The first Olympics I covered was in 1996 in Atlanta.
North Carolina didn’t have as many athletes competing in those Summer Games as it will in the Olympics that start Friday in London. But it did have 14-year-old Jilen Siroky, a Charlottean who had turned in the performance of her life in the U.S. Olympic swim trials to earn a surprise spot on the team.
Siroky was the youngest person on the American squad that year – shy, smart and very much a teenager.
I asked her before she went to Atlanta why she thought the Olympics mattered so much to so many.
“It’s the only time when everyone in the world gets together when they’re not killing each other and stuff,” she said.
That’s an oversimplification, but it’s also just about right. The Olympics matter precisely because the world sends its best athletes and then the world watches them perform – together. It’s part celebration, part competition. And while the Games may feel like life and death at times, everyone generally gets to go home at the end.
By the time you are reading this, my plane should have landed in London. These will be the fifth Olympic Games I have covered. The others were the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 2004 and the most recent Summer Olympics in Beijing, China in 2008.
Each city is different, and yet every Olympics has its reassuring touches of familiarity – the medals, the sportsmanship, the unexpected humor.
Some of my favorite moments wouldn’t surprise you, like Usain Bolt’s dazzling sprints in Beijing or the way Michael Phelps snaps his arms behind his back, making a sound like a pistol crack, a couple of seconds before every race.
Some of them would. There was the time in Athens I was trying to explain to three security guards in a subway station that I needed to find a restroom. They kept looking at me blankly.
Finally, one said: “Ahhh… Rest-au-room! What kind of food you want?”
No, no, I said, speaking slowly. Not a restaurant. A restroom. A bathroom. A W.C. (I didn’t know the Greek word).
A female security guard came closer. “Can you give an example, please?” she asked.
Well, no. I just thanked them and went off searching by myself.
In 2008 I visited the Beijing Zoo, where the pandas were amazing. Then I went to the “American Animals” section. The most prominently displayed was a family of raccoons, housed in an enormous glass cage. The Chinese people seemed to love them.
Everyone who travels abroad runs into a few “culture-clash” encounters like that. Because I enjoy the unpredictable while traveling … wait, let me rephrase – I enjoy the unpredictable when my four kids aren’t traveling with me, and they don’t come for work assignments … I have long preferred to cover the Olympics when they are held outside America.
But wherever they are, the Olympics are mostly about the athletes. And to me, the five rings most represent the obscure athletes who have given up much of their lives to get there – not LeBron James or Serena Williams.
The majority of Olympians never get rich. They compete in their sports for the same reason you did in high school. They love it. There’s a purity there. I know some Olympic athletes cheat to get ahead, but the vast majority don’t.
There was an Olympic snowboarder named Chris Klug. I interviewed him before the 2002 Olympics. He had gotten a liver transplant that saved his life 18 months before the Olympics and was happy to talk about it.
I wrote a story about Klug and got a number of emails back. One came from a middle-aged woman who had also undergone a liver transplant and wanted to share her story with Klug.
I had his email address (Olympic athletes are almost always glad to share their contact information, unlike many pro athletes). I forwarded her story onto Klug along with a short note, asking if he would mind contacting her once his competition was done.
Instead, I got a reply from Klug the very same day, written between his training sessions. He had already written the woman back, too, and he wanted to thank me for passing her story along.
“Best of luck to you,” Klug wrote me. “Rip it up!”
I tell that story sometimes when I speak to groups and try to explain what the Olympics are like. There are hundreds of athletes just like Chris Klug in the Olympic Village, men and women who truly believe the Olympic spirit is real and not just a myth promoted by NBC so it can sell shampoo and cars between the medal ceremonies.
Because the athletes believe it, at each Olympics that spirit does become real.
There are always stumbles. There are sometimes tragedies (it has now been 40 years since the awful Munich attacks of 1972).
But there are always stories you don’t expect. There is always someone ripping it up like Klug. There is always a dollop of magic, sprinkled into the Olympic melting pot and served up for 17 days straight.
The Olympics can be pretentious (I’m not a huge fan of the opening ceremonies). They can be boring (race-walking, anyone?).
But they also can be – and often are – pretty wonderful.
At their best, the Olympics are about the best in us. And that’s why they matter.