If you go to theArabian Desert seeking madness, you will find it. In a land of wanderingprophets and sunshot revelation, of oracles and portents, of messianic signsand magic, in the ancient place where first we met and wrestled God, madness isonly a matter of time.
It all seemedpretty straightforward: Go to the emirate of Qatar in the Persian Gulf to coverthe Asian Games. Then came the Endless First Day, the Windowless Room and theBurning of the City of the Future, the Electric Minarets, the Shadowed Alley ofthe Tombac HuffenPuffs, and the Iranian Diaper Pirates. ¬∂ On my fifth nightthere, I see the heart of these Games briefly, but whole. Pakistan and Indiaplaying a children's game, a children's game now infused with 60 years of bloodand bad history. Pakistan's up 6--2. India sends an attacker into the Pakistanizone, and the defenders there, strong men, agile and hard and serious, swarmhim and lift him and throw him headlong to the floor. The crowd erupts.
The Pakistanis helpthe Indian to his feet. He wobbles there. The Pakistanis regroup, readythemselves for the next attack. But for one. He stands with the Indian. Hesteadies him with a hand on his shoulder, then reaches out with the other andgently smooths the Indian's hair. As he does so, he leans in to kiss theIndian's cheek. Then he jogs away.
One thousand peoplewatch this, lungs burning as they roar and deaf in the roar they make and everyheart in that crowd filled with the things that fill us all--pride, violence,sadness, joy, admiration, desperation, longing, compassion, hunger, hate, want,love. The infinite litany of human feeling compressed into an instant, anotherkind of madness. All the grace and complication of the species, and the stakesof the games we play, written in the smallest moment.
The first day, onthe mummifying 18-hour flight from New York City to Doha, Qatar's capital andthe site of the Games, I begin this journal. From the press kit: 15thquadrennial Asian Games, two weeks, 10,500 athletes from 45 countries, 5,700journalists, more than 400 events in 39 sports at 36 venues. The sports includemost of the popular Olympic events, with some Asian regional favorites thrownin: wushu, sepaktakraw, kabaddi, etc. Also, some rumpus room standards likechess and billiards.
Cost to Qatar ofstaging same: nearly $3 billion. More than 2,000 hours of televisionprogramming to be beamed out to 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. Of that number,I'll likely be the only American. I'll cover what I can.
Qatar, pronouncedlike cutter or gutter--not like guitar--is a flat spit of sand and gravel thatjuts from the Arabian peninsula into the Persian Gulf. A crossroads betweenland and sea for the nomadic Bedouin, it has for centuries been a minorcommercial center. Until oil was found here in the late 1930s, the two bigbusinesses were fishing and pearling. Oil and natural gas were first exportedfrom Qatar in 1949. Thus, in the vernacular of the macroeconomist, ka-ching.Today, with the third largest natural gas reserve in the world, Qatar has oneof the highest per capita earnings on earth. Population about 880,000, of whomfewer than 175,000 are native Qataris. Most of the rest are immigrants andguest workers from all over the Middle East and the subcontinent.
The current ruler,Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, came to power in the mid-1990s--byoverthrowing his own father. One presumes Al-Thani family picnics remain tothis day subdued.
High temperaturesin the summer routinely reach 120°.
And this last, fromthe Lonely Planet travel guide: "Around the Gulf, Doha has earned theunenviable reputation of being the dullest place on earth." Which, giventhe neighborhood--what a real estate agent might refer to as "war-zoneadjacent"--may be its strongest selling point.
There is a specialterminal at the airport for Asian Games arrivals, bright, brand-new andimmaculate. I am handed a rose by an official greeter impossibly cheerful forthis late hour and offer in return my first salaam. There is something solemnin the moment. Buy the world a Coke, and so forth.
I make anothersalaam to my passport control officer. He doesn't look up. Instead he reads,with fierce intensity, my travel documents. "Salaam," I say again.Nothing. An awkward moment, then he looks at me from behind his counter.
"Noswimsuits," he says grimly.
I stare back athim, blinking.
"Noswimsuits," he says.
He is a large man,heavy in the face behind a drooping mustache, magisterial in his uniform. Heholds up my visa and says "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, U.S.A., yes?" I nod.
He shakes mypaperwork, then laughs, the broad smile straightening the mustache. "Noswimsuits in Doha!" He shrugs, waves me on, still laughing as I walk out ofthe building.
It is 70° atmidnight. The Games begin tomorrow, and Doha's debutante makeover isn't quitefinished. On the ride into town I see street sweepers in coveralls pushingbrooms around the intersections and bricklayers laying brick by lamplight alongthe sidewalks. Qatar, a long shot, very much wants the Olympics in 2016.
