The flags are hanging over almost every balcony. Spain next to Australia next to, maybe Pakistan, next to a whole bunch from — I think — Serbia. After that, definitely China, Belgium, Qatar. I’m pretty sure. The athletes have hung them from the rows and rows of high-rise dorms in the athletes village at the Olympics.
So many flags all mixed together. It’s doubtful the athletes themselves even recognize most of the other flags. There is a lot of learning and introducing to do. That is really what the Olympic experience is about.
I know, I know. They are about nationalism and winning and medals, and TV and corporate sponsors, and probably steroids, too.
They are about sappy stories. That’s what you see from home. It’s all you are shown. And it’s all true. But even more true is the Olympic spirit. Most of the athletes here are not in it for the money. Most are not superstars. Nike doesn’t know who they all are.
It can look like the spirit is dead because of what you see and which scandals are written about. But the truth is that the Olympics are still the world’s greatest sporting event because of the spirit.
It’s just hitting here now, in London. People are just arriving. On Wednesday night, I walked past the big stadium, and thousands of people strolled by in bright costumes and painted faces on their way to rehearse for Friday’s Opening Ceremony. It reminded me of the end of the previous Summer Games in Beijing.
The Closing Ceremony ended, and an hour or so later, most of the entertainers were still on the field, partying. The fans were all gone. So I jumped the fence onto the field with a friend, and women in traditional Chinese red dresses talked with guys on stilts that looked like shovels. We took pictures of four young women in yellow dresses, and then they took pictures of us. A guy in a gray uniform put his cap on my head, men and women approached with all different looks from all different countries in all different costumes.
What’s special is the way people come together, as is the opportunity to see people who don’t look like you or act like you. You run into them in the restaurants and the bars, in the taxis.
Of course, it doesn’t all go smoothly. You can’t bring this many people together in one spot and expect there not to be conflict and confusion. The reality of today’s world leads to those manned missiles on top of apartments throughout London, and 3,500 troops adding to the thousands of security guards.
It’s not a melting pot. That idea is a myth. But it’s all different people rallying around one celebratory thing. And I think most of the athletes feel the same way. We’ll show you our best and you show us yours, and we’ll do it our way and you do it yours. And thank you for it.
The thing is, barring the ultimate disaster of terrorism, you cannot let those negative things define the games.
At the risk of sounding preachy, I think it’s important for people to see this, to learn from it, in person. This is my fifth Olympics but the first one I’ve brought my family to. You know what my kids did today?
They watched the torch passing in Islington that came off as a small-town British celebration, went to a park filled with British kids and got to try out several of the Olympics sports with them — tennis, fencing, trampoline. Then they went over to the Czech house and sat with Czech Olympic swimmers while watching some apparently famous indie band.
And the people and cultures are just now arriving.
At the Torino Games, I remember meeting an Argentine ski jumper. We were lost together at a bus station looking for Olympics officials to ask directions. Next thing I knew, I was in a van packed with a few Argentine skiers, a luger, a bobsled coach. Two bobsledders were driving and we were lost for more than an hour.
An American in a vehicle packed with half the Argentine Winter Olympics team? How does something like this happen?
Only at the Olympics. One quick word of advice: Never be a passenger in a car driven by bobsledders. An ambulance roared near an intersection, so those guys sped through the light to see if they could beat the ambulance to the punch.
I’m not sure people realize that this stuff is happening. Do you? We see American sprinters trying to beat Jamaicans, or US gymnasts trying to beat Chinese gymnasts.
Rivalries sell. Touching stories sell. NBC does its job but doesn’t exactly hold up a mirror to this.
Many of these countries will pay a store to clear out its stuff for three weeks. Then they will fill up the place — Czech House, USA House, etc. — for people to eat their food, hear their music. I spent half the Salt Lake Games in a hardware store converted into Austria House, drinking Zipfer beer with, or near, the skiers who had just come down from the mountain.
In Greece, I spent hours on a bus to see an Iraqi soccer game. The players were finally free of the torture they would suffer under Saddam Hussein when they lost. In Greece, they won their opening game, and the players were walking off, but a few stayed behind and held hands in the middle of the field. Then others came back from the locker room and joined the line of hand-holders. And eventually, the whole team was back on the field together.
The American basketball team will be in-your-face superstars while other countries will try to win with teamwork. The US gymnasts are usually power vs. the Chinese grace.
In Athens, former NBA coach Del Harris headed China’s team and talked about the unfamiliar attitude of the players: “They won’t let me carry a bag,’’ he said at the time. “ `No, no. You are the coach. Put it down, please.’
“I’m still trying to go through a door after them. Seriously. They refuse to let me go through a door last. They are always opening the door and holding it for me.’’
In Beijing, I went to a public park for a pickup game — of pingpong.
Some guy at least 1,000 years old crushed me. Between tables, they kept huge barrels of water with tea bags. I then took a rickshaw with an interpreter into an old neighborhood, and we just randomly knocked on doors. One elderly couple, Ju Jun Haw and Guo Shu Fang, invited us in. They sat us down, and the wife poured a cup of tea and said to the American strangers sitting in her small house, “Welcome to our family.’’
So there will be steroid busts in London. And a stupid Greek athlete will put out a stupid, hurtful tweet. And the IOC will fight having a moment of silence in memory of the Israeli victims of the 1972 Olympic terrorism. Hypocrisy.
In Beijing, China cheated by forging documents to allow underage kids to compete in gymnastics. In Torino, steroid cheats literally made a run for it to the border, drug enforcers chasing them.