I cannot vouch for the authenticity of all I am about to tell you. The incredible ordeal I endured, combined with the heat and a foolishly chosen mayonnaise-and-shrimp sandwich from a street vendor, addled my mind to a state from which I am only now recovering. But I remember that it began with my walking into the boss's office, asking to go to the Olympics and walking out with the worst assignment in the history of journalism.
I was to see if it was possible to go to every single sport at the Olympics without a ticket, for under $2,000—hotel, meals, scalped tickets and bail money included. No reservations, no press credentials, no press buses. I was to see at least one competition in all 28 full-medal sports: archery, badminton, baseball, basketball, boxing, canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrian, fencing, held hockey, gymnastics, handball, judo, modern pentathlon, rowing, shooting, soccer, swimming, synchronized swimming, table tennis, tennis, track and field (counts as one, dammit), volleyball, water polo, weightlifting, wrestling and yachting; plus the three demonstration sports: roller hockey, taekwondo and pelota. I was to do it in 13 days. I was to keep a diary as I went along, and take my own photographs to prove I did it. I was to go out of my mind.
And yet, after a while, I actually started looking forward to the adventure, mostly because it was going to give me a chance to visit the one European sight I had always wanted to see—the Sagrada Família, the spectacular, unfinished modernist cathedral by Gaudí.
This might not be so bad after all.
August 16, 1992
This is going to be very bad after all. Everything in Barcelona is twice as expensive as I had figured. A ham sandwich is $8. The only hotel rooms for under $50 are so cramped you have to go outside to sweat. I rented a tiny room off the Ramblas, the wildest, loudest street in the city, and I am sweating now. This is the room the feds should have given Leona Helmsley. It is no bigger than a Volkswagen and has one tiny bed with a mattress that is nearly two inches thick and one window the size of a toaster oven in the corner. It makes up for that, though, with a lack of amenities, including no TV, no phone, no air-conditioning and no French-milled soap. And this is the best deal I could find.
The lady running the place, a fire hydrant of a woman named Rosa, wanted 5,000 pesetas a night (about $53, U.S.) but we settled on 4,100. I asked her if I would be automatically enrolled in the hotel's honored-guest program. She did not seem amused.
I have mapped out exactly what day and what time I will go to each sport by using the Official Olympic Schedule. Today I was supposed to see volleyball, weightlifting, basketball, roller hockey and soccer. Of course, that was before I found out about the Official Olympic Bar Closing Time, which is 5:30 a.m. So I slept right through volleyball. Then weightlifting was misprinted on the schedule ("It is wrong, no problem," said the man at the gate, after I had walked a half hour to find the venue), and roller hockey looked like it was halfway to Portugal, so I rescheduled it. One man's opinion: This is not possible.
I did make it to basketball. It was the Dream Team's opener, and I wanted to be there for the greatest upset in the history of sport—Angola stuns the U.S. team. After a 30-minute subway ride out to the Palau d'Esports de Badalona, I found $38 tickets going for $300.
I finally found a ticket for $200 and made it inside just in time to see Angola come out and blow kisses to the crowd. Then they took basketballs and started hoisting up treys. No layup drill, no weave, just every man for himself. My kind of team. They gave the Yanks all they wanted, too, tying the score 7-7. Then the Americans went on a little 46-1 run. Any coach will tell you: Anytime you get a 46-1 run against you, it can be a difficult mental thing.
It took me two hours on the subway to get from Badalona, the site of the basketball arena, to the west side of Barcelona for a soccer game. Don't ask. It just did. I bought a ticket from the window for $9.90 to see Paraguay versus Sweden. The stands were one-quarter full, but the Swedish fans were cheering and drinking and carrying on as if it were the finals of the World Cup. They kept chanting the same cheer over and over again, so I asked the guy next to me if he knew what it was. "They are cheering about themselves," he said. "They say, 'We are friends from Sweden, going through Europe.' "
Now that's the kind of cheer that will kick-start a team to triumph. What will they holler at tomorrow's game? We had chicken for lunch and will probably lake a nap later!
I've already spent more than $300. Plus, Rosa forgot the mints for my pillow.
Money left: $1,689.50. Events left: 29.
Can I tell you how hot it is in my hotel room at night? It's like sleeping in Saran Wrap under the engine of a Chevy Blazer in Americus, Ga. If I don't buy a fan sometime soon, I may throw myself out the window. Soon, I will be skinny enough to fit through it.