Central Doha is aseaside petrodollar boomtown, and looks it--like they uncrated the whole placethe night before last. Mid-rise buildings and tall towers of all geometricshapes and aspirations. Rectilinear, curvilinear, antilinear; mirroredcylinders next to torqued cubes next to month-old Moorish high-rises strungwith stucco lacework; some buildings looking like the boxes the others came in.All of them blazing with lights inside and out. Doha's architecture is at oncean expression of national ambition and a kind of raucous public theater. Manyof the buildings here dare you, bold and gaudy as burlesque dancers, to look atthem. They then ask, "What the hell are you looking at?"
Like Dubai, Dohamust strive to become an international banking city and a resortdestination--and the presence of these Asian Games is part of that largerstrategy for continued prosperity once the oil dries up. Which raises thequestion: Once the oil dries up, how will anybody get here? But I'm suresomeone's thought of that.
As my bus passesthe string of luxurious embassies along the West Bay lagoon, I see uniformedmen slung with automatic weapons patrolling the gates and driveways. A fewminutes later we arrive at the place where I will at last rest my freckledhead--the Beverly Hills Tower--a 30-story hatbox so new it isn't evenfinished.
My room is 15cubits by 10 cubits. The bathroom, seven by five. Both windowless. Located atthe deep core of this tall oval cylinder, the longer walls curve, sharply,creating a disconcerting sense of centrifugal motion and claustrophobia, as ifone had checked into the Motel 6 of Dr. Caligari. I shower. The towels are sonew they do not absorb water so much as repel it. It's like drying yourselfwith Saran Wrap. Finally, at 5 a.m. local, gazing up through a hole two cubitsby two in my ceiling at the newly installed water heater of Damocles, I fightmy way down into something like sleep.
An hour later,undone by jet lag, the time change and too wired to sleep, I am wide awake.
On the second dayit is raining for the opening ceremonies. It never rains in Qatar. In fact themedia guide promises "365 days of pure sunshine." But not, apparently,in a row.
On the way to thestadium, our bus driver surrenders his sanity in the middle of the street, thefirst casualty of the Games' grand madness. Every one of the 200 shuttle buseshere is brand-new, and so are the drivers. We've been circling the Sport Cityon the outskirts of Doha for nearly two hours. Inch by inch, we circle. Ourdriver can see the main stadium and the great tower beside it, a mile or soaway on our right, but he can't find the access road. Mad as Tantalus, he asksevery policeman at every intersection how to get to what he sees but cannotreach. They don't know. Mind and spirit broken, the driver yanks the door openin the middle of the gridlock, points at the stadium, shouting in a languagenone of us understands, and 50 baffled Chinese photographers and I step outinto the rain and the center lane of traffic.
The centerpiece ofthe Sport City is Khalifa Stadium, which houses what's being touted as theworld's largest LED screen. All exposed cables and arching framework, the placelooks like the inside of a B√∂sendorfer grand with seating for 50,000. Thestadium is surrounded by a complex of other venues and landscaped grounds, allnewly built and quite fantastic in a Star Trek--meets-architecture, The Wrathof Louis Kahn, sort of way.
The openingceremonies last nearly four hours. I condense them here. They begin, as allinternational sporting pageants must, with children. In this case hundreds ofthem, dragging sodden pennants of colorful parachute silk through the pouringrain. The audience hunkers under umbrellas, gamely waving glow sticks. Fiercewinds rise and fall, lightning flashes and thunder booms.
The emir isintroduced. On the big screen he is a magnificent fellow, round and huge in hisimmaculate black robes, with a mustache so glossy and perfect it appears to bemade of mink.
The history ofQatar follows. The narrative, such as it is, introduces us to the falcon, thatArabian hunting icon, and to pearls, known hereabouts as "tears of themoon." After which a young boy stands atop a high pedestal in the center ofthe field holding aloft an astrolabe, an early navigational aid devised inthese parts. It is lit from within. Lasers then shoot every whichaway acrossthe immense stadium. It seems the boy is about to embark on a journey ofdiscovery. Or undergo corrective eye surgery. Not sure.
Eventually, everyingenious appliance of mankind's last thousand years is rolled out onstage,from giant microscopes to steam shovels to space shuttles. Then everything onthe stadium floor begins to shoot fire, pouring forth columns of flame andfireworks until the smoke's so thick the performers and crowd are lost in it,and the big screen reads QATAR'S NATURAL BOUNTY and the crowd is roaring andthe explosions are booming and the whole place smells like cordite and thescreen changes and now reads the city of the future and the city of the futureis spread there before us, covered in neon and flame and flashing lights, andthe city of the future looks a lot like Laughlin, Nev., if only Laughlin, Nev.,were built out of giant microscopes and then set ablaze.
