Fatter, Blanker, Cleaner

September 05, 2004

In the center of Athens, overlooking the Temple of Zeus, is another ancient anachronism called the Athens Tennis Club, which was converted during the 17 days just past into the Olympians Reunion Center, a private--and veryexclusive--lounge open only to athletes who have competed in the Games. Inside, at the bar, Zola Budd might bump into Mary Decker (so to speak), while Eddie the Eagle and Eric the Eel might play canasta beneath a ceiling fan.

"I just met five other athletes from the Montreal Games," said Gail Marquis (U.S. women's basketball, '76) while on her way out, after introducing herself to my wife, Rebecca Lobo (U.S. women's basketball, '96), who was on her way in. And so it went every night until the club's 2 a.m. closing time, after which, one imagined, U.S. high jumper Dwight Stones would have to vault the fence to get in and Russian strongman Vasily Alexeyev would be wearily deadlifting sofas for the cleaning women to vacuum underneath.

The club is, like so many other aspects of the Olympics, a capital idea, and one that ought to be implemented immediately in American sports. Imagine a National Baseball Clubhouse for anyone who has ever played in the big leagues: George Brett behind the bar, wiping out beer glasses with a pine-tar rag.

But then, so manyfeatures of the Games will be missed as we return to our games. It's not the Olympic ideals that need spreading in America, it's the Olympic ideas. Like no ads. When you've spent three weeks in arenas bereft of rotating billboards, it's hard to return to Lincoln Financial Field. At the Olympics, even the blimps are a blank and generic off-white, like the BEFORE pictures in an episode of Pimp My Blimp.

It's not just fewer ads. American sports could use fewer abs. The strongest athletes at the Olympics--weightlifters--all had massive beer guts. (Many tested positive, presumably for Schlitz.) In America, even pro golfers are skinny enough to grace the spine of Sports Illustrated. But the body types at the Olympics were refreshingly manifold. The Games often seemed a parade of paunches (Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh evidently trains at a Tehran Taco Bell), butts (Greek hurdler Fani Halkia is the unholy offspring of J. Lo and Flo-Jo) and mixed nuts. (The spectator who jumped from the springboard in a tutu and polka-dot tights pointed up another aspect gone missing in America: spontaneity.)

But there's so much more we need to borrow. In Athens all the athletes' quotes were translated into English, a service sorely missed Stateside by anyone who has interviewed Bobby Bowden.

And the vast majority of athletes' tattoos were temporary--presson flag transfers available on every other block in Athens--so that the Old Glory on your biceps, which now ripples in a stiff breeze, won't hang limply at half-staff in your middle age. By contrast, U.S. basketball players will look, in their dotage, like rumpled Rand McNally road maps.

Allsports would be improved if fewer athletes left school early to pursue the limelight and instead left the limelight early to pursue school. They do the latter at the Olympics. Twenty-four hours after winning the softball gold medal in Athens, Cat Osterman said cheerily, at a swank seaside party, "I have to go back in the morning. School starts at Texas." She's only the best curveball pitcher in the world.

As the NFL season opens, and we brace for that first batch of "We'll get 'em next time" platitudes from Week 1 losers, the Olympics remind us that every contest counts, or ought to. Which is why the despondent Japanese silver medalist in women's wrestling said afterward, "I lost because I lacked courage." Wouldn't you like to hear that, just once, from a tearful Red Sox reliever?

Speaking of baseball, with its five-strikes-and-we-suspend-your-parking-privileges drug plan, the Olympics actively pursue, rather than protect, their drug cheats. In all, 26 athletes who qualified for Athens tested positive, missed drug tests or failed to produce enough urine for a test, and seven of them were stripped of their medals with the sound of ripping Velcro. Their revoked credentials were then displayed for the cameras like scalps.

There's a healthy absence of idolatry at the Olympics, perhaps because athletes are everywhere. You see Sarah Hughes crossing a street here, Carly Patterson hailing a cab there and--seated across from you at a table in a tent, his cellphone ringing like a fire alarm--Michael Phelps. The Olympics turned all of Athens into an Olympians Reunion Center, like one of those paintings you see in diners in which Elvis, Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and a hundred other icons are all packed into the same small frame.

When's the last time you saw ARod at the A&P? The Olympics, for all their bloat, are still on a human scale. Before winning their own gold medal, the U.S. women's basketball players watched from the upper reaches of Karaiskaki Stadium as the U.S. women's soccer team played for gold. Hoops star Diana Taurasi cheered soccer star Mia Hamm for 90 minutes, and--when the tie game paused for a brief intermission before extra time--a casual fan wondered aloud what came next. Taurasi replied, like an eight-year-old girl, "Oranges!"

Sports are, after all, still child's play. It doesn't hurt to remember that as football season starts. While looking forward to the Orange Bowl, let's not forget about the oranges.

Stout stars, ad-free blimps and aggressive drug testing are Olympic features that should come to America.

COLOR PHOTOBOB MARTIN

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)