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The Olympic Ideal: Being There

David Yon, June 27, 2016

My Olympic journeys began in 1996, in Atlanta. first the Olympic Track and Field Trials and next the Olympics themselves.  Right now, at least, we plan to continue it in Rio.  Nothing, however, seems certain about this world we live in anymore.

Like every Olympics Mary Jean and I have attended, the warnings are everywhere about how the host city is not ready for the games; construction is behind, there is pollution, there is crime, there is slime, the traffic on the roads and the lines getting to the stadiums are going to be maddening. The population of the host city does not even want the games, is another common refrain.  We watched to the transition in Atlanta and then decided to chance it for Sydney, Beijing and London. We listened to the bugaboos for Athens and stayed home. The only decision we regret of this group is the one not to go to Athens.

Maybe, though, that streak of good fortune has ended.  For all the controversy, corruption, incompetence and divisiveness that mark the games, the Olympic idea somehow seems to rise to the top every four years during the games.  But the madness in the world today seems more threatening than at any previous time I can remember. But is it really?

In those very first Olympics that I attended, Centennial Olympic Park had become the gathering place for crowds from around the world attending the Games and for Atlanta residents looking to be a part of the games even if they were not attending ticketed events.  On July 27,1996, the early morning (1:25 a.m.) celebration in the Olympic Park was disrupted by the loud blast of a pipe bomb exploding, taking one life and injuring 111.

It would take less than eight hours for organizers to announce the games would continue; it would take three more bombs (at two abortion clinics and a bar and club that served a gay clientele) and two years to identify the "homegrown terrorist" Eric Robert Rudolph as the likely bomber.  It took a years-long manhunt in the Appalachian Mountains to capture and arrest him in 2003.

While the next day's security lines were certainly long, the Atlanta Olympics came roaring back. The city that often seemed skeptical of its role as host, pulled together to put on a great show.  And how did the athletes respond?  They did what they always do: block out the background noise and compete. The glitter went to Michael Johnson, who joined French runner Marie-José Pérec, winning the 200 and 400-meter races at same games.  Not only was Johnson the first man to take the double, his 200-meter world record 19.32 performance was perhaps the great non-Usain Bolt Olympic or World Championship performance ever.  The world was a beautiful place for a short period of time.

While I certainly loved Johnson's performance, in many ways the highlight of the games for me was the 5000 meter final.  This was one of the lowest points in U.S. distance running history. The runners from East Africa, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, dominated, and most U.S. runners seemed beaten the moment they stepped on the track – assuming they could qualify to step on the track.

There was one exception, though, Bob Kennedy. Kennedy spent time for a number of years training in Kenya and became the first non-African to break 13 minutes in the 5,000. And sure enough, when the gun went off and the pack began to move, Kennedy was ready and found his spot near the front.  The runners jostled around trying to find their best place to run.  At the mile, Kennedy went to the lead for just a moment, before settling into the top 4 runners. At two miles he went to the lead again to test the field and let them know he was ready, then settled back in.

Knowing there were several runners with better kicks than his in the field, Kennedy made a courageous decision with 800 meters to go.  He lifted the pace, took the lead and headed for the finish.  Catch me if you can!

Unfortunately, a number of runners did. Kennedy would fade to sixth before the finish line got to him.  But his actions and his racing illustrated the Olympic ideal very well. Birds nest moon in China August 2008 Sydney followed Atlanta and we were able to watch a friend compete in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter races for Ireland. We watched an entire continent jump on the shoulders of an aborigine named Cathy Freeman and ride her hopes, training and talent to a gold medal. And when she delivered it seem to move the whole nation and much of the world. As I mentioned, we stayed home for Athens. We were back at it Beijing though.

The most amazing memories: The people of China, the Birds Nest and the magic of Usain Bolt and his 9.69 world record in the 100-meter finals and the 19.30 world record in the 200 meter final.  He not only dazzled with his speed, he entertained with his grace and style as perhaps no other track or field performer has ever done.  And he did so across the world. And finally, London where the production was the best run and most efficient Olympics I have been part of.

However, it was also one of the most emotional and involved crowds I have ever been part of. The crowds knew their track and field and the Brits knew their heroes.  At the top of the list was Jessica Ennis who ran away with the heptathlon gold medal.  And Mo Farah, the Somalia-born British citizen who captured the hearts of his countrymen with his gutsy gold medal performances in the 5,000 and 10,000 races.  I do not believe I have ever been in a louder stadium anywhere than the last few laps of his gold medal races.

August 9 is our date for wheels up and they are scheduled to touch the ground in Rio on the 10th.  So far, we know there is the Zika virus, a Brazilian economy in near free fall, construction projects running late, including a major subway connection to the largest Olympic venues, an entire country (Russia) has been kicked out for cheating, newly identified cheaters from past Games will soon lose their medals and are about to be kicked out these games, raw sewage being dumped into some of water venues, high crime rates and, for good measure, political turmoil that threatens to split the company in two as charges of corruption seem the most common greeting between politicians.

I am worried something will happen to spoil this year's Games, after all, we live in a mad world these days. But I also believe there is more than enough Olympic magic around for them to be another great experience.  Here is hoping for wheels up on Aug. 9.