Unbelievably it'snot over. Country by country the athletes are introduced. The host nationreceives the greatest ovation during the alphabetical parade, from Afghanistanthrough Yemen. Folks from the, um, Axis of Evil, however, run a close second.Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria all walk in to lusty applause. Israel'sinvitation probably got lost in the mail.
Watching theclose-ups of the teams, you see that each team is made up only of people, mostof whom are taking smiling pictures of one another with digital cameras justlike yours. Which isn't to say that ideas and the people who bear them out intothe world can't be wrong or even evil but rather that we have more in commonthan most of us are willing to admit. And that evil can be, like everythingelse, a matter of where you're standing.
When the Chineseteam walks in--more than 700 athletes, row upon row upon row--you feel as ifyou're seeing the future, and the future wears red and has done a lot ofsit-ups. Then some singing. Then some simultaneous-translation speechifying,and the emir declares the Games officially open. More singing. The rain eases.And, at last, the torch....
And I left a lotout. A lot.
On the third day,exhausted, I doze and watch Qatari television. Oprah, The West Wing. 24. Yup.Day four at 6 a.m., with jackhammers pounding and trucks grinding and cranesturning in the sun, the desert light breaks yellow over the city, the wholemoving blueprint. Yawning operatically, zombie-eyed, I'm off tosepaktakraw.
Sepaktakraw isvolleyball for your feet. The court's smaller than a volleyball court, but therule of three touches max per side before sending the ball back is thesame--except, no arms or hands. All other body parts allowed. The money shotfor sports photographers is the cartwheeling bicycle kick, the sepaktakrawspike.
Begun as a kind ofancient Hacky Sack--presumably without the board shorts and low standardizedtest scores--sepaktakraw has been popular in Southeast Asia in one variation oranother for at least 500 years. The ball is smaller than a volleyball and madeof woven rattan, like the good coasters Grandma puts out for company in thesummer. The net's lower, too, only about five feet high.
The team at centercourt this morning is the 1927 Yankees of sepaktakraw, Thailand. The three-manlineup is Murderers' Row: Singha Somsakul, Somporn Jaisinghol and PanompornAiemsa Ard. The sport's big names. They'll play South Korea.
Before the Koreanscan rub the sleep out of their eyes, they're down 9--2. Somsakul, long-leggedand deadpan and slender, pinwheels havoc all morning. He is a spinningupside-down Ninja Rockette of Death. Wicked bicycle serves the Koreans can'teven put a foot on; diabolical drop serves that die as they cross the net,catch the floor and spin back whence they came; clean aces to the deep corners.In the rare cases South Korea puts the ball back into play, it's spiked backwith extreme prejudice. The Koreans are left trying to block Somsakul's sniperfire by jumping at the net and taking the ball in the ribs or back orsternum--tip ... tap ... ooooph!
By midmorning thestands are packed with face-painted flag-wavers and drum-toting thumpers andthunderstick whackers and castanet clackers. With the bells, horns, hats andchanting, it's like something out of Dr. Seuss, and it's deafening."THAI-land, THAI-land, bang, bang, bangbangbang! THAI-land, THAI-land,toot, toot, toot-toot-toot!" Around 11 a.m. the P.A. starts pouring out theDick Dale surf guitar, and the madness is complete.
South Korea getsclose, 14--12, as Thailand's attention wanders, but the Thais stop theirwoolgathering and go on to win 21--14.
It's interestingto see athletes from what were once distant cultures move with the same suretyand sense of higher jock purpose as our own. The high fives, the fist pumps,the pointing in brotherhood or mockery are identical to ours. The three Thaistake the court with as much swagger as any All-Star. And they are just ascelebrated at home. I wonder if any Bangkok sportswriter has ever written anelegiac poem on the graceful and dominating combination of Jaisinghol to AiemsaArd to Somsakul. I hope so.
I spend the fifthmorning looking for Humpy Koneru. She's the big noise at this year's chesscompetition, an Indian grandmaster with a NASCAR handle and a reputation forthe quick kill. By the time I circulate through the hushed chess hall, she islong gone, having won her match before anybody's coffee had a chance to cool.The chess matches are at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex.The crowds outside have come to watch Soft Tennis--tennis played with a softerball and a lighter racquet, which apparently slows the game down. Gofigure.
In here, it's allrapt concentration and nervous parents. The small crowd huddled in thebleachers to watch things through their monstrous chess binoculars is made upmostly of folks from India and Sri Lanka. And while the poses these two dozenor so players strike as they fold their arms on the tabletops make them lookimplacable and impossibly ruthless, if you take a look from down around floorlevel, you see the truth of competitive pressure. Every knee pumping like apiston. You could churn butter.
