You get older and older, and older, and suddenly, the Summer Olympics become a series of four-year checkpoints for your life. This only happens to people who remember just about everything through the lens of sports. That's where the word "fanatic" came from. Ever looked that word up? Here's the actual definition:
"Marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion."
Translation: "Someone who, technically, is a freaking lunatic."
When I interviewed Larry Bird earlier this year, I half-jokingly told him that, of the 25 best moments in my life, he was probably involved in 10 of them. He quickly quipped, "You need a better life." He's right. We shouldn't care about sports this much but we do, and that's just the way it is. I watched my first Summer Olympics back during a time when we didn't have cable television, video games, DVDs, iPads or the Internet. What did we have? Books, toys, board games, a handful of TV networks and a phenomenal amount of spare time. Trust me, we needed Montreal in 1976. I watched everything. Nadia Comaneci supplanted the Bionic Woman as my biggest crush. I bought loads of Sugar Ray Leonard stock and kept it through the 1980s. Bruce Jenner became just as big of a hero for me as Rocky Balboa a few months later.1 I even bonded with future heavyweight champion Leon Spinks because we were both missing our front teeth. That couldn't have been a more perfect first Olympics for a budding sports nut.
From there, the Summer Olympics became an eerie reflection for whatever was happening in my life. In 1980, my parents divorced and we sold our house; naturally, that was the summer we boycotted Moscow. In 1984, I was just a typical dorky teenager who loved sports and pop culture and somehow, the greatest sports/pop culture year of all time basically fell out of the sky. We went from "barely any TV options" to "dozens of TV options" almost overnight, with MTV, ESPN and HBO leading the way. What better entertainment climate for Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, Edwin Moses, MJ's Olympic hoops team and everyone else? Throw in the Cold War and a heavy dose of patriotic pride — remember, we dominated the L.A. games because none of the "evil" countries showed up — and Los Angeles became another way to regain our country's collective swagger after an era marred by Watergate, Vietnam, Iran, Nixon's resignation and Carter's punchless presidency. 1984 somehow renewed everyone's faith in America as a superpower while maintaining an unparalled lack of self-awareness, with Bruce Springsteen hitting both elements (even if it wasn't intentional) in just two videos: "Born in the USA" and the now-mortifying "Dancing in the Dark."
Within a year, patriotism became something of a career move for celebrities (most notably: Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV), politicians (like Reagan's second presidential campaign) and even wrestlers (with Hulk Hogan changing his entrance theme from "Eye of the Tiger" to "Real American"). So 1984 was the last summer when the Olympics felt, for lack of a better word, pure. We couldn't hear the national anthem enough that summer. We didn't care that the Russians and Eastern Europeans skipped L.A., just that our gold medals were piling up. When Mary Lou pulled off her famous vault, you weren't calculating the value of her endorsement potential like you did with a teeth-gritting Kerri Strug 12 years later. We were collecting American heroes like baseball cards that year, whether they came in the form of Springsteen, Hulk Hogan, Bird, Joe Montana, Pete Rose, Huey Lewis, or everyone the Olympics were force-feeding us. We just wanted more and more heroes. I remember feeling like a true American during the '84 Olympics. That was my favorite one, hands down, bar none.
We wouldn't remember the next four Summer Olympics nearly as fondly. Seoul happened during my first year in college; like my freshman year, it was tainted by drugs, cheating and a series of unexpected second-place finishes. (I'm still angry at John Thompson, by the way.) Barcelona happened right after I miraculously graduated with a 3.04 — the biggest upset of the 1990s — with the Dream Team effectively hijacking every other Olympic memory that summer. Magic and Bird's farewell felt strangely fitting for me, like they were ushering in the official end of my childhood. The '96 Olympics in Atlanta were a massive letdown, marred by the frightening bombing (and ensuing witch hunt of Richard Jewell), an embarrassing level of overcommercialization, NBC's relentlessly sappy puff pieces and a generally contrived vibe that everyone despised and that had absolutely nothing in common with the dutifully ironic, brooding, me-first attitude of Generation X. In the span of 12 short years, it was hard to say what changed more — the Olympics or us. Meanwhile, I wasn't even writing anymore, just bartending, waiting tables, partying, brooding and staying up until 4 a.m. every night. My life sucked. So did the Atlanta Olympics.
