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.
I went to see beach volleyball, because it combines two things I despise: beaches and volleyball. If the world’s nations can set aside their petty bickering over religion, politics, and territory, certainly I can “get that Olympic Spirit” and rise above my prejudices. I wanted to live up to the media credentials hanging around my neck, which I affectionately referred to as my “plastic medal.”
The laminated badge was my pass to the hidden world of the Olympics. At hundreds of checkpoints, soldiers ensured that the picture matched my face, and that the letter codes corresponded to whatever new zone I tried to enter. Two kinds of soldiers stood sentry: British Army grunts with guns and berets, and the army of civilian volunteers, 70,000 strong, armored in purple pullovers and armed with eager smiles. I was barely recognizable in my photo, which I had taken months before with my phone, arm stretched away from my body in the now-familiar pose of contemporary narcissism. I looked puffy and sad — perhaps it was that day I had tried to save those kittens.
Some Zones I was allowed into: ALL, TM, MPC, E. ALL was All Sports Venues, which included the eight newly constructed arenas in the Olympic Park, such as the Aquatics Centre and the BMX Track; London’s existing spaces, both storied or non-storied, such as Wimbledon and the ExCeL; and the temporary venues that would disappear once the Olympics and Paralymics were over, such as the Horse Guards Parade stadium in the heart of London, and the triathlon viewing stands in Hyde Park.
TM referred to the Media Transport System, the fleet of buses that circulated press people, honchos, and assorted staff around London. The MTS commandeered whole traffic lanes throughout the city — the London commuters shook their impotent fists — and we zipped over them as we tried to make the 12:12 men’s kayak double or 12:30 mixed equestrian dressage grand prix freestyle. Or whatever. In between arenas, the journalists leaned against bus windows and dozed, or called HQ, or flipped through their digital portfolios, deciding what to upload to servers in Oslo and Tokyo. Soldiers stopped the MTS buses outside Olympic Park, checking the undercarriage with a mirror for explosives and taking a brief look-see on the double decks for suspicious packages. The buses fell quiet during the check at this reminder of the reality beyond the Olympic Goodwill Bubble. Then we went back to our smartphones and naps.
The Main Press Center outside Olympic Park, and its tiny satellites, which were fastened like white barnacles to each venue, were where the days’ matches got prepped, plucked, scrubbed, and shaved in all the right places for their debut as Official History. They were hypermodern shantytowns of white tents and white trailers, disposable, waiting to be packed up before the Games even began, powered by thousands of miles of black cable. I wanted to take a picture of the satellite farm outside the International Broadcast Centre — some people get off on rainbows and water mills, I dig satellite dishes — but I didn’t want to waste an afternoon in one of the infamous Olympics Park Interrogation rooms. They say that after five minutes of looking into the “damned staring eyes” of the synchronized swimmers, even the most fanatic Al Qaeda operative will spill his guts.
I don’t mooch on purpose, but I had a weird knack for walking into the domain of the Olympic Broadcasting Services and guzzling Fanta. The OBS controls the cameras, delivering the feeds for the world’s TV networks, which means that they determine what you see at home. First there are the athletes, and then come the cameras. Obviously, the OBS staff is huge, and they need food. After going through a new venue’s metal detectors, I’d follow some primitive directive in my brain stem and instead of heading to the stadium or general media lounge, I’d discover myself in the quiet lanes of the OBS areas. Suddenly I was in a food tent, a cold OBS Fanta or OBS bottle of water materializing in my hand. I was not OBS. I’d slink away. Eventually I learned that if there were heaps of free food, I was in the wrong place.
I was not so unimpressed by my access that I watched the Games in the media lounge, one eye on the live feed, the other on the word count of my open doc. I never tarried in the press rooms after I got a quick hit of sports journalist anthropology. They were no longer ink-stained but cargo-shorted. There were more cargo shorts than a Brooklyn Dad Mingle, and twice as many potbellies. Probably the same amount of quiet desperation, though. They had deadlines, and were bent over in their folding chairs, studying monitors and laptops, dissecting the Games on the long white tables. Openings for laptop cords and Ethernet cables dotted their workstations like the drainage holes on autopsy tables.