An official standsover Ahmad Samhouri of Jordan and Chinthaka Galappaththi of Sri Lanka, his browfurrowing as their game drags on. They're each down to a queen, a king and aknight. Under the table, their legs are running like mad, but on the tabletopit's a Napoleonic stare-down. This is speed chess, so each player swats thelittle clock with an authoritative hand every time he moves. Tick-tock. BANG!Back and forth they go. The judge fidgets, rolls his eyes. Soon they're theonly two players left in the great room.
Five minutes. Tenminutes. At last, something happens. Just what, I'm not sure, but the two menshake hands, rise and hotfoot it for the door. The judge stares down at theboard. Scribbles on his clipboard. Still two kings, two queens and twoknights.
The judge puts alittle D up on the scoreboard. A draw. He looks at me, shrugs and leaves.Where'd you say that Soft Tennis is?
Pink Floyd blaresin the shuttle on the way to the ASPIRE complex. From above, this immense,outrageous venue looks like a bisected circle with the halves offset. Fromground level it's a humpbacked spaceport, an intergalactic whaling stationbeamed back to us from a troubling future in which George Jetson has become aFrench public-works architect.
I stop in thegymnastics hall to watch the men's individual all-around finals. There's almostno one in the stands. As the Chinese star Yang Wei moves flawlessly from pommelto rings to vault, a mere dozen of his countrymen in dark four-button suitsrise with their Carrefour shopping bags and shuffle a few seats to the left.And to the left. And to the left. Thus they work their way around the entireauditorium.
Despite its rigorand regimentation, there's something joyful in gymnastics, something happilyuseless and primitive. Humans leaping and swinging from the trees and the vinesof our long-gone past just because we can. Still, when they cue up theDemocratic People's Republic Atomic Orchestra dance remix of Tubular Bells fora floor exercise, I know it's time to go.
While thegymnastics hall was nearly empty, the smaller kabaddi venue next to it ispacked to the ceiling. With the steep rake of the seats, the stands form anear-vertical semicircle around the small court. The noise is fantastic. I'venever before watched a sport without having any inkling of its objective or itsrules. I'm even more confused when a stranger in the press section leans in toyell, "I liked it better when they played barefoot on the sand and woreloincloths." I've arrived at halftime of the match between Iran andBangladesh. The crowd, however, is here for the next bout on the card, Indiaversus Pakistan. The colors of each of those countries are being flown and wornby exactly half of the 1,000-plus in attendance, the Indians to my right andthe Pakistanis to my left. I am the line of partition. They're warming upduring this prelim, so as the players return to the floor for the second half,the crowd rises and lets out a gladiatorial roar. Welcome to Thunderdome.
The players, sevento a side, are dressed in piped T-shirts and gym shorts cut a little too tight,as in the group photo from your 1977 CYO basketball team. Canvas sneakers inwhite or beige. Lots of black socks. A few men barefoot. Their play area isabout the size of a racquetball court. Two 20-minute halves. As play begins,one man steps across the centerline into the territory occupied by the otherteam. He stops a few feet away from his opponents and crouches, as do the sevendefenders. They stare at one another. And stare. They bounce, just a little, onthe balls of their feet. A tableau of readiness. They stare. They bounce. Theattacker slides a step to his right. The defenders slide a step to their left.And then all slide back to the first position. But always bouncing. Everstaring.
The attackerraises, s l o w l y, his hand.
A heavy step tothe right. He lunges! And the defenders retreat.
A heavy step tothe left. He lunges! And the defenders retreat.
No one moves. Thecrowd roars, and it's back to the bouncing and staring. The attacker shakes hishead, nonono, retreats, returns to his side of the floor. The crowd roars.
It takes severalpasses like this before it comes to me that they are playing tag. The attacker,or "raider," enters the opponents' zone with the intention of touchingone or more of the seven defenders, or "antis." Having done so--if hecan make it back past the centerline of the court--he scores points, and thosehe touched are made to sit. But if the defenders haul him down before he fleestheir zone, the point is theirs, and he sits out.
I think. There arefive officials, and they don't always seem certain about the rules either.Sometimes the only way to know who touched whom is to ask the players. Kabaddion the honor system.
The wrinkle in thegame, not that it needs one, is that the attacker must hold his breath for theentirety of his adventure in the other team's end. Hence the head shake when hecan go no longer. To prove that he's not a sneaky breather, he must murmur"kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi" for the length of time he's on theattack.