Still, Barcelona is an unforgettable city, sort of Paris on two nights' leave. I can't remember ever being on a street like the Ramblas anywhere in the world. Today I saw a rock band, a harpist, two violinists, a juggler giving free lessons, a man standing on his head on a pile of broken glass, chipmunks for sale, two couples making out and Charles Barkley. I love this city already, and I still haven't seen the best—the Sagrada Família. If I do one thing here, let it be that.
Today I bought a wrestling ticket behind a tree and a swimming ticket behind a port-a-potty. I had expected to see Spain, but not this much of it. These transactions have to take place well out of sight of the Guardia Civil who, it turns out, are the toughest policía in Spain. They are the descendants of Generalissimo Franco's bloodiest henchmen. One seller told me that the Guardia had already confiscated the tickets and money of two scalpers. The wrestling ticket was $26.30, but the swimming ticket was expensive—$131—because it included some finals. I think I saw Pablo Morales win his gold and Nicole Haislett win hers, although I couldn't tell, since some lady kept holding up her Japanese Hag in front of me the whole time. It was important that she do this so that she could root a Japanese swimmer on to eighth place.
The wrestling I saw was Greco-Roman, which was good but not as good as we used to watch in our basement with Killer Kowalski and Bobo Brazil. Since you are not allowed to use any leg holds in Greco-Roman, it's mostly just one guy trying to push the other guy out of the way. I get that on the subways here every day.
After the wrestling I went to judo, a 40-minute journey, and got stiffed. Not a ticket or a scalper to be found. My feet were howling, but on the way back to the hotel I saw in a window the answer to my aching back and feet—a motorcycle. Well, not exactly a motorcycle. A scooter. Actually, a Honda Scoopy 50, about the wimpiest excuse for a cycle that ever grew pipes. Still, with that puppy, I could knock off five or six venues a day. Two problems: 1) the price—$74.50 a day; and 2) Doug, my friend from the States who lives here now, says I'll be dead in a day and a half. Apparently, he does not know how a good Honda Scoopy can own the road.
Every day I ask Rosa to please turn up the air-conditioning in my room. She does not seem amused.
Money left: $1,408.60. Events left: 27.
Went to tennis. Wished I hadn't. I was one of 500 people watching Boris Becker play some Norwegian I had never heard of in the Spanish sun, and it almost killed all 502 of us. The clay-court temperature was 108°. The two of them went five sets. I, however, lasted 20 minutes. I would not watch tennis in 108° if it were Bush-Clinton, loser shaves head.
Then I scratched another scorcher, yachting, in favor of volleyball. Volleyball is the best sport yet, thrilling, well played and, most important, air-conditioned. I should have gone to badminton then, but instead I stopped and had lunch. I had lots to choose from, including, according to the English on the menu, broiled macaroni, potato ships and squid in your ink.
From there I hoofed it to the subway, took that to the funicular, went up Montju‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√≤c and paid absolutely nothing for one of the greatest views I've ever seen: the diving venue, with the city of Barcelona as a backdrop. I paid zilch because there was a fence to the side of the main gate and you could see through it. One man's opinion: I may just pull this off.
Then it was on to women's team gymnastics, where the Unified Team's prepubescent girls whipped our prepubescent girls. I paid only $55 for a $77 ticket, and the lady from Boston sitting next to me paid $120. Rookie.
Tonight in a bar I met an Australian cyclist who was bandaged up like he had just come from Gallipoli. He had wiped out while warming up before his first race. Still, some good came of it. His father sold me two basketball tickets he wasn't going to use for face value, $77. One of them was to a Dream Team game. Was it up to me to remind him of this fact? I think not. If I get only $200 U.S., for it, I've cleared $123. That's enough for almost two glorious, fun-filled days on the scooter. My legs stopped cramping.
I thanked the two Aussies, and we drank a frosty cerveza and toasted the next Summer Olympics, in Atlanta. "Here's squid in your ink," I said.
They were not moved.
Money left: $1,132.95. Events left: 23.
I picked up the scooter today. I think I will be dead within a day and a half.
Drivers here are certifiably crazy, and the road signs are unreadable. I am wearing a helmet the size of Buzz Aldrin's, and girls in cocktail dresses and no helmets are zipping by me on their Honda Scoopys like I'm a lamppost.
