It’s safe to say that the Olympic Torch — carried over 8,000 miles by as many souls, by the young and the old, by the lonely and the loved, by the faithful and the faithless, from Cornwall to Carlisle to Chipping Camden — is a germ factory. I have never heard someone ask “Did you wash your hands?” in the handoff footage, whether it unfurls on a modest country lane or in the shadows of the latest skyscraping monstrosities. It’s only fitting. The Olympic Games unite hundreds of nations and billions of people in a celebration of the Spirit of Competition. Why shouldn’t our microscopic brothers and sisters get to participate?
Fortunately, germs are low on my List of Fears, trailing far behind intimacy, trap spiders, and death, so I tried to picture myself among the torch bearers. Huffing up the asphalt while my proud neighbors crowded the sidewalk to cheer me on, preening in front of the mirror with whatever commemorative token the International Olympic Committee bestowed upon me for my efforts. The relay, after all, is the opportunity for normal Joes to enter into the Olympic Dream, for the unspecial to share the arena with the most very special.
My imagination failed me. I was no Local Hero, recommended by my family, coworkers, or twinkly eyed clergyman. (“Clergyman” is British, right?) What did I have on 69-year-old Christine Hood, of Leominster, who works at the Royal College of the Blind and “really improve[s] the quality of life and experiences [of] many of the blind students,” according to her nomination? How could I compare to Frank Biederman, 41, of Barnstaple, who carried the torch through Sticklepath after raising money to build a new playground for his hometown? (For the kids!) Who was I next to Todd Bouman, the head of IT marketing for Samsung Electronics Americas, who “directs the development and execution of channel marketing activities that are focused on building up strong relationships with industry-leading IT partners”? (Some of the relay spots were set aside for corporate sponsors.)
On June 2, as the torch bobbed along the avenues of Stornoway, what was I doing? According to my journal, I embraced life with “2 naps. Turkey club. Vague sense of unease.” How did I occupy myself on June 20, when the torch was Leyburn-bound? “A real 3-napper. Shooed some pigeons from the fire escape. Whispered, ‘Am I falling apart?’ while I scooped a clump of hair from the bathtub drain.” As the relay hit Potternewton, I have, simply, “Croatoan.” The relay path described a map of my unworthiness.
I paid attention early, following the relay and prelims, because I was going to the Olympics this year. I don’t generally follow sports. At an early age, I discovered that nature had apportioned me only a small reserve of enthusiasm. Best to ration. I can do kids’ parties (“What did you wish for, Little Derwin?”), I’ll “dance” at your wedding or Just-Divorced party (“To the good times!”), and I’ll watch New York teams in the playoffs (“So — John Starks still on the Mets?”). But every two years, I devote myself to the Games, draining my tank to empty, and I never regret it.
The early summer prelims introduced me to the new cast and reacquainted me with the old players. I recognized that Wallace Spearmon character. Wasn’t there some sort of drama four years ago where he thought he got the bronze, but didn’t? That victory lap around Olympic Stadium, the American flag rippling behind him, turned awkward quickly. Hey, Tyson Gay — why so glum, chum? Out all year with a hip injury and this is your first day back? You made it in, man — lighten up. Whoa, that’s quite a spill, Nastia Liukin. You were our savior last season in Beijing, with your gold medal in All-Around Pluck. Now it looks like the Fierce Five will have to do it without you. And look at these five brave gymnasts, standing together as a unit for the first time. They look so young, so little. Can they pull it off? I guess we’ll find out in London. Then the teaser program was over and the show was on hiatus again until next month. While across the ocean the torch roved over the British countryside, gathering germs …
Nastia Liukin fell off the bars in the prelims, and the young girls who watched her win gold and silver four years ago took her place. Here was the dependable subplot, The March of Time itself taking a crack at the script, as the fresh-faced avatars replaced last season’s stars. Where do they go, what do they do, these spectacular specimens who don’t row as vigorously as they used to, who do not tumble with the same amount of grace, who do not fly as high? NBC’s travel department was already booking block airfare to the hometowns of the new hopefuls. With any luck, a recent flood had obliterated an Olympian’s childhood home, or Mom had to take out a second mortgage to send Kaitlyn to live and train with that legendary coach. Let’s get cracking on those mini-docs, people.