Not that anyonecould hear him. It's too loud in here. Drums, thundersticks, castanets, horns,gongs, chanting, dancing, singing. Iran, with its speed and swashbucklingstyle, is pulling ahead of Bangladesh. Both teams have become moredemonstrative, more theatrical, thanks, probably, to the stoke from the crowd.Players preen and strut from end to end; defenders spank themselves on the buttor the thigh, daring the raider to tag them there, or pound the floor withpalms flat as if to scare the attacker away. At times the entire defense holdshands. Attackers tag and flee. For the quickest it's a clean getaway. But someare submarined by a single defender, or tripped and cut down before they reachthe centerline. Others are bulldogged by three or five or all seven defendersand lifted and driven into the floor. Rugby is no tougher. Almost always, youhelp your opponent to his feet.
One player,Kianoush Naderian of Iran, is a kabaddi spectacle. Muscular and compact,wide-eyed and loud, he wears a goatee as sharp as a dagger and holds back hisshoulder-length black hair with the wide white head scarf of a buccaneer. Hespanks himself, pounds the floor, shouts dares and insults. He feints and bobsand weaves. He rolls his eyes and raises his palms to heaven when the officialsblow a call. Or when they don't. He leaps to the attack or pirouettes away fromthe thrusts of the raiders. He's straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Crouched low, engarde, he has the nervous habit of hitching up the sides of his shorts, untilthe material balloons a little. And a little more. Until, with the hitching andthe hiking, the snow-white shorts balloon into a perfect diaper. He is pureintensity and performance. He is everywhere. He is ruining Bangladeshsingle-handedly. The crowd rains cheers down on the swaddled head of theIranian Diaper Pirate. Iran wins 56--39.
Kabaddi is a gamein which you can see all the endless playful ingenuity of humanity. Noequipment, no ball, no special surface. Just willingness and challenge andenergy. It's a game your kids would make up. But India versus Pakistan isbrutal. Players dragged down and piled upon, and elbows and punches thrown inthe pile. The crowd so loud now that the P.A. can no longer be heard. Fans hangfrom the spaceship railings of the galleries. Every doorway filled and exitblocked. The big room is stifling.
The two teamsappear evenly matched, but Pakistan's swarming defense is impenetrable. It goesup 6--2. It's at this moment that the Pakistanis drive the Indian raider downhard on his head, then lift and caress and kiss him. This act of simplekindness (or is it vicious mockery?) burns through the crowd. The sound of themis a solid thing now, a weight that sits on the ribs and makes it hard tobreathe. A kind of madness. All the grace and complication of the species, thelove and the hate and the stakes of the games we play, written in the smallestmoment.
Whatever residesin that moment turns the tide for India. At 9--5 a retreating Indian attackeris wrestled to the mat by the entire Pakistan defense. Seven men are stacked onhim. A tangle of arms and legs like something out of Bosch. A hand shoots fromthe bottom of the pile to touch the centerline. India scores. 9--6. Chants of"in-DJYA! in-DJYA!" rock the hall. At the half it's Pakistan 11, India9.
There is somethinga little comic about all this, of course, to the Western Ignorant like me. Whenthe players crouch and move from one side of the floor to the other, eyeballingthe opposition, they look like the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story. Whenthe raider tries to back the defenders into a corner, often enough he lookslike a farmer penning his chickens. There is nothing beautiful in it. But it iscompelling in a way that only a thing so fundamental can be.
Down by two, Indiascores a double tap to begin the second half: 11--11. Bedlam. Then a singletouch, and it's India 12 to 11, and Pakistan, so dominant in the first half,will never catch up. With less than five minutes left, Pakistan calls timeout,down 25--17. The players circle their coach. But you can see the end of it intheir eyes. The Indian fans begin to stamp their feet in unison.
India wins 31--20.The whole building shakes.
Having put theDoh! back in Doha this week with my sleeplessness and a stomach undone bysaffron pancakes, I make some random sixth-day observations.
•The hospitalityfor which Bedouin culture is famous is everywhere here. There is greatgenerosity in it, but little warmth.
•Something calledPocari Sweat is the official "ion beverage" of the games. Thinking of aguy named Pocari heaving and blowing on an elliptical machine in a gymsomewhere, I can't bring myself to try it.
•There are youngwomen working on the security staff. They wear their black abayas and headscarves and veils under windbreakers and baseball caps. You see them walkingthe halls or standing at the metal detectors, where the signs read NO DRUGS ANDMENTAL¬†EFFECTING SUBSTANCES ALLOWED. When a pair of women walk past inlow-rise jeans and form-fitting tops on their way to the broadcast center, theguards look after them with eyes that register, in no particular order, horror,contempt and envy.
