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Back in the Day: My 12 Olympics, Ranked

July 29th, 2021 · 1 Comment · Back in the Day, Newspapers, Olympics

Note: Originally published here in 2008, after the Beijing Olympics.

Twelve was how many I covered, from start to finish, in my journalism career. So this list includes all of them. I was briefly onsite at London 2012, but covering three UAE soccer matches … we will leave that off this list.

So, “favorite” is a personal thing. It has nothing to do with performances or where the U.S. finished in the medals standings. It’s a sort of amalgam of “interesting, memorable, scenic, decent housing, media center/local hospitality/internal transport.” Once you do one or two of these, the “wonder of it all” is gone and you can look at each of them with a discerning eye.

So, I conjure memories of the Games in my mind. And if I smile or wince … that helps me sort things out.

I’m going to do this backward, from least-favorite to most.

12. Albertville, France, Winter 1992. Dreary city, dirty snow, long bus rides to far-flung venues. And a roommate who snored like a chain saw. For a week, I feared he would stop breathing permanently; for the next two weeks I wished he would.) Kristi Yamaguchi, now better known as a ball-room dancer, won gold in ice skating. I recall co-workers making reservations for French dinners. I never went because I worked late. Alberto “La Bomba” Tomba may have won a medal. The best part of the Olympics was after it, when I went to Paris.

11. Turin, Winter 2006. Dreary city, dirty snow, like Albertville. My last Olympics was a dud. You think “bella Italia!” but it doesn’t really apply to Turin, best known for a shroud, a soccer team and as the hometown of Fiat. It’s the Italian Detroit. … This was barely two years ago, and I’m searching my mind for a memorable story. Oh, yeah, the American girl who was showboating just before she hit the finish line in snowboarding and blew the gold medal. I remember that. I ought to remember who won the women’s skate (oh, yeah, the Japanese woman). Just massively unremarkable.

10. Nagano, Japan, Winter 1998. Dreary city, dirty snow and just a lot of nothing going on. I was counting down the days almost from the start. At least it was Japan, and I hadn’t been there before. The one event I associate with Nagano is Tara Lipinski upsetting Michelle Kwan in women’s skating. And there were “snow monkeys” somewhere out there. For about 10 days I thought it was some sort of possibly obscene slang people in the media center were using, but there were actually monkeys in the woods who lived in snow. I never saw them. I did go in a very large pagoda, though. That was cool.

9. Atlanta, Summer 1996. When your most vivid memory is a terror bombing in Centennial Olympics Park (it was late, it was Friday night, and the Gannett/USA Today bureau was practically empty, and I filed a story within 30 minutes of the bomb going off), it’s not a good Olympics. I also recall the generic chaos surrounding the transportation meltdown at Opening Ceremonies. (Oh, and a shaky Muhammad Ali lighting the flame.) Atlanta never recovered from the international hiding it received from those first few days of transport disaster. Oh, and useful reminder: Don’t stage an Olympics in the summer in the Deep South; the weather really isn’t very nice.

8. Salt Lake City, Winter 2002. Another one of the “this city got the Olympics … how?” events. (Oh, yeah, SLOOC officials bribed IOC members.) Just thoroughly unremarkable. I’m straining to remember a single news story. And I was there for nearly three weeks. I remember the walk from my hotel/motel every morning; the wind always seemed to be in my face. It was astonishingly cold at the night-time Opening Ceremonies; Steve Dilbeck and I bailed before the end so we could thaw out in time to write for L.A. News Group papers. But the competition? Hmm. Gee … Oh, wait! Local guy Derek Parra won a gold medal and a silver in speed-skating. That was The Story of the Games for me, since he was a San Bernardino native. The volunteers were very polite, but it was Utah, after all.

7. Seoul, Summer 1988. I remember two events from these Games: The USA collegiate all-stars lost to the Soviets in hoops, setting the stage for the NBA Dream Team to enter, in 1992. And Ben Johnson set a steroid-puffed world record in the 100-meter dash that was overturned a day or two later. I recall a near-riot between students and police a few days before the Games. That was interesting, I must admit. It wasn’t an awful Olympics. Just fairly humdrum. I discovered I don’t like kimchi. Oh, and the heavily muscled (yes, that’s code for “steroids”) Florence Griffith-Joyner destroyed the field in the women’s 100 and 200-meter dashes with marks that look more suspicious as time goes by. It was my first trip to Asia, and now that I think of it I remember flying business class in the up-the-stairs compartment of a 747. Cool.

6. Athens, Summer 2004. What I think of first is that the Greeks got these Games off at all. They were behind schedule in construction almost to the last moment. It was hot. Oh, yeah. They didn’t bother with a media village, so Dilbeck and I were in a fairly dingy hotel downtown that, at least, was air-conditioned. It was a long subway ride to the main venue. At least most of the facilities were within walking distance of the media center. The competition? I remember the two Greek sprinters who disappeared the evening of Opening Ceremonies rather than take a drug test. The U.S. basketball team (yes, the NBA guys) lost to, who, Argentina in the semis? Lots of sun. It was Athens, so the feel of history all around meant for something. Visiting the Acropolis and thinking of Pericles, Socrates and the lads made it worthwhile.