When did film director Danny Boyle assemble his footage for the Opening Ceremony? If the montage of The Beatles, Big Ben, and the rolling waters of the Thames reminded me of an airline’s “we have arrived at our destination” video, it was mere throat clearing. Boyle acquitted himself well in the wake of Beijing’s once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, especially considering the lack of slave labor. Kenneth Branagh intoning lines from The Tempest, Rowan Atkinson making faces. We got to hear “Tubular Bells.” Some of Great Britain’s most beloved fictional characters dropped in, such as James Bond, Mary Poppins, Voldemort, and the Queen. And 10,000 volunteers, gussied up in a succession of period outfits, helped recapitulate centuries of Great Britain’s history, all before a model of Glastonbury Tor that heaped itself in the middle of the stadium. (“Tor, by the way, means a hill or rocky place,” Matt Lauer informed us.) A pastoral scene replete with sheep and geese was destroyed by massive, hellish smokestacks that erupted from the ground — the grim Industrial Age superseding the agrarian era. The pantomime of progress continued as the Industrial Age gave way to the Digital Age, via a little sequence about smartphone-assisted romance and a salute to Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the World Wide Web. On the soundtrack, Brit pop was drowned out by punk, synthpop was stepped on by “Song 2.”
It was dizzying. In a couple of days, I’d be in that very stadium, one of those specs in the bleachers. I didn’t know a lot of people in London, so I had downloaded one of those virtual companion apps that everyone’s talking about these days. I went for the Sebald 3000. It was imprinted with the personality of the late novelist and essayist W.G. Sebald, whose chronicles of melancholy, genocide, and decay have delighted people the world over. (Perhaps delighted is not the right word.) The Sebald 3000 was powered by an algorithm or something, and only set me back 99 cents.
As I watched David Beckham and the Olympic torch zip up the Thames in a speedboat like Crockett & Tubbs, it was time to take the app for a spin. London had previously hosted the Games in 1908 and 1948. (Almost ’44, but World War II caused a rain delay.) I wondered what sort of festivities had opened those Olympiads, and what the world would look like when London’s turn came around again, what Next Age would define us after the Digital. I took a sip of my beer and talked into my phone: “Sebald, it all disappears. We work the soil, and then we build factories. Imperialism is bad, so we leave it out of the montage, but its handiwork persists. The Industrial Age gives way to the Information Age, and a deathless Paul McCartney reign o’er all. What am I getting myself into?”
The app’s robotic, German-tinged accent startled me. “Some say that time has run its course,” it said, “and that this life is no more than the fading reflection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of the possible mutations the world may have already gone through, or how much time, assuming that it exists, remains.”
Hmm. I wondered, not for the last time, if I should have splurged on the Madeline Kahn version.
Eventually the Opening Ceremony reached the Parade of Nations. Two hundred and five Olympic teams proceeded through the stadium, starting with Greece. Which only seemed fair, since Greece had basically invented the whole tournament of champions thing, and they were still paying off the billions it cost to host the 2004 Olympics. Some teams were hundreds-strong, regiments of alphas passing in eccentric, motley-colored getups. Other teams consisted of a half-dozen people — these guys were always incredibly psyched, it seemed to me. Bob Costas, anchoring his ninth Games, provided a litany of fun facts (“Tunis is the capital of Tunisia”) that I supplemented with arbitrary assessments. I sized up faces: “Oh, you know they’re totally racist.” “Here’s a country that knows how to party.” “This team is probably really great in the sack.” “Does that country even exist?”
We weren’t even into the Games proper, and I was already doing it: making up my weird little narratives. Devising our idiosyncratic stories is half the reason we tune in, our shadowy participation. First you insert yourself into the games by rooting for athletes you share citizenship with. And then your prejudices and various sketchy allegiances assert themselves. Skin color. Italy, because your dad’s mom was Italian. Wave the flag for gingers, for the sad-eyed, the disturbingly detached, according to your bent. I’m not Jewish (as far as I know) but I’ve been a big fan of “Hava Nagila” ever since bar mitzvah season all those years ago, so Aly Raisman got my vote. Cheer for the freakishly gifted no matter where they hail from, those rare Bolts. Then there are the ultrapersonal reasons that you never share with the other people in your living room. You’re rooting for that stranger because you recognize something in her expression as she steels herself for the high jump, you’ve seen it on your own face in the mirror from time to time, when your day’s stakes were high. Can you make it through, will you make it through? You are part of a secret tribe. Now go for it.