•God seemseverywhere here, with prayer rooms at every venue and the call to prayer fivetimes a day from the loudspeakers atop the city's minarets: When the muezzinsings out, "There is no God but God," it sends a chill through you and,like a church bell, sounds as lyrical and joyful as an affirmation--or asmournful as a lament.
•The Gamesthemselves have no identifying culture. That's part of the point. Theirneutrality is not just about the higher, purer plane of human endeavor to whichsports occasionally rise. Rather, it is the neutrality of 21st centurymodernity, in which technology and the flattening of real experience by mediaof every kind, especially television, create a common culture in which we allwillingly swim.
If Qataris andBangladeshis and Iraqis, Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs all play their part inthe big broadcast of another overproduced athletic event, just as we do in theWest, do they not share with us our willingness to accept that culturalneutrality, that emptiness, that buzzing void in which Oprah flourishesworldwide? And isn't this digital common ground, with its intellectual andmoral and religious indeterminacy, the very thing that the radicals andreactionaries on both sides of the razor wire are fighting?
Instead of stagingthe grand event every four years, shouldn't we hold it every week? Throw asmany folks and folkways as we can into TV's melting pot? Make the Games aweekly series, and the world will be a better place.
On the seventh dayI learn that the weightlifting venue at Al-Dana Hall is across the street froma Bennigan's, which is across from the Doha Fuddruckers. Al-Dana is a convertedbanquet hall with maybe 500 seats facing an elevated stage.
If you've seenweightlifting only on TV, you've missed half the fun of it. Because the dramaisn't just in the hoist itself, but also in the strange gamesmanship thatprecedes it.
The lifterssandbag one another by announcing, and then revising, how much they're going toheft. This scenario plays out during the men's prelims and the women'ssuperheavyweight finals. In the clean and jerk, Mu Shuangshuang, the Chinesegiant, declares that she will lift 172 kilos. After a theatrical pause, shesays she'll attempt 173. A minute later, 174. Every change raises the targetweight for the trailing Korean and Thai. So they're backstage sweating thearithmetic as Mu coolly bids things up. It must work at least a little becauseafter another round of lifts Mu takes the gold.
The people whoreally suffer, though, are the five guys who have to run out onstage andrejigger the weights every time a change is made. All afternoon, back andforth, rolling or toting some herniating combination of cast-iron plates,jacking the bar up and swapping the plates as fast as they can, like a pit crewat Martinsville. By midafternoon they're beat, staggering off to the wings andgulping Pocari Sweat like it's going out of style. Which we can only hope to bethe case. The afternoon competition ends with I Feel the Earth Move, sung inwhat sounds like Arabic, piped in over the P.A.
Every seat isfilled for the men's superheavy final in the evening. The room is hot andclose, smelling of rosewater, cumin and sweat. Next to me is a Korean priest intraditional robes and a ceremonial hat with a cardboard sign on it that readsgod bless you. Two young men in T-shirts and jeans walk the aisles witharmloads of small Iranian flags, handing them out to anyone who'll take one,which is everyone. Because Hossein Reza Zadeh, the Iranian Hercules, is a rockstar. That's who they've come to see.
The first fewattempts by the lesser names are greeted with polite applause and occasionalemphatic racket for hometown heroes, such as the Qatari, Jaber Salem. Like manyQatari athletes, though, Jaber Salem is an import. He was born Bulgarian andcame to these sunny shores only for the work. In his case, the winning ofmedals. Qatar, like other wealthy countries around the Gulf, brings in athletesfrom other countries, makes them citizens, changes their names and pays them afine wage. Bulgaria has a surplus of weightlifters, an abundant naturalresource, and is happy to export them. Kenya is another trade partner withQatar, shipping in distance runners.
But Reza Zadeh isthe McCoy. As popular in Iran and around the Gulf as anyone alive, he is amonster. Holds every current world and Olympic record in his class. Prays overthe bar before every lift. When he waddles onstage for the snatch, all bellyand dour purpose, the crowd leaps to its feet. He is everything they holdthemselves and their country to be: powerful and devout and worthy of theworld's respect. It is at this moment that the folks behind me begin absentlywhipping me over the head with their Iranian flags.
As wide as he istall, his singlet bulging, Reza Zadeh has the utterly round face of a stern,unshaven baby. He fills the room. Though 6'1" and a spherical 360, he looksnine feet tall, and who could even guess what he weighs--800, 900 pounds? Aton? He pats rosin on his hands and steps forward through the little cloud hemakes.
He looks down atthe bar with a kind of intimate contempt--as if it had once done him a smallbut irreversible wrong in a love affair. He then bends to redeem it.
