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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.