I went to see beach volleyball, because it combines two things I despise: beaches and volleyball. If the world's nations can set aside their petty bickering over religion, politics, and territory, certainly I can "get that Olympic Spirit" and rise above my prejudices. I wanted to live up to the media credentials hanging around my neck, which I affectionately referred to as my "plastic medal."
The laminated badge was my pass to the hidden world of the Olympics. At hundreds of checkpoints, soldiers ensured that the picture matched my face, and that the letter codes corresponded to whatever new zone I tried to enter. Two kinds of soldiers stood sentry: British Army grunts with guns and berets, and the army of civilian volunteers, 70,000 strong, armored in purple pullovers and armed with eager smiles. I was barely recognizable in my photo, which I had taken months before with my phone, arm stretched away from my body in the now-familiar pose of contemporary narcissism. I looked puffy and sad — perhaps it was that day I had tried to save those kittens.
Some Zones I was allowed into: ALL, TM, MPC, E. ALL was All Sports Venues, which included the eight newly constructed arenas in the Olympic Park, such as the Aquatics Centre and the BMX Track; London's existing spaces, both storied or non-storied, such as Wimbledon and the ExCeL; and the temporary venues that would disappear once the Olympics and Paralymics were over, such as the Horse Guards Parade stadium in the heart of London, and the triathlon viewing stands in Hyde Park.
TM referred to the Media Transport System, the fleet of buses that circulated press people, honchos, and assorted staff around London. The MTS commandeered whole traffic lanes throughout the city — the London commuters shook their impotent fists — and we zipped over them as we tried to make the 12:12 men's kayak double or 12:30 mixed equestrian dressage grand prix freestyle. Or whatever. In between arenas, the journalists leaned against bus windows and dozed, or called HQ, or flipped through their digital portfolios, deciding what to upload to servers in Oslo and Tokyo. Soldiers stopped the MTS buses outside Olympic Park, checking the undercarriage with a mirror for explosives and taking a brief look-see on the double decks for suspicious packages. The buses fell quiet during the check at this reminder of the reality beyond the Olympic Goodwill Bubble. Then we went back to our smartphones and naps.
The Main Press Center outside Olympic Park, and its tiny satellites, which were fastened like white barnacles to each venue, were where the days' matches got prepped, plucked, scrubbed, and shaved in all the right places for their debut as Official History. They were hypermodern shantytowns of white tents and white trailers, disposable, waiting to be packed up before the Games even began, powered by thousands of miles of black cable. I wanted to take a picture of the satellite farm outside the International Broadcast Centre — some people get off on rainbows and water mills, I dig satellite dishes — but I didn't want to waste an afternoon in one of the infamous Olympics Park Interrogation rooms. They say that after five minutes of looking into the "damned staring eyes" of the synchronized swimmers, even the most fanatic Al Qaeda operative will spill his guts.
I don't mooch on purpose, but I had a weird knack for walking into the domain of the Olympic Broadcasting Services and guzzling Fanta. The OBS controls the cameras, delivering the feeds for the world's TV networks, which means that they determine what you see at home. First there are the athletes, and then come the cameras. Obviously, the OBS staff is huge, and they need food. After going through a new venue's metal detectors, I'd follow some primitive directive in my brain stem and instead of heading to the stadium or general media lounge, I'd discover myself in the quiet lanes of the OBS areas. Suddenly I was in a food tent, a cold OBS Fanta or OBS bottle of water materializing in my hand. I was not OBS. I'd slink away. Eventually I learned that if there were heaps of free food, I was in the wrong place.
I was not so unimpressed by my access that I watched the Games in the media lounge, one eye on the live feed, the other on the word count of my open doc. I never tarried in the press rooms after I got a quick hit of sports journalist anthropology. They were no longer ink-stained but cargo-shorted. There were more cargo shorts than a Brooklyn Dad Mingle, and twice as many potbellies. Probably the same amount of quiet desperation, though. They had deadlines, and were bent over in their folding chairs, studying monitors and laptops, dissecting the Games on the long white tables. Openings for laptop cords and Ethernet cables dotted their workstations like the drainage holes on autopsy tables.