Today I overslept and missed table tennis but made weightlifting, where almost nobody was. I just bought a ticket and walked to the front row. That's my new strategy now. Walk to the front row until somebody either stops me or pulls an Uzi. Then make haste for my Scoopy.
No time to enjoy it, though. I was off to modern pentathlon. Modern? Shooting, riding, fencing, swimming and running combined? Sounds like Errol Flynn Week on TBS. After a half hour of not coming even close to finding it, I realized that I was already covering the five sports of the pentathlon. Wouldn't it be overkill? I mentally checked it off and headed to a far better-known Olympic sport, pelota.
In America, pelota is known as jai alai and is supposedly as fixed as the tossing of the bride's bouquet. Spain was playing the Philippines, which, in pelota, is like the Washington Redskins playing Jake's Auto Parts of De Kalb, Ill. One of the Filipinos was so awful he had a difficult time catching—simply catching—the pelota in his cesta. He must have booted it 25 times. It was the equivalent of watching an outfielder drop 25 fly balls. Spain won 40-11.
On the way home I thought I'd try to see the Sagrada Família, but I got lost three times and gave it up. An hour more of searching and I found my hotel. I don't know how much more convenience I can stand.
Money left: $869.50. Events left: 20.
Today, me and Scoopy almost got turned into an oil spot. Somehow, I found myself on a four-lane superhighway, trying to find the city of Granollers, sight of that must-see Olympic sport, women's team handball. Suddenly, 20-ton trucks were jetting past us. When one nearly clipped us, I left the highway at the next opportunity. It is one thing to die writing war correspondence, quite another to die for team handball.
I drove on local streets for a half hour until I found a subway stop, parked Scoopy and took a subway to a train station, took the wrong train to Granollers, waited a half hour for a taxi and took it to the handball. The game was nearly over, but I sat down next to a lady with biggish shoulders and big blonde hair. The goalies had the unenviable job of trying to stop miniature soccer balls being heaved at them by huge, piano-lifting women.
"What sort of person would want to do that?" I asked aloud.
"My daughter," said the lady. "She's the American goalie."
Once I got back to my scooter, it took only 2½ hours to find my way to cycling. The velodrome is great, but do not—do not—buy a ticket to team pursuit unless you enjoy watching a single marble roll down a funnel for three hours.
Next stop was judo, where I finally could buy a ticket at the window and, unfortunately, another godforsaken ham sandwich. All you seem to be able to get at the stadiums are ham sandwiches. And the only thing available in bars seems to be these weird open-faced ham sandwiches. I now rank fourth among the world's ham-consuming countries.
The judo fans were very organized and without concern for the future use of their larynxes. On the way home I ran out of gas. When I got to the gas station, they didn't have gas cans to loan out, so I had to rifle through the trash looking for a plastic water bottle with the cap on it. This is what my life has become.
As I was leaving the gas station, a policeman came toward me, holding an automatic weapon and looking concerned. I realized that he was wondering what I wanted with a plastic bottle full of gasoline at three in the morning in the heart of the Olympics. I did what I think was a very good impression of a motorcycle running out of gas. I think it was very good in that I am still alive as I write this.
Money left: $722.75. Events left: 17.
I figured that if I don't eat or drink another thing and average $20 a ticket the rest of the way, I'll make it. Right. Still, I am determined.
I started with an $8 ticket to table tennis, which has to be my favorite sport here so far. These people put so much spin on the ball it could tear the hair off your arm. Their problem is they need a union. They have no ball boys. Here was the French guy, who has got to be one of the best players in the world, and he's on his hands and knees trying to get a Ping-Pong ball that rolled under the table.
Then I left to watch archery, which is like sitting in the Superdome watching two guys in the middle of the field play cribbage. You can't see the arrows. Even the archers look through a telescope to see how they've done. Plus, it was hotter than summer car seats. Skip this one.
No visit to the Sagrada Família again today.
Money left: $636.80. Events left: 15.
I can't tell you how exciting the rowing and the yachting were today. I can't tell you because I don't know.
I was supposed to get up at 3 a.m. and catch a 4 o'clock bus to the rowing, which was three hours away. I didn't, partly because I was still drinking sangria on the Ramblas at 3. I was also still drinking sangria at 4. I believe it was about 4:30, just before more sangria came and just after the bus left, when I decided that rowing and canoeing are much too much alike and should cither be combined or eliminated or both. I offer this up free of charge to the IOC. I checked off rowing.