5. Barcelona, Summer, 1992. Now we’re moving into genuinely memorable Olympics. Barcelona, a great city, probably a bit overlooked at the time. Great Opening Ceremonies that included a huge ship carrying the city’s Carthaginian founders. The Dream Team (USA basketballers Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, et al) as the stars of the show, wowwing international journalists and jumpstarting the NBA’s global boom. Oscar De La Hoya winning gold. A great apartment across the street from the media center that I shared with three of my favorite Gannett colleagues. Las Ramblas, the hip tourist/entertainment/promenade district. While blowing off steam the night after the Games, three of us drank four pitchers of sangria at dinner … and I fell off a curb trying to get into a taxi and was still buzzed when I got on a plane to Paris the next morning, my ingenious plan to avoid a hangover by staying up all night having failed miserably. At least I didn’t throw up at 30,000 feet. Good times.

4. Los Angeles, Summer 1984. My first Summer Games. Memorable because it was all HERE. Track and field at the Coliseum, basketball at the Forum, shooting in Chino, cycling in OC, baseball at Dodger Stadium. Carl Lewis and his four gold medals, channeling Jesse Owens. Mary Decker and Zola Budd in their famous collision in the women’s 3000. The Swiss woman who staggered and collapsed inside the Coliseum just yards short of finishing the marathon. Mary Lou Retton and her Wheaties box date with gymnastics destiny. The 84 baby grand pianos at Opening Ceremonies and Lionel Richie singing (quite literally) “All Night Long” at Closing. And the gravity of it all: L.A.’s organizing efforts saved the Olympic Movement, generating a huge profit while going off without a hitch, not even bad traffic. A magical 16 days.

3. Sarajevo, Winter 1984. My first Olympics and definitely the most exotic, the weirdest and, eventually, the most poignant when the Serb-Bosnian war destroyed the city a decade later. The main arena was turned into a cemetery. The housing I stayed in later was an infamous sniper zone. My first encounter with the Winter Olympics, and the generic strangeness of it all, to a native SoCal guy. I knew so little about what I was getting into that I didn’t know you covered skiing by standing in a roped off are a on the snow (you mean we’re not inside?!?), and I almost suffered frostbite in my Adidas-shod feet. I covered the first hockey game I ever saw, the U.S. losing to Canada. Minarets in the predominantly Muslim city, and calls to prayer. A three-day blizzard. The oppression of a communist state hosting the the Games. Running to a cab late one snowy night in front of the media center and getting there before this little man — who turned out to be U.S. gold-medal skater Scott Hamilton, who I left standing in the snow. Oops. The punishing trip there, via New York, Paris, Zagreb and the slowest train in the Balkans, to Sarajevo. The footprints carved into the sidewalk noting the spot where Gavrilo Prinzip stood while assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand, setting off World War I and the bizarre notion that the (then) ruling Serbs were proud of that. I could go on. Memories piled high.

2. Lillehammer, Winter 1994. Easily the best-organized, best-executed, most-scenic and warmest-in-a-really-cold-way Winter Games. If they ever had a permanent Winter site, this should be it. The Norwegians live the Winter Games, and they were into it completely, sleeping out on the cross-country ski course and banging cowbells for hours. Everything worked. Everything was on time. But it was all so orderly that it didn’t feel oppressive. Wonderful people. The aurora borealis, late one night. Ingenious venues, from the “overturned Viking long ship” for speed skating to the inside-a-cave hockey arena, the single strangest venue I’ve ever been in for a sports event. I remember the little log cabins we slept in, and shivering if I didn’t turn on the heat but sweating if I did. Walking “home” from the media center at 4 a.m., my glasses fogging up and having a dangerously big breakfast before going to bed. Dan Jansen finally won gold, but if he hadn’t it would still have been a great, terrific Olympics.

1. Sydney, Summer 2000. The summer doppelganger of Lillehammer. Another city and culture that didn’t just put on the Games but lived them. Chants of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy-oy-oy!” A population that lives outside and loves sports. The swim meet was enormously, massively intense. The Yanks vs. the Aussies. A grand new main stadium. Marion Jones and her five (tainted, it turns out) medals. The American upset for baseball gold, Tommy Lasorda’s team of minor-leaguers beating Cuba. Wonderful and new venues for nearly everything, practically all within one sprawling park outside the city. The exotic flora of the place, and the former lunatic asylum, white-washed clapboard buildings, where the media was headquartered. Bondi Beach, where volleyball was held. Downtown Sydney. Botany Bay. The Opera House. The wonderfully friendly and enthusiastic Aussies. The Best Olympics Ever.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ben Bolch // Sep 7, 2021 at 8:44 AM

    My favorite: Tokyo 2020

    My least favorite: Tokyo 2020

    Have nothing to compare it to, being my first Olympics, but looking forward to Paris 2024, if I can go.

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