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.

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.

Perhaps the most important rule of all, though, is never ask for directions - it's about as helpful as putting on your pants backward. The streets of Athens are as if someone spilled coffee on the city plan and then traced the lines. The signs in Olympic venues have a tendency to take you around 10 turns and then mysteriously vanish in some underground compound.

It is, it seems, an elaborate ploy to keep journalists away from the outside world. The Olympics are a hermetically sealed world of cloned consistency. For one, the same vendors are at every venue, and unfortunately, so is the same food. Outside of the fences that encircle every stadium is freedom - and the garlic-crammed cuisine that turns breath rotten but sits ever so pleasantly in the stomach.

But no news is outside. So we dutifully remain in our chain-link prison, scribbling stories and braving the best our stomach can bear.

There's no hope of even wandering off the Olympic campus. The Olympic Park itself is nowhere near the Athens everyone knows. The Acropolis is visible only on postcards in souvenir shops.

The whole facility appears to be set in some sort of industrial sector that has no discernible industry. And there's a sea of low-rise apartment buildings - a white Lego landscape as far as the eye can see. The greatest employment appears to be driving around the city aimlessly and at high speeds, talking on one's mobile phone while making animated gestures and honking at the slightest provocation.

But make no mistake, the Greeks have been hosts beyond hoping for. Threats of death-by-voltage aside, the volunteers have made the Olympics feel more at home than any chipped blocks of marble. I recall joining a 5 a.m. soccer match outside the Media Village reception office. "Tell your readers that the volunteers have been wonderful, brilliant," says Marylou Katona, a spectator from Britain.

The Games, too, have been brilliant, and in ways that Americans may not realize. There is Yelena Isinbayeva, the Nomar Garciaparra of pole-vaulting. With her same unstinting routine before every vault, she was a drama unto herself - at last releasing all her pent-up energy with a gleeful yelp as she floated back to earth after setting a new world record. There is fencing, with its fascinating rhythm of lull and chaos - all choreographed in minds that turn the fencing strip into a chessboard of slash and retreat.

But most of all, there are the sounds. To animate Games fully, the Olympics need not Bob Costas but Stan Lee, the creator of Spider-Man. They are a comic book come to life, begging for large red letters to sprawl across the leaves of imagination.

A perfect dive is as much a sound as a sight. It is the "CRACK!" of hands hitting the water followed by the "THWOOSH!" of a ripped entry sucking water behind it. Bicycles rumble around the velodrome like thunder. Hammer-throwers yawp like modern-day Vikings.

On a clear morning, I sit in the Panathenaic Stadium. Some 108 years earlier, this great stone "U," hewn from the same kind of marble that yielded the Parthenon, hosted the first Olympics of the modern era. More than two millenniums before that, Athenian youths came here for their city's largest athletic festival - a local Olympics.

Today, thought strays out of time. The marble is cool to the touch, still not heated by the mounting sun, and the shrill call of cicadas from the surrounding stand of pines streams over the stadium like a sea breeze. Far below, one Greek archer bends her bow taut, then releases. She closes her eyes, waiting for the sound of the arrow striking the target to open her eyes.


I am at the Olympics.

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