Squatting to takehis grip, his lips moving, he closes his eyes for a moment--the prayer. Thecrowd noise recedes like a wave just broken, and in the stillness is theimminence of the wave to follow. His feet seem tiny.
He fills hischeeks and heaves, in a single fluid arc, 185 kilograms over his head. Herises, no more effort in it than in a man getting up from a meal to stretch.The incoming wave crashes, and the crowd breaks wide-open, and the flags snapand billow in the furnace heat. A good lift. Reza Zadeh stands beneath his loadsmiling, then raises his chin and begins to nod from one corner of the room tothe other. He is Jagger at Wembley, holding aloft a 400-pound mike stand,sending out the radiant grace of his own greatness while he takes in all thisrabid love. The seconds tick away. Satisfied at last, he drops the weight as ifhe's forgotten an appointment and needs to catch a cab. Its landing rattles thestands.
The poor Qatarilifter, Salem, enters to another man's ovation. He'll take his turn at 185K butwears a look of resignation. He knows where this is going. He hefts the bar,locks it out, hears the horn and drops it, but there is no joy in it, and nohope. A round of ordinary applause follows him backstage and back into theIranian's long shadow.
Reza Zadeh againascends the platform. One hundred ninety kilograms this time. The flags are upand waving, and the chants begin, "ee-RAHN, ee-RAHN, ee-RAHN!" as hetalcs his mitts. The kingly waddle. The quiet. The prayer. The helpless bar.The seamless sweep into the air. The wave breaking again, roaring,"Ee-RAHN, ee-RAHN, ee-RAHN!" The flags sailing in the heat. The horn.The smile, at once sweet and smug, and the nodding benediction to the faithful.The weights hit the floor like thunder.
In the clean andjerk the other big men come and go, giants made small by Reza Zadeh's magic.Salem, still game, will try at 225. He powders himself, walks to the bar andbends to his work. He wrings the bar with his hands and looks high to the backof the room. He squats and then rises, horsing the bar to his chest. It reststhere as he collects himself. He stands a moment. How heavy that bar must seem,combined as it is with the weight of fate and futility. He scissors his legsand thrusts the thing up. He gathers his feet beneath him and locks out thebar. It flexes ominously. One. He grimaces. Two. His body quivers. Three. Thehorn sounds, and he drops the weights to the floor. He walks off, good at 225.Will he make another attempt? He shakes his head. Enough. Excellence is noweapon against the inevitable.
Reza Zadeh closeshis show with a fast, graceful lift at 230 kilos. The placedetonates--"ray-ZAH, ray-ZAH, ray-ZAH!"--and the audience surges downthe aisles to get at him.
A South Koreanrider is killed during one of the jumping events on my eighth morning in Doha.His horse rolls over him after clipping an obstacle in the rain. The horseisn't much hurt. Not much else is known. A panel of organizers takes questionsbut has few answers. A terrible accident, which they say nothing could haveprevented. For a few hours it's all quiet hustle and murmur in the presscenter, a new solemnity. Even in the manicured unreality of internationalsports, life and death intrude. Kim Hyung Chil is the first athlete to die incompetition in Asian Games history. By midafternoon the video of the fallbegins to circulate, and by the second or third viewing has lost any meaning asa human tragedy. Over the next 24 hours the accident will lose its specificityentirely, worn smooth by time and repetition, and become just anothereight-second clip in our infinite library of distant miseries.
I spend theevening at the final night of the swimming competition. In this immaculate andimmense new facility, blue and soothing and cool, the stands are nearly empty.As expected, the Japanese dominate the premier event, the men's 200-meterbreaststroke. Kosuke Kitajima takes the gold, four seconds off the worldrecord, with Daisuke Kimura a full second behind for the silver.
When the smallcrowd is called upon for the moment of silence, the instruction seemsredundant.
Bodybuilding on myninth day, back at Al-Dana Hall. The Aston Martin parked in front of Bennigan'sreminds us that we're not in Albuquerque.
The meat parade isa series of "after" pictures from the GNC catalog. Brought out ingroups of a dozen or 18 or 25, the men come and go in their tiny swimsuits.They begin striking poses before they reach the stage and continue long afterthey've been told to stop. "Front double biceps," the judge onstagewill say, "Flex!" and the line of hardworking mesomorphs, glistening inthe lights, grinning like madmen, will slowly elevate their guns, train them onthe judges, set the muscles to jumping and try to elbow one another in theface. For the next 30 seconds the scene is a miracle of vascular hydraulics,catty showmanship and suffocating self-love. The judge then calls, "Andrelax!" But no one does. To relax, ever, is to lose, so they simplyfreelance poses while nudging one another out of the way. The judge yells,"Front lats spread. Together, flex!" and the grins tighten, and the menfan their lats like poker hands. "And relax."
