Had the quirkiest thought today, a thought so quirky that I am quite sure I can not explain it well enough. Apologies in advance. I was in my room hazily getting ready for Olympic Day No. 495 or whatever it is when I glanced at my phone to get the weather. Cool. Rain. OK. Get those clothes (Clean? Eh, clean enough). And then, for whatever reason, I glanced up at the top of the page and I saw three words.
Rio de Janeiro.
And it occurred to me: Holy cow … I’m here.
Isn’t that the silliest thought? Of course I’m here. But no, this hit me with the weight of a summer rainstorm. I’m here in Brazil. I’m here at the Olympics. Me. I can’t tell you what happened in that moment, I mean, I’m no kid. This is my ninth Olympics. I’ve covered them on five continents.
I’m the son of immigrants. I don’t mean to start some weird political stump speech, but it is true. My parents came to America for that most cliche of reasons, to make a better life. My father worked in a factory. My mother stretched the paycheck to make a life. I grew up believing somehow that everybody’s parents had thick accents and talked about how lucky we were to live in a country that had freedom and baseball and McDonald’s and the Academy Awards.
They just love to tell the story about this time when they went to a restaurant in New York, just after they arrived, and, though they did not expect it, Neil Sedaka suddenly got up and start performing. Neil Sedaka had been a mega-star where they grew up. This was the land of milk and honey and unexpected Neil Sedaka performances.
The Olympics were our time, the time when we sat around the fuzzy and static-crazed television and rooted for America, for Mark Spitz, for the U.S. hockey team, for Mary Lou Retton, for Sugar Ray Leonard. It did not matter the sport. I can remember my mother, who wouldn’t watch a regular boxing match if there was a cash payment involved, sitting on her couch and screaming at the television as Roy Jones Jr. had his gold medal taken away by the judges in 1988. “He wuz robbed!” she was shouting, like some cigar-chomping mug from a black and white 1940s movie.
We were raised to believe it was our duty to not only watch the Olympics, but to cheer loudly.
My own Olympic ambitions never lasted for very long, never more than an afternoon of throwing a stick and pretending it was a javelin or racing around our tiny Cleveland block in preparation for the marathon. I had more directly American ambitions, namely to replace Duane Kuiper at second base for the Cleveland Indians. I came about as close to that as I did to throwing the javelin at the Olympics.
To write at the Olympics is, of course, nothing like competing at the Olympics. Then again — Thursday afternoon I sat in a beautiful little stadium in Rio de Janeiro and watched the Fiji rugby sevens team make magic on their way the nation’s first Olympic medal. And it reminded me a bit of being in that amphitheater by the Saronic Gulf in Athens, under a gorgeous sunset, as I watched Israel collect its first gold medal just 32 years after suffering the greatest Olympic tragedy of them all.
And that reminded me of being in Atlanta, eight years earlier, and watching the incomparable Pocket Hercules, lifting for Turkey, matching world records with Greece’s own weightlifting legend Valerios Leonidis as a small arena’s crowd made so much noise you couldn’t even hear your heart pound.
And that reminded me of the greatest memory of all, of Sidney and that crazy day when American wrestler Rulon Gardner pulled off the impossible.
It isn’t like I’ve taken any of this for granted. I think about my odd and lucky life all the time. And still, something in the moment, something in just seeing “Rio de Janeiro” on top of my phone in the cloudy midst of another wonderful, trying, troubled, inspiring and grueling Olympics just made me stop.
And then, it was time to go again. This morning, it’s off to hear gymnast Simone Biles talk about how she will deal with her new life after she animated America. Today, it’s to boxing, where an American named Nico Hernandez fights for the memory of a lost friend. Tonight, perhaps, there will be time to see the greatest woman swimmer, Katie Ladecky, swim her supreme event, something like seeing Pavarotti sing Pagliacci or Lin Manuel Miranda perform Hamilton.
It was, like I say, a quirky feeling, one I loved. But, fortunately, it faded. You cannot spend every minute feeling awed or you wouldn’t have time to live.