By the time Sydney rolled around in 2000, I had my own website and a snarky forum to poke fun of never-ending tape delays, puff pieces and everything else you know, just like 10 million other frustrated, underpaid writers on the Internet. (Really, that was our first Internet Olympics.) During 2004's games in Athens, I had graduated to writing the "Sports Guy" column for ESPN.com, making decent coin and breaking down Team USA's basketball collapse with Unabomber-length manifestos. Americans digested that particular Summer Olympics the same way we digested everything else in 2004: inhaling everything while complaining the entire time. With 500 channels and dozens of Internet-related ways to distract ourselves, the idea of tape-delaying anything sports-related just seemed prehistoric. We were pissed off. I don't even remember enjoying those Olympics, just being bitter about how badly that franchise had been screwed up. Athens was like watching Clooney as Batman and Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze.
Four years later, I passed up a chance to cover Beijing so I could write my 700-page monstrosity of a basketball book. Once upon a time, I had dreamed of covering a Summer Olympics, envisioning it as something of the Super Bowl for sports columnists. You zipped around, attended as many events as possible, ripped off pieces and tried to stand out. After 1996, 2000 and 2004, I just didn't care. Those days were dead. Or so I thought. Because Beijing rejuvenated the Olympics franchise, with NBC taking better advantage of its resources (cable and Internet) to show more events as they happened. Suddenly the viewer experience wasn't much different than attending in person — you jumped around and devoured as much as you could.
It helped that Michael Phelps submitted an iconic performance, breaking out as a genuine superstar instead of a manufactured one. Somewhere between his fourth gold medal and his 27th, I started second-guessing myself for missing Beijing. When our hoops team barely fended off Spain in one of this decade's most underrated dramatic sporting events (no, seriously), the Summer Olympics moved back atop my Sports Column Bucket List. I could have been there. I should have been there.
London is the 11th Summer Olympics of my lifetime and the 30th overall, making it the XXX Olympics (and if you think that's not going to be funny for three straight weeks, you're fooling youself). Ripping through those checkpoints again: 1972 (no memory),1976 (happy kid), 1980 (parents' divorce), 1984 (the patriotism/pop culture/TV/herofest), 1988 (college freshman), 1992 (college graduate), 1996 (bitter slacker), 2000 (Internet), 2004 (ESPN), 2008 (book), 2012 (here).
That's right I finally made it to the Summer Olympics.
I left Los Angeles on Sunday and arrived in London at noon the next day, thanks to one of those surreal red-eye flights in which you skip multiple time zones and feel like you time-traveled. London tossed a weather curveball for the first four days before it finally started drizzling a little on Friday; before that, the city was impossibly sunny and happy, like a weeklong Halter Top Day, with everyone prancing around wearing as little clothing as possible. Catch London on the right day and it's like Chicago or Boston — you walk around in disbelief saying, "Good lord, why doesn't everyone live here? This is awesome!" No different from a first-time craps shooter who rolls for 20 minutes and thinks to himself, Craps is my new game — I can't lose! And just like craps, London's weather will inevitably flip — we're probably headed for a monsoon any day now.
Quick tangent: I came here 30 years ago with my father, only remembering bits and pieces. Like how hard it was to find Red Sox scores, or how strange it was to drive in a car on the left side of the road, how a pub near our hotel had something called a "video jukebox" (basically, MTV as a jukebox, a big deal because we didn't have MTV yet). My big sweeping memory from that trip? The rain. It rained and rained and rained. It rained "November Rain" style. It rained harder than that. The locals never seem fazed, which made everything even stranger.
