Rio 2016 is the first Summer Olympics I will not attend since Moscow 1980.
Yes, it was a good run.
I made it to eight consecutive Summer Games. Beginning with Los Angeles 1984 and continuing with Seoul 1988, Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012. The first four with Gannett News Service; the next two with L.A. News Group; Beijing as a freelancer; London for The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi.
I do not feel badly about not being in Brazil this month. It’s part of the notion of “retirement” … and freeing up an “E” credential for some enthusiastic kid to get his or her turn.
For many journalists, an Olympics is a career goal. It was for me.
But after you do a few of them, some of the romance is lost and it is not uncommon for veterans of the event to think of it as two-and-a-half-week grinds involving a new set of arenas and stadiums but the same old media buses, security checks, hard deadlines, long days and no clear sense of “place”.
(Not like at a World Cup, where you can’t cover three events in one madcap day and, meantime, you get some notion of the country you are in, and a restaurant meal or two.)
Veteran Olympics reporters speak of the “post-Olympics crash” — when the body punishes the mind for going all-out for 16-plus days. Most journalists arrive at an Olympics peppy and enthusiastic and hold on to some of that. But many then fall ill within minutes of the Olympic flame being snuffed.
So, a quick look back at the previous eight … a sort of psychological experiment — word association — to see when I come up with when I say, for example …
—Los Angeles 1984. Lionel Richie singing “All Night Long” all night long at the overly long Closing Ceremonies at the Coliseum … Carl Lewis winning four gold medals (both sprints, the sprint relay, long jump), like Jesse Owens had 48 years before … Zola Budd tripping Mary Decker … The 84 white grand pianos playing Gershwin at the Opening Ceremonies … Los Angeles freeways as wide open as they have ever been … The Soviet boycott, along with most of their Warsaw Pact toadies which, now that I think of it, probably meant the cleanest Olympics in the past half-century, what with the Soviet and East German druggies staying home. Mary Lou Retton.
—Seoul 1988. Flying in the upper story of a Boeing 747 for the first time, and really liking it … My first trip to Asia as part of the Gannett-USA Today crew, back when USAT was a major, major player in American sports journalism … Ben Johnson busted for drugs after winning the 100-meter dash … Florence Griffith Joyner’s overwhelming victories in the women’s 100 and 200, both of which make me increasingly sad, given that the records she shattered in those events, in 1988, have not been threatened in the subsequent three decades, not even by other sprinters known to have cheated … The Soviets (or their Lithuanians, anyway) defeating the U.S. collegians in basketball and writing a column in about 30 minutes after the defeat calling for the NBA to intervene in 1992. … The huge vat of kimchi at the media cafeteria on Day 1, the tiny bowl of kimchi on Day 16.
—Barcelona 1992. The guy shooting the arrow that lit the Olympic cauldron at Opening Ceremonies … Attending the victory of Naim “Pocket Hercules” Suleymanoglu of Turkey, perhaps the best-known weightlifter since Atlas. … Seeing my first bullfight (and trying my best to write it in Hemingway-esque language) before Barcelona outlawed bullfighting a few years later. … The basketball Dream Team, featuring Michael Jordan and friends and being surprised at the ruckus it caused. … Discovering what a great city Barcelona is. … Three of us drinking four pitchers of sangria the night before the flight home, falling off a curb while getting into a cab and deciding that if I stayed up all night I wouldn’t be hung over. Ha. (Hey, I wasn’t a frat boy.)
—Atlanta 1996. The Centennial Park explosion, which killed a woman, the only act of terrorism in the eight Summer Games I covered. … A colleague jumping the gun (not the only one to do so) and writing a piece praising a security guard for saving people near the explosion site, then going to the other extreme when that individual was identified as a “person of interest” a day later (when someone else entirely had left the bomb). … A trembling Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron. … Wet, wickedly warm weather. … A press conference on the other side of the country where Lakers general manager Jerry West introduced new signing Shaquille O’Neal.
—Sydney 2000. The greatest Summer Games of my career, maybe the best all-time — great facilities, great fans, great ambience. … Ian Thorpe versus the Americans in the pool. … Watching the whole of the men’s 1,500-meter freestyle, which is a huge event in Australia. … The media accommodations at what formerly had been an insane asylum. Very funny. … The weirdness of the southern hemisphere and of Australia — strange and fascinating plants and animals and lingo. … Marion Jones, before the fall … Tommy Lasorda’s U.S. baseball team upsetting Cuba to win gold, one of the greatest accomplishments of his long career.
—2004 Athens. A city which could not afford an Olympics but put one on anyway. … Baking heat … The meltdown of the U.S. basketball team, which lost to Puerto Rico and Argentina. … The strange disappearance of two of Greece’s best sprinters the night of Opening Ceremonies. … Regretting I did not make the trip to ancient Marathon to see the start of the marathon. … The smell of not-yet-dry concrete at several venues, which I had previously noticed at the Pan-Am Games in Havana in 1991. … Realizing I remember less off-the-top-of-my-head stuff about this Olympics than any I covered.
—Beijing 2008. The 2008 drummers at the Opening Ceremonies, which were held on August 8 — 8-8-08 — and started at 8:08 p.m. … The Bird’s Nest stadium, and falling asleep at my seat for a bit during Opening Ceremonies because I was 1) jet-lagged and 2) overheated in that poorly ventilated stadium … The vile Beijing air, which often turned the sun into a small and weak orb, and shuddering at the knowledge that we were breathing what was considered “clean” air. … Not going to the Great Wall but having the Peking duck the night before we left … Usain Bolt taking over track and field in record-breaking fashion. … The Ice Cube swim stadium. … Discovering lychee fruit at the media breakfasts.
—London 2012 Covering the UAE men’s Olympic soccer team without benefit of credential despite repeated entreaties aimed at that country’s Olympic Committee … Despairing at being able to scalp a ticket to a soccer doubleheader at Old Trafford, walking around the stadium without finding a single scalper and just minutes before kickoff running into an Emirati official who recognized me and too pity on me and who opened the trunk of the car he had parked and giving me two tickets that were in the fifth row of the ground level — in the middle of the pitch. Tight quarters, though. … The UAE taking a lead over Luis Suarez’s Uruguay on a goal by Ismail Matar … Buying my way (I was reimbursed) into London’s Wembley Stadium — in a suite, no less, and watching the UAE forge a 1-1 tie in the second half, only to lose 3-1 to the hosts — and for the last time in my career dictating a story to the desk on deadline because the wifi inside the stadium failed. … Taking the train from Coventry to London to walk around the city and get as close as I could to Olympic venues — which wasn’t very close. … Being back in Abu Dhabi soon enough to see Usain Bolt’s famous lightning-bolt sprint victory — on TV, which is where I will be watching the Olympics, here on out.