I whispered to the Sebald 3000,1 “The shuttles prowl the city 24 hours a day, bringing these creatures to these sterile white rooms. It’s so quiet and dead in here, compared to the thunder of the auditorium, don’t you think?”
The Sebald 3000 said, “The rooms are dimly lit, the walls are bare, the furniture is gone. All manner of silver utensils lie on the parquet floor, heavy, ornate knives, spoons, and forks as well as fish cutlery for countless people, to dine on a leviathan.”
“So … we consume the athletes in order to sustain ourselves? We use them up and throw them away?”
The app did not respond. “Unlock Bonus Features for Only $2.99!” flashed on my phone’s screen.
There were many zones I was forbidden entry to, like the Olympic Village, and the Champagne Room, which is the real reason the International Olympics Committee puts on the whole shebang every couple of years. All I cared about was E: the press stands. Except for the most high-profile events — Opening and Closing ceremonies, swimming finals, basketball finals — I could point at my badge and snag one of the press seats, which were excellent or merely OK, depending on the arena.
In the Horse Guards Parade, which contained the temporary beach volleyball stadium, the media seating was located high up in the stands. The workstations were equipped with monitors, so you weren’t going to miss a single butt-pat. (There had to be an OBS butt-pat memo circulating.) The altitude in the HGP granted an additional perspective, of exactly how radically the Games transform a city. I don’t mean the boondoggle of construction contracts, eminent domain, and the pitiable, deteriorating mausoleum-arenas that have no utility beyond the competition. I mean the disconnect between sitting in the manically festive beach volleyball stadium and looking beyond its walls into the monuments of historic London, the exuberant colors of stadium turning to cheerless stone and marble.
The beach volleyball venue is set down right next to Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and the London Eye (a.k.a. the Ferris Wheel sticking out of the city’s spokes), which loom over the heads of the fans in the highest bleachers as they swig Heineken, do the wave, and chant nationalistic slogans. The atmosphere inside is that of a low-rent spring break on an overrun Caribbean island, a getaway you might win by mailing in Axe Body Spray proofs of purchase. I sat in a UFO set down in the heart of London, sent from Planet Party to show the nations of Earth how we do volleyball, American-style.
To wit: my first Olympics exposure to “Yakety Sax.” But not the last. I shit thee not. It blared out of the soundsystem 10 minutes after I arrived for the men’s Latvia vs. Germany match. The world did not speed up, as far as I could tell, but travel to foreign places often disappoints one’s preconceptions.
“Germany — workin’ that ball! You must be pretty excited, eh, Sebald?”
Re: the atmosphere, I enjoyed it immensely. After every point, they played snippets of “Danger! High Voltage,” “Firestarter,” “Grease Is the Word,” all variety of Daft Punk. The emcee whipped us into shape: “It’s the London Olympics! It ain’t gonna happen again for a long, long time, so make the most of it!” During the 30-second timeouts, the Horse Guards Parade Dancers, a nubile, multiculti crew of enthusiasts, bounded onto the sand for a routine, in bathing trunks or black short-suits and bowler hats, depending on what sort of spectacle they were going for. I was grateful. Thirty seconds was a long time, and who knew what dark turn my thoughts might take if I was left undistracted.
It was a raucous display on royal territory. “We just got a call from Buckingham Palace! ‘Can you please keep the sound … UP!'” That morning, the triathlon had transformed another of London’s famous landmarks, Hyde Park. I was in no crow’s nest for that competition. I watched the entire thing on the finish line, a couple of yards away. Here, the stands did not surround the playing field; instead, the playing field enveloped the bleachers, the match unfolding in Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake, and then on biking and running loops that dove in and out, a different sort of serpentine, through the park. The Londoners owned this venue, as they have always owned their oasis in their city. The tickets were free. All you had to do was pick out your spot in the park, as you would any Saturday afternoon. The spectators lined the shore of the lake, huddled by the side of the biking route. They unpacked picnic lunches and blankets, and settled in.
