Those of us formerly in the newspaper business have had to adjust to a different reality in the last couple of years. One of the things that has changed for me is that for the first time since 1984, I am not involved in any coverage of an Olympic Games.
From 1988-2008, I was either an editor or writer for Olympic stories. It was a couple of weeks after I returned from the Beijing Games in ’08 that I found out I wouldn’t be working for The Kansas City Star anymore.
So I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d feel about the 2010 Vancouver Games. Some friends asked me if I was upset or bothered by not going, and I said I was intentionally not thinking about it much.
Here’s the thing I’d bet almost every writer would tell you about covering the Olympics … it isn’t necessarily that “fun” while you’re doing it. Everybody works the craziest hours – you honestly try not to sleep, even though that’s insane – because of the magnitude of the event. You ride a lot of buses, get crunched in a lot of mixed zones and are constantly worried you’re going to miss THE performance of the Games by picking or being assigned to something else.
You feel like you can’t do enough stories, and that the ones you do will never be good enough anyway because, after all, this is THE OLYMPICS! Almost everybody ends up becoming totally neurotic by the second week – it doesn’t take some folks nearly that long – as you are well past the point of acceptable amounts of media-room cookies and sleep deprivation.
When you return home from the Games, people ask if you had a good time, and you can’t possibly say any of this stuff. Because they’d think, “You jerk! You got to go to the Olympics, and you’re complaining about it!?”
But that’s the thing … we’re really not complaining about it, just explaining it. Most would say it’s truly wonderful to have been there … after they get back. Because your mind purges or glosses over how tired or cold (if it’s the Winter Games) or overwhelmed you felt once you’re no longer in those circumstances. Then most of the experience becomes “Kodachromed” in your mind. And it’s great to be able to say, “I was there.”
So, anyway, I kind of kept the Vancouver Games at the periphery of my mind the last few weeks. And then, all of a sudden, it was Friday, just a couple of hours before the opening ceremonies. It seemed a little hard to believe.
And as the coverage came on, I thought, “Well, here we are. How do you feel?”
And I found it was OK to just sit back and enjoy the Olympics the way I last did when I was 19 and still in college, wondering if I’d ever get to cover the Games.
Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t start plotting in my head ways to get to London in 2012, but …
Anyway, the Winter Games are particularly special to me because I recall the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics as being the first time I saw women athletes being treated as if they were just as important as men. It’s hard to overstate how pleasantly surprised I was by that. I was 10 then, and I hadn’t seen female athletes on TV much at all unless they played tennis (Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, mostly) or were a race horse (Ruffian).
Most certifiable sports fanatics have those huge “impact” events from their childhoods, memories that are treasured because they were such of big part of shaping us into who we are for the rest of our lives. Innsbruck ’76 changed my life, and I think I even knew that at the time.
Eight years ago, I wrote about some recollections of Innsbruck for an ESPN.com column that ran before the first Winter Games I actually got to cover, the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. It was fun for me to re-read it again and see the spots where it’s dated (like references to VCRs and the WUSA) and how it hopefully captured the way lots of us feel about “nostalgia.” I was tempted to edit it because a few parts sound more goofy to me now than apparently they did when I wrote it. But … my editor let me get away with it then, so I’ll let it stay that way.
From (if memory serves) December 2001 on ESPN.com:
Innsbruck ’76: The way we were
It’s supposed to take approximately 15 seconds from the end of each 2002 Winter Olympic event in February for the results to be posted on the official Web site.
Yet it’s exactly what we expect now. We think we’ll find every happening in the solar system on the Web, updated every second.
“Who won the Pinhead County three-legged race, girls aged 6-9 division?”
“It’s not over yet, according to the Web simulcast. But let me refresh.”
In newspaper sports departments, we’ll start swearing (we look for any excuse, though) if a box score isn’t on the Web minutes after a basketball game is over.
“What the (bleep) are they doing there? Baking a (bleeping) cake?”
But then I’ll recall the pre-instant information days. And patiently waiting forever _ actually, until around 9:30 p.m. _ on Feb. 13, 1976, to find out on TV tape delay if Dorothy Hamill had won the Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck, Austria.
The Olympics were sports, which I worshipped, but they also symbolized faraway places and different kinds of people. That was enchanting to a bookworm fifth-grader growing up in rural Missouri.
Further, being particularly a football and baseball fanatic, I found it a revelation that women athletes got a lot of attention during the Olympics. Sheila Young, the speed skater, and Dorothy Hamill, the figure skater, were awe-inspiring. I had a million questions for both of them, and can see now wanting to be a sports writer even then.
Talking in class when, as usual, we weren’t supposed to, my friend Kevin said if he could be in the Winter Olympics, he’d be a downhill skier. I said I’d be a speed skater. Mrs. Kirks, nicely, told us both to shut up.