I did go to yachting and saw nothing. The spectator boat had left and wouldn't be back for two hours. Sadly, I was left with nothing to do but rest at a topless beach.
Eventually I made it to fencing, where it is quite impossible to tell who got stuck, what the flashing lights mean or why one of the fencers rips off his mask on virtually every point and argues with the official. This gets old fast. Near as I can remember, Basil Rathbone didn't argue when he got stabbed.
Three rotten sports and four boring ones in the last two days, and my feet are begging for a press bus and my wallet looks anorexic. My money is going fast, and I hear the market on Dream Team tickets is dropping fast. My Australian investment is looking like Silverado Savings and Loan. Maybe I was wrong about this. Maybe the Olympics were meant to be viewed in a reclining position, in front of a 36" TV. Maybe they exist only for the love of a good remote.
Money left: $531.50. Events left: 12.
There is nothing worse than being in a European country and seeing these lame, homesick Americans clustered at the McDonald's having their insipid quarter-pounders with cheese, large fries and a Coke while a whole undiscovered world of cuisine waits outside for them.
That is why today, when I went to McDonald's, I had a quarter-pounder with cheese, large fries and a beer. McDonald's serves beer. Is Spain a great country or what?
I actually took the right train for once—to the shooting, 40 minutes out to Paret del Vallès. After a 20-minute walk from the train, I was there just in time to hear the last shot shatter the last target. I'm counting it.
From there it was a 20-minute walk, a 40-minute train ride back to the Barcelona train station, a 30-minute search for the right train to the roller hockey town, a 45-minute train ride there and a sick feeling in my stomach when I realized I had gone to the wrong town. Turns out roller hockey was now being played in a town called Reus, 60 kilometers away. Tears very nearly came to my eyes. It was about then that I settled on the logic that roller hockey and field hockey are too much alike and should either be eliminated or combined or both. I checked it off.
I was totally drained in Spain, and yet I still had to go to boxing. Luckily, on the subway there I sidled up to a swank-looking guy from Chicago, who said he had just flown in from Mallorca and needed a ticket to the Dream Team game tonight.
Ahem, I said.
He bought the Dream Team ticket I'd bought from the Australians for 10,000 pesetas—$107. That was a $30 profit. Thank you, Jesus.
At almost every event now, tickets are easy to come by. I bought a boxing ticket for face value, $33, off a nonscalper who just wanted to go home. The boxing was at a terrific little venue, and I saw Raul Marquez of the U.S. win his fight. Up in the stands Norwegians were chanting wildly, and Evander Holyfield, the heavyweight champion of the world, was right in the middle of them. I think they were singing, "We are friends from Norway, but who is this black guy?"
I am really in trouble with money. If I don't start getting some free tickets, I'm going to have to start sleeping on the beach.
I hear Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas are in town. You think they have an extra ticket to synchronized swimming tomorrow?
Money left: $508.92. Events left: 9.
Today I devised a brilliant, ingenious and, naturally, despicable plan. I bought a FREEDOM FOR CATALONIA T-shirt, some gauze and athletic tape, borrowed crutches from my buddy's friend and wrote out a cardboard sign that read, in Spanish, NEED ONE FREE TICKET PLEASE. I wrapped up my ankle as if it were sprained, put on the T-shirt, hobbled up on the crutches, sat down in front of the swimming venue and held up the sign. I had a free ticket in my shameless mitts within three minutes. It was from a volunteer Olympic worker. As he handed it to me, he said with a smile, "The child who does not cry, does not eat." You got that right, Pablo.
I got my comeuppance. As I started to get up to hobble into the event, an 85-year-old Californian named Glen Calloway decided to help. "I'll just keep you company," he said. "It's a long walk." I had planned to get through the gate, duck into a corner, rip off the tape, ditch the crutches and walk the rest of the way, but Mr. Calloway, bless his heart, insisted on escorting me on a 400-yard walk and up the 100 or so stairs to my nosebleed seat, with me doing it on crutches. Karma.
On the Ramblas tonight I saw some buddies from the press. They told me about the press buses (air-conditioned and on time) and what they do with their mornings off (like visit the Sagrada Família). "Amazingly cool," said one guy.
May they all start writing like Dick Vitale.
Money left: $396.73. Events left: 8.
I was at badminton, trying to buy a cheap ticket—my conscience couldn't bear the guilt of the crutches scam again—when a guy said, "You want to come in with my mate?"
