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On the BMX track, that last day in Olympic Park, the cyclists floated on undulating concrete, diving and rising, pedaling furiously after a boost from the eight-meter starting ramp. My favorite section of the course was the middle, that jump. The cyclists leapt like salmon, wheels spinning, landing hard to attack the rest of the track with renewed intensity, occasionally wiping out. I waited for the jump, for that suspension of energy as the men and women, fighting for gold in these final events, took to the air, ungainly gargoyles in their pads and helmets and goggles. Inevitably, my eyes continued the bikes’ trajectory, following an invisible line off the track, over the stands on the other side, and above. The city poked up beyond the stadium, as Buckingham Palace had at the Horse Guards Parade, but these structures were not historic monuments. They were apartment buildings, home to the people of Stratford.
Before the Games, this East London neighborhood was a “polluted wasteland.” In the “Before” pictures, it looks like the set of a Troma film, with garbage-strewn shopping carts poking out of canals and witless graffiti looping over every dull surface. In this film, a Cockney-accented toddler gets mutated by the toxic waters of the Lee River and either murders teenagers or avenges neighborhood residents, depending on what kind of story they’re going for. Leaving the BMX track, I had a hard time reconciling those images with the present state of the Olympic Park, in full flower that Friday afternoon. The Park was an emporium of tireless cheer. If you were slow on the uptake, still a little jet-lagged, maybe, Olympic volunteers, in their inevitable purple vests, sat on lifeguard chairs with megaphones. “Can we see some smiles? That’s it!” “Is everyone having a good time?” “We’ve got a frowning kid in Sector 10B — call security.” Anyone who’s been to a large-scale amusement park would recognize where they were, as they ambled along the well-considered lanes for human traffic, dallied by the various internationally accented food stalls, and lined up at the beer dispensaries. There were one or two smoking sections for the primitives.
The boulevards directed you to the multiple arenas — Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Velodrome, and the like — and more random sights like the Orbit, the 377-foot-tall hunk of public art whose gigantic red arcs made it seem as if the sky required stitches. In any direction, tens of thousands of people formed murky rivers, especially when it got close to game time, when the pace increased. The pack turned and sped, like a school of fish suddenly aware of a shark come out of the depths. Where are our seats, the minnows wondered, and is there time for a Coke or piss before start time?
I was ending my Games, going out on athletics. I settled in the press seats an hour early to have some alone time with the empty stadium. Over the week, I often found myself between spaces, in pockets of stillness when the Games caught their breath: walking the Horse Guards Parade during a break in events; meandering behind the media trailers, having come in the wrong entrance as usual; in gigantic stadiums before the main event. The Olympic Stadium, as remarkable as it was on TV during the Opening Ceremony, was just as stirring in the dead hours of the afternoon, a gigantic basin containing the vast theories of the Games, the animating ideas of the competitions in ancient Greece and all the rest, Montreal ’76, Nagano ’98, now.
“You feel me, Sebald 3000? Can you dig it?”
“No one can readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist.”
Good — I thought it was just me. Every four years (OK, two, given the staggered, TV-ratings mandated winter-summer sched these days) we enlisted in our Eternal Games. Another aspect of this simultaneity hit me as I checked out the evening’s track and field lineup: men’s pole vault, women’s hammer throw, and various running events, such as the men’s 4×400 relay, and the women’s 4×100 relay, where the American team set a world record. They occurred at the same time, the pole vault in that corner, all evening, starting and finishing the lineup, the hammer throw over there, and the runners circling and circling it all. I tried to take in the overwhelming plenty.
It’s all happening at once. If you watched the gymnastics qualifiers on TV, you know about the “events on the other side of the arena,” the ones going on while the camera focused on the pommel horse or rings. We only get a glimpse in prime time, in our streaming views. You think it’s a huge area, when actually the different events are only yards away from each other. I was fortunate enough to catch an afternoon gold-medal bill one day, of men’s parallel bars, women’s beam, men’s horizontal bars, and women’s floor exercise, where Aly Raisman nabbed her gold. From the stands, you understand how tiny the gymnasts’ stage is. They’re on top of each other, trying to get their heads straight, warm up, keep an eye on opponents’ standings, in the midst of a battlefield.
Most of the experience lies beyond the frame. For all my running around from venue to venue, I’d only ever see a tiny corner of the Games, a small sample of this ludicrous abundance of grunting. For there was a lot of grunting, grunting everywhere for miles around: in the hammer cage down there; on the tracks adjacent, where the relays briefly proceeded. Past the walls of this stadium, across town in the football arena as the semifinals sorted out medals. On the basketball court, underneath the rim.
It was unlikely I’d attend the Olympics again, let alone with so much access. I’d be back to being a devoted home viewer. I’d always have grunting, though. There were sports that played better on TV, like maybe synchro diving, where close-ups allowed you to see what the judges judged. Definitely hammer throw. Live, you can’t hear the incredible grunting of the athletes as they release. There’s no other appropriate human response after spinning around and around and throwing a 16-pound ball through space. I’ve always found the sounds quite enchanting. Grunt, Huff, Ugh. Should you be lucky enough to take a hammer thrower home to meet the folks for Thanksgiving, don’t bet on sneaking some late-night action after everybody goes to bed. Everyone’s gonna know. Consider that a piece of life advice.