Adjacent to the finish line, the triathletes’ gear waited at the 56 stations: their bikes, running shoes, and in plastic bins, their swimming goggles, sunglasses, helmets. The Olympiad’s production values were so top-notch, pulsing with the aura of The Games, that the plastic bins seemed particularly dull. “Sebald, they look like the ones I got at OfficeMax last week.”
“I am reminded of the fishermen at Lowescroft,” the Sebald 3000 said, “each of them quite alone and dependent on no one but himself and the few items of equipment he has with him, such as a penknife, a thermos, flask, or the little transistor radio that gives forth a scarcely audible, scratchy sound, as if the pebbles being dragged back by the waves were talking to each other.”
Sebald’s apparent fetish for male fishermen notwithstanding, this was the women’s triathlon, and the women lined up on the platform jutting into Serpentine Lake. The athletes dove into the water, and so began the Dance of the Flying Cameras. Cameras scampered like hunchbacks on a track next to the transition area, flew through the air on wires above the length of the lake, poked out of helicopters, bobbed on cranes, and stood on a tripod over the finish line, waiting for the Big Moment. The OBS orchestrated the world’s feeds. The overhead camera, which traversed the lake, sliding hundreds of feet over our heads, was particularly awesome. I was sitting in front of a honcho from the USA triathlon team. Before the race, he marveled over the neat setup of the grandstand, but especially the flying camera. I was in the midst of some next-level triathlon choreography.
“You know how much that cost?” This was some IOC official, apparently.
“I can’t guess,” the triathlon rep said.
“Half a million dollars.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Triathlon said, taking stock of the circumstances.
“It’s the Olympics. Nothing matters.”
One of the American team members, Sarah Groff, was the sister of a friend of mine, so I was looking for her. I’d never met her, and I could see her face for her swimming cap and goggles. She started out at Station 53, and then I lost her in the water. For the early part of the swimming leg, the triathletes were bunched together. Then they fell into an arrowhead formation. It was drizzling on and off. The robot cameras performed their ballet, through the 1,500 meters of the swim, and the transition to the 43-kilometer biking leg 18 minutes in. The triathletes booked out of Serpentine Lake, stripped off their wetsuits, and jetted off for the seven laps around the park. As they separated into different packs, the applause and encouragement went through dependable cycles, breaking up the two-hour race for the spectators. The front pack summoned noise, which would cut out for a minute until the larger, second pack caught up, and so on, as the different bunches made their loops. According to the monitors, my friend’s sister was in this second pack for most of the competition. I kept missing her face.
What was going through their heads as they tried to keep going, tried to advance, felt bits of their bodies rebel and quit by degrees? I thought of Sebald’s last response to me, that tidy image of isolation, independence, and purpose. And inevitability, in the movement of the pebbles in the tide. The bikers skidded on the wet pavement, ripping open their skin. The monitors replayed their wipeouts over and over again, the cameras everywhere, the ones I could see and the ones I could not, catching everything except the private scenarios in the athletes’ heads, the ones that kept them going.
They ditched their bikes and started running. Ten kilometers to go, four laps. By the last lap, the front pack was down to four people. I had stopped checking for Sarah Groff, but there she was, somehow in fourth, then in third, trading places. At some point between the start of the run and the last lap, while I was no doubt preoccupied with thoughts of death or barbecue, she’d battled up to the leaders. It was close. She came in fourth, 10 seconds from bronze. I didn’t even know her, but I felt very proud. It was a nice way to start my London Olympics.
A couple of hours later, I was Yakety-Saxing it up at the Horse Guards Parade. Women’s beach volleyball had the night shift.