I whispered to the Sebald 3000,1 "The shuttles prowl the city 24 hours a day, bringing these creatures to these sterile white rooms. It's so quiet and dead in here, compared to the thunder of the auditorium, don't you think?"
The Sebald 3000 said, "The rooms are dimly lit, the walls are bare, the furniture is gone. All manner of silver utensils lie on the parquet floor, heavy, ornate knives, spoons, and forks as well as fish cutlery for countless people, to dine on a leviathan."
"So … we consume the athletes in order to sustain ourselves? We use them up and throw them away?"
The app did not respond. "Unlock Bonus Features for Only $2.99!" flashed on my phone's screen.
There were many zones I was forbidden entry to, like the Olympic Village, and the Champagne Room, which is the real reason the International Olympics Committee puts on the whole shebang every couple of years. All I cared about was E: the press stands. Except for the most high-profile events — Opening and Closing ceremonies, swimming finals, basketball finals — I could point at my badge and snag one of the press seats, which were excellent or merely OK, depending on the arena.
In the Horse Guards Parade, which contained the temporary beach volleyball stadium, the media seating was located high up in the stands. The workstations were equipped with monitors, so you weren't going to miss a single butt-pat. (There had to be an OBS butt-pat memo circulating.) The altitude in the HGP granted an additional perspective, of exactly how radically the Games transform a city. I don't mean the boondoggle of construction contracts, eminent domain, and the pitiable, deteriorating mausoleum-arenas that have no utility beyond the competition. I mean the disconnect between sitting in the manically festive beach volleyball stadium and looking beyond its walls into the monuments of historic London, the exuberant colors of stadium turning to cheerless stone and marble.
The beach volleyball venue is set down right next to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the London Eye (a.k.a. the Ferris Wheel sticking out of the city's spokes), which loom over the heads of the fans in the highest bleachers as they swig Heineken, do the wave, and chant nationalistic slogans. The atmosphere inside is that of a low-rent spring break on an overrun Caribbean island, a getaway you might win by mailing in Axe Body Spray proofs of purchase. I sat in a UFO set down in the heart of London, sent from Planet Party to show the nations of Earth how we do volleyball, American-style.
To wit: my first Olympics exposure to "Yakety Sax." But not the last. I shit thee not. It blared out of the soundsystem 10 minutes after I arrived for the men's Latvia vs. Germany match. The world did not speed up, as far as I could tell, but travel to foreign places often disappoints one's preconceptions.
"Germany — workin' that ball! You must be pretty excited, eh, Sebald?"
Re: the atmosphere, I enjoyed it immensely. After every point, they played snippets of "Danger! High Voltage," "Firestarter," "Grease Is the Word," all variety of Daft Punk. The emcee whipped us into shape: "It's the London Olympics! It ain't gonna happen again for a long, long time, so make the most of it!" During the 30-second timeouts, the Horse Guards Parade Dancers, a nubile, multiculti crew of enthusiasts, bounded onto the sand for a routine, in bathing trunks or black short-suits and bowler hats, depending on what sort of spectacle they were going for. I was grateful. Thirty seconds was a long time, and who knew what dark turn my thoughts might take if I was left undistracted.
It was a raucous display on royal territory. "We just got a call from Buckingham Palace! 'Can you please keep the sound … UP!'" That morning, the triathlon had transformed another of London's famous landmarks, Hyde Park. I was in no crow's nest for that competition. I watched the entire thing on the finish line, a couple of yards away. Here, the stands did not surround the playing field; instead, the playing field enveloped the bleachers, the match unfolding in Hyde Park's Serpentine Lake, and then on biking and running loops that dove in and out, a different sort of serpentine, through the park. The Londoners owned this venue, as they have always owned their oasis in their city. The tickets were free. All you had to do was pick out your spot in the park, as you would any Saturday afternoon. The spectators lined the shore of the lake, huddled by the side of the biking route. They unpacked picnic lunches and blankets, and settled in.
Adjacent to the finish line, the triathletes' gear waited at the 56 stations: their bikes, running shoes, and in plastic bins, their swimming goggles, sunglasses, helmets. The Olympiad's production values were so top-notch, pulsing with the aura of The Games, that the plastic bins seemed particularly dull. "Sebald, they look like the ones I got at OfficeMax last week."