That last night, the crowd thundered over the latest pole vault action. I watched Raphael Holzdeppe of Germany and Renaud Lavillenie of France as they floated over the bar. I felt a cinch in my chest as I recognized that moment I’d been seeing for weeks, when a person escaped gravity. Like the grunting, this moment crossed disciplines. We saw it in the BMX jump, as the guys and gals with their helmets and pads freed themselves from the course for a few seconds. In the high jump, before the thump on the mat. In the floor exercise, when Aly Raisman types flipped in the air and time stopped as we marveled over this tiny act of sorcery, these escape artists doing what us earthbound dummies in the stands will never do: buck gravity. Sure, they always came down again, but they’d fled physics briefly. Escaped time, even, as us dummies on the ground wondered in those protracted moments, Are they going to make it? Will they wipe out, crash on their heads, dislodge the bar? Will they stick their landings, whatever they may be?
“So many people in the stands,” I told the Sebald 3000. “With their desperate strivings, suffocated desires. And yet they have room to spare a little hope, a good thought, for these strangers.”
“I recall the observation of one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar,” the Sebald 3000 said, “that the disturbing thing about mirrors, and also the act of copulation, is that they multiply the number of human beings.”
“Mirrors, sex, and stadiums. But people aren’t all bad, even the dopes who paint their nation’s flag on their faces. Everybody’s just excited to be at the Olympics. In person. How many times do you get to do that in your life?”
“Life … ” It paused. “Tell me, writer: Am I really dead?”
The journo next to me turned his head. I shrugged and mouthed to him, “It’s my grandma.”
I cupped the phone in my hand and told the Sebald 3000, “Yes.”
“I always thought there would be more interesting people to talk to. Virgil. Borges. Isadora Duncan.”
“I’m sorry for letting you down.”
“Don’t apologize — it makes you look weak.” The machine paused. “In my time here, walking in the darkness, I have learned a truth beyond human reckoning. It is the answer to a question you have not asked, the most important question of all. Would you like to know what it is?”
“Please. I have a deadline.”
Silence. I looked at the screen. I had forgotten to charge my phone. The Sebald 3000 was a real battery hog.
I departed Olympic Stadium for the final time. After the Games, the Olympic Village and Park would be turned into “East Village.” At least that was the plan: a new neighborhood of apartment buildings and townhouses, with thousands of residences, some market rate, some subsidized. The Orbit — “our Eiffel Tower,” as a London acquaintance called it — would stay and become one of those orientating landmarks for those lost in the city, another London Eye. The arenas would be converted to public recreation spaces or venues for big sporting events, and, with hope, not become monstrosities like the city’s Millennium Dome, cursed and underutilized. Most of the Athens ’04 venues, for example, were a postapocalyptic terrain, the Greek government failing to find a use for them after the Games. The diving pools bare, the tennis and cycling stadiums empty save for trash. The beach volleyball arena had been taken over by squatters. The country was still billions in debt from hosting. Returned to Tromaville.
For all that we invest, an Olympics is only a temporary structure. I thought of the Opening Ceremony, with its pageant of British history, the tumultuous movement from the agricultural to the industrial to the digital. I pictured the brief arenas in Hyde Park, the Horse Guards Parade, rising in steel, and then their dismantlement. The old favorites like Nastia Liukin were outperformed and replaced by their younger versions, the Gabbys and Alys, and the heroes and heroines of bygone games conquered one last time, the Phelpses and Misty-Kerris exiting the Coliseum. In two days, at the Closing Ceremony, a delegation from Rio would take the Flame to Brazil, killing off these Games and starting the cycle anew.
In all this flux, in all this ruin and decay, where was I to find shelter, so far from home? Where to find refuge from the devastating cycles of boom and bust, of talent fulfilled and talent faded, of prosperity and decline, of life and death? And then I saw it, and I understood that I no longer had need of guide, Sebald 3000 or otherwise. I found my way. After all my travels and adventures, the many wonders I had seen, I now knew why I had come to the Olympics and what I had to do.
I drifted through Olympic Park, across the paths. After a time, I noticed that I had joined a queue. I moved with it, losing myself in the immensity of the crowd. We filtered through the doors of the establishment, all of us pilgrims who had traveled so far. We had finally made it to the most important arena of all, the one we had known our entire lives. We knew what choices were open to us. There was never any doubt in this place.
1,500 seats. 32,000 square feet. A billion calories.
It was the biggest McDonald’s in the world. An elegant — yes, elegant! — box sheathed in smart wooden slats, an edifice beyond the ken of poor Ray Kroc and his cramped 20th-century ideas. Constructed to serve the millions of people who would pour into the Park, this place was made to be destroyed. After the Games, it would be recycled, the furniture and equipment repurposed for U.K. franchises, the cooking oil turned into biodiesel to fuel their trucks. As if it had never been. In its very ephemerality, it became a place of stability. A zone of safety, of surety, at long last.
I removed my credentials. I ordered my food. I grabbed a seat. I took a bite, and was sustained.