I will cop to uncharitable feelings about America’s beach volleyball gods, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. What I remembered from their second gold-medal win in Beijing was the oft-replayed footage of them hugging afterward. Was the rain machine on? I saw John McEnroe interview the duo the first night of the Games, and they were so calm and confident that I crossed my arms in a huff. They had never been defeated in their 108 sets at the Olympic Games. Where’s the drama in watching people who never lose? Plus, my whole anti-beach thing (I’ve never liked how the sand sticks to my “parts”) and my anti-volleyball thing (why are they white? — it is so racist). Let ’em win gold again in some venue on the other side of London. I had a lot of other matches to check out.
And then they stumbled.
They lost their first set against Austria. For acting relatively calm and mellow about the 2012 Games, for being well-adjusted and likable, Fate had decided to lay them low. Sure, they came back and won the game, but they were human again, one of us.
By the time I saw them decimate the Netherlands in the Round of 16, live at the Horse Guards Parade, I was rooting for them. The low drama playing out between Lochte and Phelps helped sway me. I watched Ryan Lochte float in a sea of Olympic hype, and immediately recognized him as yet another sign of the Bro-ification of America. I realized my dismissal of May-Treanor and Walsh was as insipid as playing up the Lochte-Phelps rivalry. Oh no: Sources say Phelps hasn’t been taking his training seriously; his heart’s not in it; look, he came in fourth in his first swimming event, behind Lochte. He was breast-stroking all the way to the glue factory. But Phelps came back and won more gold — of course — and Ryan Lochte is going to guest-star on the Beverly Hills 90210 revamp.
There’s a disconnect between the natural life span of an athlete’s career and the life span of a fan’s affection. The latter often winds down faster. The fan’s love has to be tended to, taken out on date night. Splurge on a babysitter, don’t get cheap, or else they’re going to start eyeing those buff up-and-comers. The Fastest Man Alive got the treatment, too. I was in a pub waiting for Usain Bolt to run the 100-meter, and the BBC commentator wouldn’t quit with solemn pronouncements. See, after a false start in a big race last year, he was really shaken! His good friend Yohan Blake was nipping at his heels, besting him at the Jamaican Olympic trials — would the apprentice supplant the master? Then Usain won the 100-meter again and the BBC announcer, beyond ecstatic, asked, “Why did we ever, ever, ever doubt the brilliance of Usain Bolt?” A three-ever’er. We have no choice. Manufactured narratives and fickle affections aside, sometimes it’s just human nature to piss on the feet of the great. Literally — there was a 25-foot sculpture of Kerri Walsh outside the beach volleyball venue, and in major cities it’s only a matter of time before statues get whizzed on.
Phelps won a couple more gold medals and made a triumphant exit from his sport. Bolt expanded his “legend.” Could May-Treanor and Walsh bounce back from the stunning loss of a single set against Austria, the first in their Olympic career? Would the USA make it into the finals? I want you to understand my anxious mind-set.
Well, they did, and it turned out that April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, the other American team, made it to the finals, too. Who do you root for in USA vs. USA? Where does one put one’s jingo? I figured, the Old Hands over the New Jacks. Then I looked at the press material and saw they were the same age, early to mid-30s. I decided to go with injuries, how much they’d been knocked around by life in the pursuit of their dream. From what I could tell, that meant Misty and Kerri, especially with Misty’s Achilles tendon rupture while rehearsing for Dancing With the Stars. It was their last chance at gold — who cared how many times they’d gotten away with it before? I like the romance of One Last Score. May we all get a chance at that, at some point in our lives.
