cart woke up one day and became a Cadillac Escalade. They are offering me a ride back to the Main Press Center.

The Main Press Center is, at most, a five-minute walk away – hardly a hardship. It is 2:30 in the morning. There are four of them. And they are all smiling.
This, I think, is the Beijing Olympics.

Volunteers at every Olympics are a unique breed of human, infused with the angelic temperament needed to deal with journalists 24 hours a day. But here in China, I have sometimes felt as though they stopped short only of fanning us with palm fronds and offering grapes as we write our stories.

When it began raining, volunteers gave us free ponchos. I have ordered lamb skewers in the media cafeteria at 3 a.m. Nevermind that at every other Olympics, nothing in the media center would have been open past midnight. Here, there were a half-dozen people to serve me, and another two at the register. I will remember this as the Clockwork Olympics.

Manpower, you see, is not a problem for China. But that can’t explain the cheeriness – the overwhelming impression that they are, in fact, overjoyed to serve you lamb skewers at an hour better suited for viewings of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

Since language difficulties limit conversations to, “Can you please turn this television to the water polo?” I cannot claim any great insight into why this is. But it seems that everyone is simply happy to be a part of the Olympics.

By now, I must be in 1,000 photo albums across China. To travel the 10 minutes from the Main Press Center to the Bird’s Nest is to run a gantlet of digital cameras, flashing in every direction. At any one moment, 30 people are standing on the Olympic Green, pretending to hold the Olympic flame in their hand, Lady Liberty-like, as someone snaps a picture. And I’m in the background, hurrying to the javelin.

This is a wonderful thing – to be in a place that loves the Olympics. Mostly because I feel the same way. I fall in love all over again every two years. Not with any specific athlete – or at least not in a way that requires me to apply liberal amounts of Hypnôse Homme. There is romantic love. There is platonic love. I suggest that there is also Olympic love.

I love that, on the last day of the men’s table tennis competition, the only person who could have prevented a Chinese sweep was a Swede who played every point with the enthusiasm of a teenager, even though he was a 40-something at his sixth Games. At times, I expected him to start break dancing.

I love the way that all the athletes of the women’s heptathlon waited at the finish line for the last competitor to finish, then took a victory lap together, hand in hand, like sorority girls amazed that they had at last found friends willing to do something as crazy as seven events in two days – a sort of Olympic hazing.

I love the way American wrestler Clarissa Chun’s hair looked like an exploded firework atop her head, utterly spent after six minutes of nonstop motion.

Yet the Olympics, I admit, are a high-maintenance date. After all, they ask you to know the most intimate details of 301 events, some of which involve scoring systems invented by nuclear physicists in an MIT laboratory. Others ask me to return to Mrs. Siff’s French classes and the correct use of the accent aigu.

•••

Olympic journalism can sometimes be a case of the blind leading the blind. On the first day of the Olympics, I was at the fencing venue, trying to understand why it was that Tunisian Azza Besbes appeared to be playing a completely different sport from the rest of the women.

American fencer (and soon-to-be bronze medalist) Becca Ward explained – or thought she did: “My coach told me she does a lot of remises.” Then, with another bout in a few minutes, she walked off.

A lot of what? This is an Olympic moment. I should ask her to explain, but I don’t really want to reveal the fact that I am a moron. Not having any idea what a remise is, I write down a single letter – “z” – which is the only sound I hear as she speaks the word. It is a letter, I later learn, that isn’t even in the word.

Yes, I am an accredited Olympic journalist.

After pestering the patient man who works for www.fencing.org, I learned that a remise is an offensive maneuver when you should be playing defense. In saber fencing, it seems, it is important who starts an attack. If you attack when you should be defending, and you both hit each other, the one being attacked will lose. This, I also learned, is called “right of way.”

I told this to an American journalist who was watching the bronze-medal bout with the expression of someone trying to translate Sanskrit. He threw up his arms as though in a gospel choir. “You’ve opened up a whole new world!” he cried.

He, too, is an accredited journalist.

I learned that repêchage is French for “loser’s bracket” and that you only qualify if the person you lost to makes the finals. This is because in sports like wrestling, there is no seeding; the two best wrestlers can face each other in the first match. This strikes me as the dumbest idea in the history of sport. But then I watch it, and there is a peculiar intensity to the event. It is not a crescendo, it is zero to 60 in five seconds. The best match of the day could be the first.

This is the beauty of the Olympics. It is like an exchange program for sports fans. There are some places where “hike” is an exotic term, part of a strange world where beefy men run around intensely for five seconds, then stop so John Madden can analyze 13 replays of a 1-yard gain.

The Olympics ask the same of me. Each day is an education, and for someone who loves pure sport – the idea of human beings pushing each other to new levels – the Games are a two-week all-you-can eat buffet. And this time, I could even order the lamb skewers at 3 a.m.

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