So if I wasn't expecting this week's heat wave, you can only imagine how the locals handled it. A few tubes (their underground tracks) even overheated at certain stations, sparking fears about the city's transit system breaking down during the Games. The good news: Everyone knows it's going to start pouring the moment the Olympics start. (Oh, wait, that's horrible news.) From what I can tell, London is prepared for everything except extreme heat. And that includes everyone's armpits. There's body odor, there's hellacious body odor, there's Vlade Divac after a quadruple-overtime playoff game in the mid-'90s, and then there's everyone in London during this week's heat wave. I think their bodies reject Old Spice the same way someone's body would reject a mismatched kidney.
Other than that? London is definitely prepared. Everyone's collective fear that terrorists might sabotage the Games — stemming from a tragic subway bombing that happened just one day after London won the 2012 bid — has been quelled, at least somewhat, by a noticeable influx of policemen and security officers pretty much everywhere you look. The general sentiment is, "Shut up and enjoy yourself; you're in the best city in the world."
Don't believe me? Time Out London splashed the following headline on this week's cover:
"WELCOME TO LONDON. GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD."
If that wasn't strong enough, here was the subhead in the top right corner.
Better museums than Berlin.
Cooler art than New York.
Wilder bars than Dublin.
More chuckles than Chicago.
Finer food than Paris.
Before a last-minute flurry of flop-sweat stories (inevitable for any Olympics), I was starting to wonder if London was the Jason Terry of Olympic cities — irrationally cocky, totally convinced they're going to drop 35 and make the game-winning shot. Talking to the locals, everyone seems to feel one of two ways about the Summer Games (with no in-between):
Camp No. 1 (bitter): "The Olympics are a pain in the ass. The traffic will be a nightmare. The tubes will be too crowded. Everything is too expensive. What's the point? We already have the greatest city in the world — what do we have to prove? I hate that we did this."
Camp No. 2 (arrogant): "It's no big deal — I don't see our lives changing that much. London is the greatest city in the world. We were built to handle an event like this. Besides, everything's happening over in East London — nobody goes over there."
That much is true. They built the Olympic Village and most of the newer venues in East London, hoping to rejuvenate an atrophied section of the city.2 There aren't nearly enough hotels over there, which means most visitors are staying elsewhere else (and relying on tubes and buses). Because of London's size and proximity to other countries, we probably won't see a more crowded Olympics than this one. These past 48 hours, everyone has been scrambling for extra tickets — or in some cases, any tickets — with six events emerging as the toughest pulls:
1. The 200-meter individual medley Lochte-Phelps duel
An especially tough ticket because the swimming venues are so prohibitively small, Phelps is the biggest star here other than LeBron and Kobe, and — here's the coolest part — this has morphed into a legitimate rivalry with real stakes. Lochte hopes to slay one of the all-time Olympic giants. Phelps wants to become immortal. Everyone else? We're all trying to get into that event because it's the biggest coin flip of any Lochte-Phelps matchup. Whatever happens, we know how it's going to end — with a sports blog posting inappropriate pictures of Phelps partying four weeks from now.
2. The Opening Ceremony
Directed by the dude who did Slumdog Millionaire! Apparently this is a big deal in London. Meanwhile, Dev Patel is the seventh lead in The Newsroom back in the States. I don't know what to tell you.
(Quick tangent: I've thoroughly enjoyed the process of figuring out what matters disproportionately to Londoners versus what Americans might care about. For instance, nobody cares about Olympic soccer — once the World Cup and Euros rendered it irrelevant, many countries stopped sending their best players — and the sport might even get eliminated after these Games. That hasn't stopped London from freaking out for a solid month that David Beckham wasn't given one of the team's three over-23 spots, or that popular left winger Gareth Bale dropped out of the Olympics because of an "injury," then played in a Tottenham exhibition and seemed totally fine. If there were a London PTI, Beckham and Bale would have dominated the A-Block all week.3 There's only one thing Brits and Americans care about exactly the same amount — Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson with that Rupert guy.)