The final match started at sunset, livening the clouds and the surface of the London Eye to crimson and purple. The announcer emcee said, “We just got a call from the White House! ‘Can you keep the sound level … UP!'” In the bleachers, we were fully revved. It was a close game, but Misty and Kerri won the match. The final set was 21-16. “Party Rock Anthem” filled the Horse Guards Parade, just as it had at that first Olympiad in Ancient Greece, those many centuries ago:
Party rock is in the house tonight
Everybody gonna have a good time
And we gonna make you lose your mind
Everybody gonna have a good time
No one checks your credentials on the way out. I walked through the magic portal and I was no longer in the Olympics but in London on a nice summer evening. Cool breeze, gentle whirr of traffic. Now it was night, and the monuments, not the Games’ brief creations, ruled the city again. Big Ben loomed over me, imposing and bright against the blue dark. It was as if the Games had never happened. The men’s triathlon had run that morning, and now the last event at the beach volleyball arena had finished. They’d start dismantling those two venues soon; perhaps the construction crews were even now preparing to swarm over them like termites. I thought, the First Age of Women’s Beach Volleyball hath ended! Now the next generation will define the game for themselves, in their own image, make it new again. They will pull down the stadiums, pull down the 25-foot statue of Kerri Walsh as if it were a statue of Saddam Hussein. As I looked at the hands of Big Ben, I pondered, in my usual cheap and shallow way, the evanescence of all human endeavor.
“Sebald, I feel weird. It’s like America won … but America kinda lost, too.”
The Sebald 3000 processed this paradox and finally said, “It takes just one awful second, I often think, and an entire epoch passes.”
“Sebald, I need … answers.”
“Have you considered Klonopin?”
I rarely attend games in person because I inevitably end up comparing all live events (and many life events) to the Showdown at Shea, which my dad took me to see in the summer of 1980. It was a top-notch evening, and to be honest, most things since then have been a disappointment. Andre the Giant took down Hulk Hogan in one of their early tangles, setting up their classic rivalry across the rest of the decade. Ivan Putski, a.k.a. “The Polish Hammer,” a.k.a. “The Polish Power,” decimated Johnny Rodz. But the headliner of that epic bill was Bruno Sammartino vs. Larry Zbyszko in a steel-cage match. They’d been feuding, and Bruno “The Living Legend” Sammartino demolished his apprentice turned antagonist. After witnessing such an epochal confrontation, I was basically ruined for many of life’s so-called pleasures.
After a few days in London, I’d seen more live sports than I had in decades. Olympic tennis and boxing, with their disparate “squared circles,” tutored me in the alchemy of the crowd, reminding me of what I had seen that night at Shea so many decades before.
The second Sunday of the Games, I knew I was on the right subway when I encountered a specimen of a British ultra-preppie. It was a juvenile male, clad in lime-colored trousers and a sharp white polo. It dangled off the subway pole with a self-satisfied slouch. I observed the creature communicate with its parents, who were similarly styled. I’d made few subway mistakes the last few days, but I was definitely on the train to Wimbledon.
We’d come from all over the world. I was one of the tourists, identified by the credentials around my neck and the wrinkled map of the Tube I consulted every couple of minutes. The other civilians on the train had entered lotteries, hoping for seats to this or that event, a big football match if they were lucky, maybe even a semifinal. They tendered their names for events they didn’t even know existed, sports they’d never seen before — it was better than being shut out entirely. They had no idea who’d be playing: They might show up at Olympic Park, travel all this way, and find they had tickets for some crappy country they’d never heard of vs. that nation that committed genocide against their ancestors a while back. One could only hope for the best.
Today’s Wimbledon events were no chump fare. The people filing out of the station had lucked out. It was raining, but it was supposed to clear up in time for the start. Or so we told ourselves as we walked the mile up the road to the courts, dripping and drenched, getting yelled at by traffic cops, to see the women’s doubles and men’s singles gold-medal matches.