Turns out his mate was a British badminton player named Nick Ponting. The competitor's credential got Pointing four free passes, and he was looking for four people to go in with him, at $53 each. He'd been eliminated in the second round. He took me, his Aussie pal and a couple from Finland right through. Twenty feet inside the gate we gave him 5,000 pesetas each and never saw him again. Do they give medals for capitalism?
Badminton is a terrific sport, easy to follow, packed to the ventilator grills with screaming fans and thrilling to the last shuttlecock. Playing flawlessly, an Indonesian named Susi Susanti flicked, dived and smashed her way past Bang Soo Hyun of South Korea in three sets. Juan Antonio Samaranch put the medal around Susanti's neck, and I was close enough to see her tears. I guarantee you nobody with a remote will get that.
While I was there, a guy handed me a ticket to the field hockey final three nights hence. Since I was going there next, I took it. You never know. Sure enough, I found somebody there who traded me straight up—and why not? My ticket was worth three times as much. I was in.
I wished I had been out. Field hockey is another one of these sports in which the ball is maddeningly easy to steal. That means that the game is constantly played in the middle 30 yards of the field, two subway stops from the nearest goal. I saw the German women beat the English women 2-1, an event on the thrill scale equal only to watching Irving R. Levine get his ear hairs clipped.
I was supposed to go from there to baseball, two hours away, when my body simply refused. I got a nasty headache, stomachache, fever and, uh, infirmity. I was sick as a rat, sitting on a lonely train. And it was still more fun than watching field hockey.
Money left: $241.93. Events left: 6.
If I hadn't dragged my sorry carcass out of the sick bed and gone to the 9 a.m. equestrian event called individual dressage today, I would have blown the assignment. You gotta play hurt. I went. I nearly threw up on a horse, and I spent bazillions in cabs, but I went.
Dressage is an acquired taste that I hope I never acquire. Thousands of people watch in silent rapture as a horse and rider walk around on the dirt. In the background, light classical music plays softly, as if from a librarian's gardening radio two blocks away. The horses don't have to race, carry, jump, jog or even so much as canter—and some riders keep the same horse for 14 years. If I'm a horse, I'm asking where the line forms.
Taekwondo was every bit as good as judo, but I was the only one in the arena. After that it was an afternoon water polo game at the same site as the diving. My table was waiting. Fence for one?
Then I collapsed on my bed. I've only got about $85 left, and I still need canoeing, and track and field. Getting a track and field ticket tomorrow is going to be like trying to buy the Magna Carta. Plus, when am I going to catch baseball?
Money left: $84.63. Events left: 3.
Never. That's when I'm going to catch baseball. I have lost. Turns out they played the baseball finals last night. That means I won't see all 31 sports. I will be at least one short. History must do with me what it will.
With little money left, my scruples shrank and my ankle swelled again. I dug out the sympathy act. Scalpers wanted $110 to see the night's track and field finals, but after 10 minutes of holding up my sign in front of the Olympic Stadium, I was handed a ticket. The seat was magnificent, 28 rows up from the long jump pit, hard by the Olympic flame. This crutches thing is scary good.
I was privileged to witness legend: Kevin Young setting a world record in the 400-meter hurdles, Gail Devers falling one step from gold, Carl Lewis taking the long jump by three centimeters. Lewis celebrated by throwing his sweatshirt, shoes and shirt at us. I guess throwing your clothing into the crowd is some kind of track tradition. I am glad it is not a wrestling tradition.
Money left: $13.58. Events left: 2.
I can't think of a more poetic final sport to witness than kayaking. Canoe? Well, I could, so I deputized my buddy Doug to take the train out to Castelldefels to watch the paddling and fill me in on it. Don't look at me like that. He was going there anyway.
After listening to Doug's report for a full 11 seconds, I had the rest of the day to finally see the city. Where else was I going to go? The city was my hotel room now. I know I will miss Barcelona. And I know I will miss the Ramblas. With the planet looking especially bloody lately, you could do worse than the Ramblas these last two weeks as an example of how peace could work.
At last, at 1 a.m., I turned the corner and saw the eight whimsical melting rockets of the Sagrada Família. And as I lay down on a bench to stare up at it, I decided that it was only fitting I bed down here tonight, at the foot of my towering Holy Grail. And I thought, as I marveled at it, that if Gaudí himself were with me, he wouldn't mind that I fell one sport short in my task.
Hey, some of the world's greatest works are unfinished, right?