NBC’s mini-docs and inspirational profiles helped a lot here, of course, even if they and other parts of the network’s coverage did earn it a bum rap. People whined that they broadcast the events on American time, as opposed to London time. As a writer who devises his own schedule, someone with only the most tenuous connection to “normal humans,” I would have loved to see the big events live, but I also realize that most people “work” (or something) during the day, and can only catch the prime-time telecast. Give NBC a break, they’re trying to make some money here. As always, there were plenty of complaints about the network’s concentration on U.S. events and athletes, which downplayed the international nature of the Olympiad. Well, I got to see the BBC’s coverage, and that’s how they do it, too, no matter how negligible the outcome: “Great Britain has never won a gold in this event, and you came in 10th — how does that make you feel?” Be glad you weren’t watching in the minuscule nation of Tel-Whit, off the Coast of Nowhere, whose entire coverage, I am told, consisted of a single close-up on a brick wrapped in tinfoil. You own the cameras, you do as you please.
Yes, the mini-docs exaggerate the tribulations and suffering of our players, with a minor-key score to make us misty, but this has never bugged me. I like to know how I’m supposed to feel about things. Just a little clue or hint. Who has time in this hectic modern world to actually bone up on these characters, the behind-the-scenes drama that goes on between seasons? Give me something I can work with, give me footage of the athlete at 3 years old, hoisting a Volkswagen Rabbit over his head. “That’s when we thought he might have an aptitude for weight lifting,” Ma says offscreen. The announcers give us cues, and then we collaborate.
How many times did you flip on the Games and say, “I could never do that,” and, “That takes a lot of practice!” Like an imbecile. We are not so different, you and I. For two weeks we pay tribute to all the things we cannot do: baroque flips on the balance beam, lifting 75 kilos in a unitard, talking to Ryan Seacrest without punching him in the face. We see these things and then rummage through our pasts. Was there something we were good at once, some road not taken with our bodies back in fifth-grade gym class. “There was a period when I was really good at dodgeball … ”
I caught the first couple of days on TV before I went to London. This was not how I watched my first Olympics in the summer of ’76, on a tiny black-and-white Panasonic TV that went to snow at every meteorological disturbance. This was High Def, on NBC, Bravo, MSNBC, and apps and streams. I took a nibble of this and moved on to that. Each new event NBC dropped into a time slot ushered me into an existential cul-de-sac. My impending travel, I think, made me insinuate myself more than usual. Men’s 10-meter synchronized diving, on Day 1, was an unnerving marvel, as the two-person teams launched into the air in enviable harmony, legs and arms and torsos perfect mirrors. Was I capable of such a connection with another human being? To bridge the gulf of subjectivity, be so attuned? Hells no. I couldn’t even do it with a perfect copy of me, a clone. I self-sabotage like crazy, and you can’t get more self-sabotagey than undermining your own clone.
Perhaps it was the images of the hundreds of thousands of people relentlessly streaming down the artificial boulevards of Olympic Park, or the fact that I have written about the apocalypse once or twice, but I started scoring events in terms of what they’d offer in a human-annihilation-type scenario. Offensewise, archery skills seemed like an obvious asset at first. But the archers’ high-tech bows wouldn’t survive a day of jumping off roofs, tromping through sewers, and escaping cannibal hordes. The bows were items of cruel but fragile beauty, with their carbon limbs and polyethylene strings, their V-bar extenders and side-rod stabilizer doohickeys. Great for the marksman’s art, but no good in a volume-kill scenario. You’d be better off with a simple machete. The qualifying heats made it clear that swimming is a good life skill or whatever, but only marathon-distance swimming was going to help you make it to the island after a squabble over rations or sex resulted in your tiny escape vessel overturning. Triathlon, I decided, with its endurance super-combo of swimming, biking, and running, solved multiple problem areas. I made a note to see it in person. My schedule was open; I’d figure out what to hit once I got there.
A Coke commercial played in the other room as I packed my rollaway. The announcer touted the soda company’s generosity, ending with, “If you’ve had a Coke in the last 84 years, you’ve had a hand in making Olympic Dreams come true.” As if we sipped for excellence.
I asked, “Sebald, why do we project ourselves into these strangers? I’m no athlete, not even a bearer of torches. I’m just a germ compared to these people, among a billion other germs, clinging to an idea. What is it about these games that makes my mind play such tricks?”
The Sebald 3000 said, “Truly. What matter of theater is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter, and audience?”
I was really going to have to turn on that Don’t Answer a Question With a Question feature.
Return for Part 2 on Friday.