The posingcontinues, and the weight classes come and go, everyone as coy as theCoppertone Girl, everyone hip-checking everyone else as the day wears on andthe bronzer wears off. Every swimsuit is smeared with it. The aesthetic ofpostmodern bodybuilding seems to require a thick application of Man Tan, fromthe feet to the neck, no matter the competitor's natural complexion. So thebodybuilders' heads look Photoshopped on. And woe betide the man who misses aspot. His day can end only in tears.
Once the musclething is done, it's the first full card of track and field at Khalifa Stadium.Mostly heats for the sprints and the 3,000-meter steeplechase final, expectedto be contested by Kenyan privateers running under more prosperous new flags.In the mid-60s damp, everyone is bundled up and wearing stocking caps. What'sinteresting about the crowd, though, is the nearly complete absence of nativeQataris. It's me and 15,000 or 20,000 Indians and Pakistanis and Sri Lankans.Expats and guest workers, all of us.
Ruqaya Al Ghasaraof Bahrain, running in a full bodysuit, covered to her wrists and ankles andwearing a plain white head scarf, qualifies for the finals of the 100Mdash.
The steeplechaseplays out as expected, with Tareq Mubarak Salem, Bahrain by way of Kenya,jumping and splashing past Gamal Belal Salem, Qatar by way of Kenya, for thegold. Xiangqian Lin, apparently from nowhere but China, takes the bronze.
On the 10thmorning I visit the old souk, the market down in central Doha. The old souk isno longer strictly old. While the bones of the place are old indeed, parts ofit fairly gleam. If you pay close attention, you'll see the digital lines beinglaid in the sidewalks as part of its ongoing tourist upgrade. If you walk thedark halls and alleys long enough, though, smelling the sandalwood, you canfloat back in time.
In one shortalley, shadowed from the sun, are the smokers at their hookahs. Huffing andpuffing, they fill the air with the smell of lightly cured tobacco. Stacked insheaves and sold as Tombac, it has the clean, astringent smell of a vegetablebin. Fired in the bowl of the hubble-bubble, though, the smoke slouches andloiters with the rank disreputability of hashish. Around the corner wait thefalcons perched for sale. And as the women pass and stare out at you frombehind their veils, the 11th-century illusion is complete.
If you'd prefer noillusions at all, go down to the fish market out along the quay. Stand amongthe fishermen and their buckets of grouper and look south and you can watch theAWACS of the U.S. Air Force rise into the sky, heading north. Qatar is a majorstaging area for Centcom and our war in the Middle East. In 10 days here Ihaven't seen a single American soldier.
Back to ASPIREarena for the rhythmic gymnastics, a study in spangles and eyeliner, the cluband the rope and the ball, and hemlines to shame Sasha Cohen. During aDemocratic Peoples' Republic Atomic Orchestra rendition of Blame It on theBossa Nova, I imagine the strategy of the rhythmic gymnast thus:
Ball, two, three,four. Bounce, two, three, four. Show my underpants. Underpants. Fling, two,three, four. Catch, two, three, four. Underpants. Underpants. And ...underpants!
The two linejudges, seated in opposing corners to make sure the gymnasts don't step outsidethe boundaries, are women. And both are clad to the wrists and ankles in theirabayas. And both are veiled.
Back to thestadium for track. After trading the lead again and again, the finishing orderfor the men's 10,000 meters is Bahrain, Qatar, Bahrain, Qatar--actually Kenya,Kenya, Kenya, Kenya. Qatar will thus finish the Games with 32 medals, 11thamong the 45 competing countries.
And Al Ghasara, inher full bodysuit, finishes third in the 100-meter finals. And wins the gold inthe 200 meters. And on her white head scarf tonight, a sign of the times, abright red Nike swoosh.
As my flight homefollows sunset across the Gulf, the dazzle of that last day bright on thewings, I still await the revelation of the wandering prophet.
But what comes tome as I close my eyes and ease back the seat is no revelation at all. It isonly this. An indifferent sun rises and sets on us all. And its unforgivinglight reveals the common madness in our human exuberance and in our striving,in our optimism and in our persistence, in our love and in our fear and in ourhate, in our every devotion and celebration and lamentation. And here in theland of the falcon and the pearl--this middle kingdom trapped between theopposing horizons of ancient history and modern possibility, between the livingsea and the killing sand--all the grand and terrible madness of humanity isilluminated. As it is everywhere, as it is in all of us, beautiful andterrifying, our heartbreaking human madness as radiant and strange andbreathtaking as the tears of the moon.
Get more of Bob Martin's photos from the competition inQatar.
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