As for figure skating … I’d rather have been run over by the school bus than do anything that involved sequins. However, it was wonderful that other people wanted to do it, because it was enthralling to watch.
The day of the women’s Olympic free skate, I was so preoccupied thinking about it that I didn’t even get mad about being shut out _ for the fifth year running _ of the awards for best Valentine’s Day box.
The Olympics consumed all thought as I walked home through the gray slush. And as I fed my dog at twilight. And throughout dinner, for which we had as guests my nutty aunts and one of the silent uncles (the other had died the year before, although he couldn’t have been any more quiet dead than he had been alive).
Earlier during the Games, a terrible thing had happened. My parents had decided we’d go visit one of the nutty aunts, despite my agonized protestation that I would miss both “Laverne and Shirley” (the one where Laverne tries to bowl despite being on cold medicine; I’d seen the previews) and a U.S. hockey game.
At the nutty aunt’s house, I had to stare at the turned-off television and listen to the adults talk about things like tomato plants.
I was absolutely not going to miss Dorothy Hamill’s free skate. So I announced to the table as a pre-emptive strike, “I will do the dishes, but then I’m going to watch the Olympics for the rest of the night.”
The conversation about tomato plants (or maybe it was string beans) halted for two seconds, as my mom said, “Well, try actually drying them for a change before you put them in the cabinet,” and then resumed. I was free.
As you no doubt know, Dorothy did win the gold medal. I kept humming my favorite part of the music she skated to so I would get it stuck in my brain and never forget it. And I never have.
My 30/40-something sports-lunatic friends and I tell these long-winded tales all the time, as if we’re in the rest home. It’s like our version of tomato plants.
Kids will never again cherish sports moments like we did, we say. They won’t know what it’s like to have only one chance to see something, before VCRs and TiVo. They won’t know how there used to be no sports ticker and no Internet and no way to find out some things.
They won’t know how excited we were when our teams would show up in the halftime highlights on Monday Night Football. How could they understand? There are 15 sports highlight shows on every hour now. That old slo-mo junk with the “dah-dah-dah-dah!” music? They’d laugh. We almost cry thinking about it.
Of course, every generation has thought this kind of stuff about the ensuing generations. But we always say we really are different, more linked to the past than any subsequent generation of Americans. Because we’re the last ones to have gone the entirety of our childhoods without personal computers, cable TV or VCRs.
We think we had to work harder to find out and jam into our skulls all the useless crap we’ve retained, therefore it is more valuable to us.
And so I actually catch myself thinking there was some kind of charm to the days when it was more difficult to get information or to communicate. The world gets smaller by the minute. Wasn’t it neater when you could go out in the woods on a camping trip and there really was no possible way for anyone to reach you, save coming out and finding your tent?
Wasn’t it neater when I thought I’d never see something again? Or when I couldn’t see it at all, and just had to imagine it? Weren’t those the best times?
Last Sunday, I was watching my embarrassingly large TV, flipping between Stanford-Tennessee women and Oklahoma-Illinois women. Could have been taping either or both _ or anything else on the 700 channels available on satellite. Could have called someone on the cell phone to say, “Did you see that pass Stacey Dales just made?” Could have been monitoring a Web cast of another game. Could have sent an e-mail to depressed Stanford backers saying, “Um, when did they last score?”
But I couldn’t have done any of that not long ago _ including seeing two women’s basketball games on TV at the same time. A few games a season on TV used to be a big deal.
And I sure wouldn’t have had the chance to write a meandering column like this.
So these are the best times. Except … they will get better. Like when they eradicate the freaking ACL problem. I hope that doesn’t take until I really am in the rest home.
By the way, last year, a friend gave me this “Magic Memories on Ice” tape (you wondered who actually watches that stuff – now you know) and for the second time, I saw Dorothy Hamill’s 1976 Olympic free skate in its entirety.
It was terrific. But naturally, such things can get you a little choked up. Because it had been 25 years, and Dad, my dog, one of the nutty aunts and the other silent uncle are gone. And that Valentine’s Day box competition really was a shaft.
But who wants to have only five TV channels (six during thunderstorms), or watch women athletes get real recognition only every four years, or not have the WNBA and WUSA, or not have law schools and medical schools filled with women, or see even less acceptance of diversity, or not be able to go to the Web and look up sitcom plots, or not own a VCR.
Or, you know, five VCRs.
Because while I could still hum that stretch of Dorothy Hamill’s music, it’s the only part of her performance that I really could remember. It’s not so bad to be able to pop in the tape now and watch it any time I might feel like it.
A lot of things these days, in fact, are really not so bad.