"I am reminded of the fishermen at Lowescroft," the Sebald 3000 said, "each of them quite alone and dependent on no one but himself and the few items of equipment he has with him, such as a penknife, a thermos, flask, or the little transistor radio that gives forth a scarcely audible, scratchy sound, as if the pebbles being dragged back by the waves were talking to each other."
Sebald's apparent fetish for male fishermen notwithstanding, this was the women's triathlon, and the women lined up on the platform jutting into Serpentine Lake. The athletes dove into the water, and so began the Dance of the Flying Cameras. Cameras scampered like hunchbacks on a track next to the transition area, flew through the air on wires above the length of the lake, poked out of helicopters, bobbed on cranes, and stood on a tripod over the finish line, waiting for the Big Moment. The OBS orchestrated the world's feeds. The overhead camera, which traversed the lake, sliding hundreds of feet over our heads, was particularly awesome. I was sitting in front of a honcho from the USA triathlon team. Before the race, he marveled over the neat setup of the grandstand, but especially the flying camera. I was in the midst of some next-level triathlon choreography.
"You know how much that cost?" This was some IOC official, apparently.
"I can't guess," the triathlon rep said.
"Half a million dollars."
"It doesn't matter," Triathlon said, taking stock of the circumstances.
"It's the Olympics. Nothing matters."
One of the American team members, Sarah Groff, was the sister of a friend of mine, so I was looking for her. I'd never met her, and I could see her face for her swimming cap and goggles. She started out at Station 53, and then I lost her in the water. For the early part of the swimming leg, the triathletes were bunched together. Then they fell into an arrowhead formation. It was drizzling on and off. The robot cameras performed their ballet, through the 1,500 meters of the swim, and the transition to the 43-kilometer biking leg 18 minutes in. The triathletes booked out of Serpentine Lake, stripped off their wetsuits, and jetted off for the seven laps around the park. As they separated into different packs, the applause and encouragement went through dependable cycles, breaking up the two-hour race for the spectators. The front pack summoned noise, which would cut out for a minute until the larger, second pack caught up, and so on, as the different bunches made their loops. According to the monitors, my friend's sister was in this second pack for most of the competition. I kept missing her face.
What was going through their heads as they tried to keep going, tried to advance, felt bits of their bodies rebel and quit by degrees? I thought of Sebald's last response to me, that tidy image of isolation, independence, and purpose. And inevitability, in the movement of the pebbles in the tide. The bikers skidded on the wet pavement, ripping open their skin. The monitors replayed their wipeouts over and over again, the cameras everywhere, the ones I could see and the ones I could not, catching everything except the private scenarios in the athletes' heads, the ones that kept them going.
They ditched their bikes and started running. Ten kilometers to go, four laps. By the last lap, the front pack was down to four people. I had stopped checking for Sarah Groff, but there she was, somehow in fourth, then in third, trading places. At some point between the start of the run and the last lap, while I was no doubt preoccupied with thoughts of death or barbecue, she'd battled up to the leaders. It was close. She came in fourth, 10 seconds from bronze. I didn't even know her, but I felt very proud. It was a nice way to start my London Olympics.
A couple of hours later, I was Yakety-Saxing it up at the Horse Guards Parade. Women's beach volleyball had the night shift.
I will cop to uncharitable feelings about America's beach volleyball gods, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. What I remembered from their second gold-medal win in Beijing was the oft-replayed footage of them hugging afterward. Was the rain machine on? I saw John McEnroe interview the duo the first night of the Games, and they were so calm and confident that I crossed my arms in a huff. They had never been defeated in their 108 sets at the Olympic Games. Where's the drama in watching people who never lose? Plus, my whole anti-beach thing (I've never liked how the sand sticks to my "parts") and my anti-volleyball thing (why are they white? — it is so racist). Let 'em win gold again in some venue on the other side of London. I had a lot of other matches to check out.
And then they stumbled.
They lost their first set against Austria. For acting relatively calm and mellow about the 2012 Games, for being well-adjusted and likable, Fate had decided to lay them low. Sure, they came back and won the game, but they were human again, one of us.
