As the Brits prepare to light the Olympic cauldron at tonight’s opening ceremonies in London, nostalgia sweeps over me. I long to be at the spectacle, which, I’m told, will culminate, most appropriately, with Sir Paul McCartney leading the throng in a rousing rendition of Hey Jude. (That, in itself, would be worth the price of admission. I speak from experience because I was part of Sir Paul’s “chorus of thousands” at one of his concerts in Philadelphia several years ago. It was a jolly good time.)
I now realize how blessed I was to have covered five Olympiads for my former newspaper as well as Gannett News Service and USA Today. Despite the crass commercialism and jingoism, there is something truly special about the Games. I can’t think of any other event that brings the world together for three weeks. Too bad, we have to wait every two years to experience that spirit of unity, in which we celebrate similarities rather than differences.
The personal connection I feel to the Olympics (I also was privileged to be a torchbearer during the relay leading up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Games) clearly is a huge reason I wish I were in London. But I think my yearning also has something to do with my late mom. She was from northern England and I know she would be bursting with pride and waving a mini-Union Jack while watching the pomp and circumstance unfold. It would have been so cool to share in the merriment of her people.
Since I’m in a reflective mood, I thought I’d toss out a few of my more memorable moments from the Olympics I covered in Norway, Australia, Greece, China and Atlanta.
· Michael Phelps’ record-setting eighth-goal medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing. I was indeed there in the natatorium known as the “Water Cube” chronicling the race that saw Phelps surpass Mark Spitz as the most decorated Olympic swimmer. The thing is, I almost missed this historic moment because of a bout with food poisoning. About an hour before Phelps hit the water I had to hit the head. Let’s just say that if “hurling” were a competition that day, I definitely would have medaled.
· The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera. I was one of 50 credentialed journalists in the rink in Hammar, Norway for the most anticipated figure skating competition in history. You know the story. Before the Olympics, Harding’s henchmen whacked Nancy on the chin with a lead pipe in hopes of preventing her from competing in the 1994 Olympics. But Kerrigan recovered quickly enough and wound up winning silver. Tonya, meanwhile, flopped badly in the opening round of this sorry spectacle that became the third most watched event in television history.
· Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. This was one of the best-kept secrets of all-time. I was speculating someone like former Braves home run champion Hank Aaron, but the committee fooled us all by opting for a Louisville Slugger. A thunderous roar shook the stadium when Ali – a Kentucky native and 1960 Olympic gold medalist in boxing – ignited the flame. Four years later, at the Sydney Olympics, I had the privilege of being invited to Ali’s hotel suite where the former heavyweight champion of the world entertained us with poetry, magic tricks and impish pranks.
· Rochesterians Abby Wambach, Diann Roffe-Steinrotter & Cathy Turner winning gold medals in their respective events. Abby’s game-winning goal in the 2004 Games in Athens not only gave the U.S. the gold, but proved to be a fitting parting gift for her soccer idol, Mia Hamm, who would retire shortly after the Olympics. Diann won the downhill ski event in Lillehammer in 1994. Interestingly, she was the first skier of the day and her time held up. I also was there for Cathy’s gold in short-track speedskating in Norway. Her athleticism and feistiness were perfectly suited for the sport, which resembles roller derby on ice.
· The opening ceremonies in Beijing. Talk about a tour du force. The world’s most populous nation does things in a big way. Eight is considered a lucky number in Chinese culture and at exactly eight minutes after eight PM on the eighth day of the eighth month of ’08 several thousand drums beat in unison inside the Olympic stadium to officially open the Beijing Games. More than 12,000 performing artists put on a spectacle that night that will be hard for the Brits or any other host nation to match.
· Climbing the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis in Athens and the Sydney Harbor Bridge. The Great Wall snakes its way through nearly 4,000 miles of China, and the parts I traversed were in mountainous regions, so you literally had to climb the steep steps. There were places where my head literally was in the clouds. I couldn’t imagine how they managed to build this architectural marvel, which was nearly a thousand years old. I experienced the same wonderment when I walked through the Parthenon and other ancient Greek temples. The Sydney Harbor Bridge also took my breath away – but for different reasons. See, I suffer from a fear of heights, and in a moment of temporary insanity I decided to make this trek up the bridge spans to its peak, some 45 stories above the water. I turned green on several occasions, but somehow the tour guide managed to coax me up and down the bridge’s massive arches. Once back on terra firma, I told people I was glad I had done it – and vehemently vowed never to do it again.
· Covering the 1996 Olympics with a broken leg. Two weeks before I was supposed to go to Atlanta, I broke my left leg and ankle in seven places playing softball. Not exactly good preparation for covering the Olympics. I’m a stubborn cuss, so I decided to give it a shot anyway and packed my wheelchair and crutches and flew to Atlanta. I lasted 13 days in Hotlanta before having go to the same emergency room at Emory University that gold-medal gymnast Kerri Strug went to after her memorable landing. The orthopedist said it was a good thing I had come when I did. He cut my cast off and examined my swollen leg and told me that if I had waited another day he would have had to amputate my leg.