August 2, 2012

Olympic Journal, Day 6: My diplomatic voyage

Gil LeBreton, our intrepid Olympic columnist, makes friends on the train, assesses "The Missile," talks traffic and bashes badminton.

LONDON — He looked like the typical Olympic tourist. He had a bag with souvenirs in it. A map of the Olympic venues.

And a look of bewilderment, as if he had never seen so many strange people, from so many strange places, all there to do the same thing he was doing — watching the Olympics.

The man was in his late 50s. The woman with him, I’m guessing, was his daughter.

We were all on the same train, headed toward Central London, on the fifth day of the Olympic Games. The gentleman was staring at my Olympic media credential, the one with the mug shot that’s worse than Nick Nolte’s.

“Forrr . . . Worrr . . . ,” I heard him say.

I helped him out and pronounced it, and I told him I was from Texas.

“In the United States,” I said.

The man immediately smiled. The daughter informed me, “We are from China.”

There is nothing like an Olympics.

I could watch 100-meter finals, velodrome sprints and gymnastics beam routines from now until my living days are over. But no event could top the Olympic Games’ unofficial 27th sport — talking with random strangers.

In the misguided political climate of the 1980s, when U.S. presidents and Soviet prime ministers were playing a foolish game of comeuppance by boycotting each others’ Olympics, the organizers in Los Angeles searched mightily for a trump card. They found one in the People’s Republic of China which, itself in a political dispute, hadn’t been to an Olympics in 32 years.

With all-expenses tickets from LA organizers in their pockets, the Chinese came to the 1984 Summer Games and they looked as if they had just seen Disneyland for the first time. After years of western isolation, maybe Hollywood and Vine was Disneyland.

They won 32 medals at those Olympics. They did few, if any, interviews, as I recall. They seemed to shyly avoid both cameras and eye contact.

“What strange people,” I remember, packing that image in my valise to take home. Now, 28 years later, I was riding a train at the London Olympics with my two new Chinese friends.

They had been to the weightlifting events at the ExCeL arena, the daughter said. On Thursday they planned to see the women’s gymnastics.

Inspired by attending the Beijing Olympics four years ago, they had purchased tickets and planned to visit London for five days. It was the first time that either of them, she said, had ever been anywhere but China.

“Is this the first Olympic Games you’ve attended?” the daughter innocently asked.

No, I told her, somewhat sheepishly. This is my 16th (ninth Summer Olympics). The first one I saw was in Montreal, 1976, which in her young eyes must make me as old as one of the Terra Cotta warriors.

She saw the humor. “Oh,” she said. “I was born in 1988.”

She laughed. I laughed. Her father laughed. And the four Olympic volunteers sitting across from us who had been eavesdropping all laughed.

Did I tell you there’s nothing like an Olympics?

The Missile assesses his damage

Not only did Australia’s James Magnussen predict a gold medal for himself in the men’s 100-meter freestyle, but he also confidently forecasted a world record and the tattoos that would come after.


Nathan Adrian of Bremerton, Wash., upset Magnussen in the 100 free finals Wednesday, winning a desperate lunge for the finish wall.

The 100-meter freestyle is supposed to be one of the marquee events of the Summer Games, but an American hadn’t won the event since Matt Biondi did it 24 years ago in Seoul.

“Going into the race,” he confessed, “it was just a matter of trying to get on the medals podium. It is the Olympics, you know?

“Our coach had been talking about what an honor it would be to get the silver medal and, you know, I’d have been happy with it.”

Instead, in what’s being called one of the closest finishes in Olympics swim history, Adrian out-touched Magnussen in 47.52 seconds, with the Aussie .01 behind.

Afterward, Magnussen was humbled but reflective.

Before the Games, he had revealed his body ink plans to reporters.

“I’m planning to get the Olympic rings just down my ribs,” he said. “And if I was to get the world record or the gold medal, I’d like to get the date of that in Roman numerals. So I’m pretty keen for that.”

Fortunately for Magnussen, he waited.

Nicknamed “The Missile,” Magnussen’s second-place finish touched off a shower of cruel headlines in the Aussie media. “Missile proves dud,” one of the unkinder ones read.

Magnussen probably earned huge respect back home, however, for taking his defeat with grace.

“Having such a successful young career,” he said after the race, “I just felt pretty much bulletproof coming into this Olympics, so this is very humbling. So I have a lot of respect for guys like Michael Phelps, who can come to the Olympics and back it up under that pressure.

“It’s a bit of a reality check. As my coach said during the week, it’s a pretty tough time to learn you’re human. It hurts.”

Adrian’s victory was hailed as the surprise highlight on another memorable night for the U.S. team at the Olympic pool.

For the Missile, however, it was another frustrating Aussie outcome.

“It’s been a tough Olympics,” he said. “They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Hopefully I can come out of this a better swimmer, but most of all a better person.”

Tragedy on the buses

London’s Olympic Park in Stratford is so vast, red double-decker shuttle buses have to travel the perimeter to get officials, journalists and TV people to the venues on time.

But tragedy put a temporary halt to that Wednesday night. Journalists looking for a shuttle ride from the Aquatics Centre or the Olympic Stadium were told to either walk or retreat to the London Underground system. We soon learned why. A shuttle bus transporting the Olympic media struck and killed a cyclist on the A12 road north of the park.

Television reports showed the crumpled white bicycle, the stopped bus, and a small area that had been draped off, presumably where the victim’s body still lay.

Police arrested the bus driver, said to be in his mid-60s, and held him on suspicions of causing a death by dangerous driving.

Nearly every media member at these London Games has been on an Olympic shuttle bus that passed that same intersection of A12 and Ruckholt Road.

British media members asked gold medal winner Bradley Wiggins whether it was safe for cyclists to ride the streets of London. I’m guessing they already knew the answer, though.

“It’s dangerous,” Wiggins said. “London is a busy city with a lot of traffic.

“But at the end of the day, we’ve all got to co-exist on the roads.”

Wiggins was being diplomatic. Cyclists are a part of the traffic landscape — everywhere — and drivers need to be reminded to be aware of that.

But the Tour de France champ is right. London and its narrow nooks and crannies seem a dangerous place for cyclists and joggers.

Badminton without burgers

In the breezeway outside of the Main Press Centre, a group of photographers was checking the map. They looked confused, like they had just been told to go take a few pictures of Bigfoot.

No, it seems, they were headed to badminton.

Poor, little badminton, probably last seen by most of us at the family’s Labor Day backyard picnic, is suddenly Scandal Central at these London Games.

Eight women badminton players from China and South Korea were expelled for deliberately tanking matches in order to manipulate the tournament bracket.

They didn’t deny it.

In fact, when accused of his team deliberately throwing the round-robin match, the South Korea coach admitted it, saying, “But the Chinese started this. They did it first; so we did the same.”

Many of the spectators had paid in excess of $100 to watch the thrown matches, which reportedly consisted of lollipop serves of the shuttlecock and even a few swings and misses.

Yes, it’s sad that things at badminton weren’t on the up-and-up, like, say, the NBA lottery.

Judging from the media throng that was headed to the badminton venue — surely, an Olympic first — I’d say that this story is far from over.

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