By the time I saw them decimate the Netherlands in the Round of 16, live at the Horse Guards Parade, I was rooting for them. The low drama playing out between Lochte and Phelps helped sway me. I watched Ryan Lochte float in a sea of Olympic hype, and immediately recognized him as yet another sign of the Bro-ification of America. I realized my dismissal of May-Treanor and Walsh was as insipid as playing up the Lochte-Phelps rivalry. Oh no: Sources say Phelps hasn't been taking his training seriously; his heart's not in it; look, he came in fourth in his first swimming event, behind Lochte. He was breast-stroking all the way to the glue factory. But Phelps came back and won more gold — of course — and Ryan Lochte is going to guest-star on the Beverly Hills 90210 revamp.
There's a disconnect between the natural life span of an athlete's career and the life span of a fan's affection. The latter often winds down faster. The fan's love has to be tended to, taken out on date night. Splurge on a babysitter, don't get cheap, or else they're going to start eyeing those buff up-and-comers. The Fastest Man Alive got the treatment, too. I was in a pub waiting for Usain Bolt to run the 100-meter, and the BBC commentator wouldn't quit with solemn pronouncements. See, after a false start in a big race last year, he was really shaken! His good friend Yohan Blake was nipping at his heels, besting him at the Jamaican Olympic trials — would the apprentice supplant the master? Then Usain won the 100-meter again and the BBC announcer, beyond ecstatic, asked, "Why did we ever, ever, ever doubt the brilliance of Usain Bolt?" A three-ever'er. We have no choice. Manufactured narratives and fickle affections aside, sometimes it's just human nature to piss on the feet of the great. Literally — there was a 25-foot sculpture of Kerri Walsh outside the beach volleyball venue, and in major cities it's only a matter of time before statues get whizzed on.
Phelps won a couple more gold medals and made a triumphant exit from his sport. Bolt expanded his "legend." Could May-Treanor and Walsh bounce back from the stunning loss of a single set against Austria, the first in their Olympic career? Would the USA make it into the finals? I want you to understand my anxious mind-set.
Well, they did, and it turned out that April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, the other American team, made it to the finals, too. Who do you root for in USA vs. USA? Where does one put one's jingo? I figured, the Old Hands over the New Jacks. Then I looked at the press material and saw they were the same age, early to mid-30s. I decided to go with injuries, how much they'd been knocked around by life in the pursuit of their dream. From what I could tell, that meant Misty and Kerri, especially with Misty's Achilles tendon rupture while rehearsing for Dancing With the Stars. It was their last chance at gold — who cared how many times they'd gotten away with it before? I like the romance of One Last Score. May we all get a chance at that, at some point in our lives.
The final match started at sunset, livening the clouds and the surface of the London Eye to crimson and purple. The announcer emcee said, "We just got a call from the White House! 'Can you keep the sound level … UP!'" In the bleachers, we were fully revved. It was a close game, but Misty and Kerri won the match. The final set was 21-16. "Party Rock Anthem" filled the Horse Guards Parade, just as it had at that first Olympiad in Ancient Greece, those many centuries ago:
Party rock is in the house tonight
Everybody gonna have a good time
And we gonna make you lose your mind
Everybody gonna have a good time
No one checks your credentials on the way out. I walked through the magic portal and I was no longer in the Olympics but in London on a nice summer evening. Cool breeze, gentle whirr of traffic. Now it was night, and the monuments, not the Games' brief creations, ruled the city again. Big Ben loomed over me, imposing and bright against the blue dark. It was as if the Games had never happened. The men's triathlon had run that morning, and now the last event at the beach volleyball arena had finished. They'd start dismantling those two venues soon; perhaps the construction crews were even now preparing to swarm over them like termites. I thought, the First Age of Women's Beach Volleyball hath ended! Now the next generation will define the game for themselves, in their own image, make it new again. They will pull down the stadiums, pull down the 25-foot statue of Kerri Walsh as if it were a statue of Saddam Hussein. As I looked at the hands of Big Ben, I pondered, in my usual cheap and shallow way, the evanescence of all human endeavor.
"Sebald, I feel weird. It's like America won … but America kinda lost, too."
The Sebald 3000 processed this paradox and finally said, "It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes."
"Sebald, I need … answers."
"Have you considered Klonopin?"
Come back next week for Part 3.