Ten the Hard Way

August 29, 2004

The Olympics, like life, consist principally of inaction, interrupted by brief (but furious) bursts of activity. Watch the women's road cycling on the city streets of Athens. For five delirious seconds, the peloton flies past your position on Syntagma Square. But then you wait 25 stultifying minutesbefore it passes again, and four more years for another round of five-second glimpses. It is sport's equivalent of Halley's Comet.

The Games are a peep show compared to that otherquadrennial spectacle, the slow striptease of a presidential election. But where would you rather be? In the U.S., watching candidates exploit wedge issues? Or in Greece, watching athletes preoccupied with wedgie issues?

Misty May sounds like a 30-day weather forecast, but she is in fact a beach volleyballer, and as such spends most of her time incurring (and extracting) persistent wedgies. This much I've learned at the Olympics, where a spectator spends most of his time on a stifling subway or stadium seat, incurring (and extracting) his own persistent wedgies.

But then the world can use a little silliness right now. And so I've set off on a spectatorial decathlon in Athens. Doing the Olympics by public transport isn't easy: Airport-style security is in evidence everywhere but the airport. (I've been wanded more times than Harry Potter's house elf.) Once you're inside the stadiums, the food is less varied than you might hope. At the Elliniko complex, which hosts several sports, the concession stands sell Meat Pie, Cheese Pie, Traditional Cheese Pie, Rolled Traditional Cheese Pie, Spinach Pie and ... Special Pie. Alone in these empty arenas I can't help but feel like the sole member of my own Greek fraternity: I Eta Pi.

Yet, armed only with a number 2 pencil and number 45 sunscreen, I find it possible to report on 10 events in half as many days spent largely on bus, tram and train. Athens in August is hotter than hell's boiler room, and its airless subway is ripe with humanity. The system is called the Metro, but given the unholy pong in its cars, it might more aptly be called the B&O Railroad.

Where do all the people go when they disembark the B&O? They aren't here at table tennis. In hindsight, it might have been irrationally exuberant of Olympic organizers to have installed, in the cavernous table tennis arena, a luxury skybox. Nevertheless, to those of us in attendance, these Olympics feel all the more intimate for their emptiness, like our own personal backyard barbecue. Literally so, when you're eating a hot dog while watching badminton. Or standing poolside--the training pool outside the main stadium--as a still-dripping Australian, having just lost a swimming final, sobs in her mother's arms.

At women's soccer there are more ushers than ushees. But then the usual order of all things has been flip-flopped in Athens. At the bustling Syngrou-Fix stop on the Metro, with its side-by-side staircase and escalator, the steep stairs are for walking up, the escalator for going down. Markopoulo Centre is the site of neither swimming nor sailing, but equestrian. It appears that everything really is reversed in Greece, right down to the W's and V's of the Indian volunteer who announces, over a bullhorn: "Velcome to the beach wolleyball Olympic wenue."

Some reversals are less endearing. If the Greeks invented logic, why does security insist on keeping you in the stadiums? (Or so I wondered while unable to exit the U.S. men's basketball loss to Lithuania.) The Greeks exported Hercules but imported Hercules (the TV show starring Kevin Sorbo), which seems to define the phrase "trade deficit." At other Olympics people do the wave. In Athens, waves do the people. (Sailingwas postponed because of high winds and high seas.)

Then, too, so many Olympians, like so much of the Olympics, get turned on their heads: divers, gymnasts, pole vaulters. In the finals of trampoline, unitarded women jump up and down before the watchful gaze of five middle-aged male judges in blazers. The American woman in the seat next to me says, "This is just like The Man Show," the Comedy Central series in which bikinied women jump on trampolines for the amusement of male hosts. Afterward, the Olympic trampolinists torturously await their scores on a blue sofa--a divan of disappointment, a love seat for the lachrymose.

Sadder still, there is no couch at table tennis for the ball to roll under. Saddest of all, doubles table tennis features a powerhouse team of Wang-Zhang but not, alas, a pairing of Ping-Pong. That's because the partner of American player Whitney Ping is, deflatingly, Jasna Reed.

On the upside, I have held an Aussie's inflatable kangaroo and watched a well-dressed female Briton abruptly strip and disport, in the altogether, atop a table in a Greek restaurant. While we were returning from a U.S. women's basketball win, a woman with Japanese flag decals painted on her cheeks asks for directions to the B&O. "Right at the light," I say, to which she replies, "Light at the right?" For one brief shining moment, passing in the Athens night, we are a pan-hemispheric Abbott and Costello, staring each other down, before she says: "Arigato." And I reply, "No problem."

Strange, isn't it, that so much international misunderstanding leads to ... international understanding? Elsewhere, it's Arid August. In Greece, we're all enjoying Misty May.

A spectator's decathlon in Athens entails sweltering subways, sobbing swimmers and a Ping without a Pong.

COLOR PHOTOAL TIELEMANS

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)