3. The Closing Ceremony
I know doesn't make sense to me, either. I get the appeal of the Opening Ceremony, but the Closing Ceremony? Wouldn't you care more about
4. Usain Bolt's 100-meter race
5. Women's individual all-around gymnastics finals
6. The gold-medal hoops game
Speaking of basketball, it's time to discuss my biggest fear of this trip. I planned on spending the Olympics zipping around with my mack-daddy media pass that the USOC's Patrick Sandusky graciously gave me. It's like having one of those amusement park passes that lets you keep hopping on ride after ride until you throw up.4 On paper, it's perfect — you check the schedule, figure out what you want to see, figure out how to get there, drop your pass around your neck, and you're off. Remember, I have never attended an Olympic event before. I have never watched track and field, gymnastics or swimming beyond the high school level. I have never caught lower-profile sports like judo, archery, badminton, weight lifting or beach volleyball in person before (much less at a world-class level). I have never attended a biathlon, pentathlon, decathlon or anything that ends in "athlon." I have never stepped foot in Wembley or Wimbledon, or watched a rowing race on the Thames. I have wanted to witness the gold-medal finals for the 100-meter dash and long jump ever since my parents called me "Billy."
Here's the problem
You only have two weeks to see everything. And I love basketball more than anything. Knowing that I can waltz into the stands for any USA hoops game and see LeBron, Kobe, Durant, Carmelo and Chris Paul playing together is a little overwhelming, especially when we're probably abandoning the Dream Team ideal after 2012 and downgrading to an under-23 team or whatever looms next.5 In other words, it's our last chance to see America's greatest basketball players team up like they're the Avengers or something.
Now, here's where you say, "So what? You can watch eight months of these guys starting in October. Go see the other events, you moron!"
No kidding. That's what I keep muttering to myself: You can see these guys anytime. In my head, I keep limiting myself to five USA hoop games — France (the 29th), Argentina (the 6th) and the three medal-round games. Then I start thinking of Durant and LeBron playing for the same team, or the Gasol brothers and Ibaka wreaking havoc on Spain's front line, or Parker and all the French dudes that I can't wait to root against, or Nene, Barbosa, Varejao and everyone on that sneaky-tough Brazilian team, or Ginobili and Scola doing Ginobili/Scola things for Argentina, and that same thought keeps creeping into my head. Basketball! Basketball! World-class, awesome, totally intense, über-patriotic basketball! You're telling me that I wouldn't enjoy a random Argentina-Brazil Olympic hoops game more than, say, the judo finals?
Really, it's going to be a battle of wills. I came to London because it was four decades in the making, because it's one of the last significant sporting events that I haven't covered, because I want to crank out so many words that I'm actually afraid for my fingers. I want to see everything. And yet basketball. It's everywhere. Awesome, awesome basketball. The best player in 20 years is playing with our most talented roster in 20 years, and incredibly, I'm worried that we might blow the gold medal because we're too small. I actually said the words, "Jesus, we're really gonna miss Chris Bosh" this week. How is that possible? How can America — home of 95 percent of the best basketball players on the planet — need a gimmick like "small ball" to win the gold medal? Are you kidding me?
Since I can't clone myself or hit multiple places at once, I want to fight the good fight. I want to stick to that "five basketball games only" plan. I want to cover these games the right way and see everything. I just wish I trusted myself even a little.
Regardless, these are good problems to have. On Saturday morning, thousands of the best athletes from hundreds of countries start competing in dozens of sports in dozens of different venues. It's the most underrated thing about coming to the Olympics, actually — just staring at that damned schedule and its infinite possibilities. Later today, I plan on bringing that schedule to a local pub, ordering some obscure draft beer with a 10-letter name, sitting outside, inhaling cancerous clouds of secondhand smoke and determining my plan for the weekend. Maybe the sun will be shining, maybe not. I'm not sure it matters.