Sydney Pen Pals In the middle of the most important three weeks of their lives, Olympians answer my e-mail (and fill this space).

October 01, 2000

You try to interview Ian Thorpe. Sorry, he's in massage. You try
to get time with Marion Jones. Sorry, she's in training. You try
to get an audience with anybody from anywhere down to and
including a Bhutanese archer. Sorry, he's in bloodletting.

You scream. You sigh. You bang your head against the computer.
Then, it hits you: e-mail!

By way of the Sydney Olympics' internal computer system, any
jock, scribe or suit can reach out to any other jock, scribe or
suit. They do, constantly. At the athletes' village, the IBM Surf
Shack is by far the most popular hangout. Which means the
greatest athletes in the world were at my fingertips.

So I e-mail 3,000 of them, 60 at a time, and ask them: What
single thing has happened to you at these Olympics that you will
never forget? This is an excellent idea for two very important
reasons: 1) It cuts through all the media bias, spin doctors and
shoe reps to get to the unfiltered essence of the Games; and 2)
it's a very easy column.

I e-mail Albanians and Zambians. I spam Samoans. I have a Burundi
buddy list. I write Dream Team multimillionaires and Yemeni
rowing nobodies. I e-mail every Tom, Dick and Svetlana. Guess
what? In the middle of the most important three weeks of their
lives, they answer!

What won't they forget? "Getting up on the morning after the
opening ceremony, yawning, scratching my back, pulling back the
curtains and seeing the Olympic flame," writes David Luckes, a
British field hockey player.

"Walking to the swim start for the triathlon," Australian silver
medalist Michellie Jones writes, "and looking into the stands to
see my husband crying."

"The expression on the kids' faces," writes middle-distance
runner Milton Browne of Barbados, "when they know you are an
Olympian."

They answer in capitals: "TO FINALLY GET THE GOLD MEDAL AND BEING
ON THE PODIUM WITH 17,000 PEOPLE CHEERING YOU ON, HEARING THE
ANTHEM AND REALIZING THAT ALL THE HARD WORK PAID OFF!!! I FEEL
LIKE A GOLDEN BUTTERFLY! BEST REGARDS, [signed] HAPPY INKY!!!!!!"
writes Dutch swimmer Inge de Bruijn, winner of three golds and a
silver.

They answer in lower case: "after the 100 butterfly, the
medalists were marching around the pool deck. there was a dutch
family cheering in the front row. their little son was in a
wheelchair. they were so proud of inge de bruijn. she didn't see
them, but dara torres did. she grabbed a shirt she had with her
and threw it to the little boy. i was moved by that," wrote
Shannon Shakespeare, Canadian swimmer.

Many are still buzzed from the opening ceremony. "I will never
forget the opening zeremonie [sic]," writes Christina Benecke, a
German volleyballer, "and I will always remember to meet Mohammed
[sic] Ali!"

"The feeling that for a split second everyone was cheering for
you!" writes Jaime Moore, a British trampolinist. "Then you
realize where you are and how good you must be to even be there
in the first place!"

"Walking into the Olympic Stadium and seeing many of the athletes
I watch on TV," writes no less a star than the Milwaukee Bucks'
Ray Allen.

Many talk about a kind of glory few others will know. "When I
scored my first Olympic goal," writes Mark Pearn, another British
field hockey player, "I started to run towards the crowd, but one
of my teammates rugby-tackled me before I had a chance!"

"Carrying my son on my bike in the victory lap," writes
bronze-winning cyclist Gary Neiwand of Australia.

My question is meant to bring a positive answer, but some
respondents see the glass as half shattered. "I lost my fight,"
laments Inge Clement, a Belgian judoist. "I'm 23 and not sure if
I will continue judo." Writes Loretta Harrop, an Australian
triathlete who was supposed to medal but wound up fifth, "Getting
a good butt-whipping will not be forgotten easily!!!"

My favorite is from a Bahamian sprinter named Sylvanues Hepburn,
who replies, simply, "The girls are nice and cool. Thank you for
asking." Sounds like a man who has run into Happy Inky!!!

O.K., so Ian Thorpe doesn't answer and neither does Marion Jones
nor any Bhutanese archer, but 84 other athletes do, and to those
fine and gifted athletes I would like to say one thing from the
bottom of my heart: Got any ideas for next week's column?

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)