I settled into my media table at women’s doubles. I waited for the Williams sisters to go for their third doubles gold medal, which initiated my first Holy Cow, I’m Actually at the Olympics moment, and disrupting the low affect I try to maintain 24/7. I was in Famous Wimbledon. I had great seats to see Famous Players. The only thing that could have made me happier was if they erected a steel cage in the middle of the court and told me Venus and Serena were going to play inside it, surrounded by burning oil. I sent excited texts to my mom and a friend in Atlanta. They would just be waking up. I uploaded pictures of the empty court and waited for their envious return texts. I was vibrating. But … why was everyone else in the joint so blasé? This was history, people. (Everything at the Olympics is history, basically.) Why were there so many empty seats? Talk about jaded. I checked the video monitor at my station. It said “Court 1.” Hmm. I scanned the media briefing sheet: This was the frickin’ men’s singles bronze-medal match! I beat it out of there fast. With apologies to Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro, I didn’t leave my hotel room and get dressed for no bronze medal.
I hustled over to Centre Court, which was almost full. I finagled a seat, where one of the TV cameras found me, or so my friend back home texted.
“I think I see you! Near sxn 205 — are you wearing a brown jacket?”
“Near 205. Black shirt with tiny white dots. But I think I’m the only black guy!”
“Must be you then.”
Were all tennis matches this quiet? Lively volleys, magnificent exchanges crisscrossed the court, to tranquilized affirmation. When Serena and Venus Williams finally dispatched the Czech team, it was to courteous applause. This was my first live gold-medal match — why was everyone so mellow? I know the sisters win a lot, but still. I had certain stereotypes about tennis. They were being confirmed. Would it have killed them to blast out a little “Yakety Sax,” beach volleyball–style? This crowd would watch Andre the Giant slam Hulk Hogan’s face into the turnbuckle and emit nary a peep.
Then came the men’s singles, and I observed the secret power of those assembled. Roger Federer and Andy Murray had mixed it up here a few weeks before, when Murray almost became the first British man in decades to win Wimbledon … but did not. He’d gotten teary after the match. Murray was the underdog this Sunday, facing the man considered to be one of the most gifted tennis players who has ever lived.
“Sebald,” I asked, “how do you think Murray’s gonna take getting trounced by Federer again so soon?”
“Who is to know the fate of his bones, or how often he is to be buried?”
True that, Sebald 3000, true that.
Then I heard it. On the other side of the court. Behind me. From behind the judge: “C’mon, Andy!” There was laughter at this outburst, after the quiet match we’d just seen. “C’mon, Andy!” Like they were schoolkids egging each other on when the teacher’s back was turned. “C’mon, Andy!” And it worked.
The crowd knew him intimately, from a distance. “C’mon, Andy!” Their accents marked them as hailing from the British version of “around the way.” Not posh. These were not the voices of the preppies I stood next to on the Tube. “C’mon, Andy!” They didn’t know him personally, but something in their tone made it seem as if they’d been acquainted with Andy Murray his whole life. Their voices were in turn familiar, cajoling, teasing, encouraging. At first, the crowd was merely excited. As Murray seemed to feed off their noise, and started to pummel Federer, that excitement transformed into giddy astonishment. Set by set, Murray became their cousin, kid next door, guy sitting in front of them in math class. I felt I was watching a neighborhood chronicle, each “C’mon, Andy!” trailing some unspoken reference to their shared history, an invented history that was being embellished with every stroke:
“C’mon, Andy — don’t muck it up like you did when you tried to ask Trudy to the Valentine’s dance!” Andy fought harder.
“C’mon, Andy — you can do it, like when you and your mates stole the Carpenters’ horse, dressed it up as Old Man Dylan, and parked him at Duffy’s pub.” Andy knocked Federer around for nine straight games.
“C’mon, Andy — don’t go out like your brother Nigel when he got caught with his trousers down in the chicken coop, or your sister Maggie when we found her having a turnip party with the magistrate’s boy, and don’t get me started on your Uncle Ned!” Andy won.
He pulled it off. Trade those tennis whites for colorful tights, and it was like Shea all over again: spectacular, mesmerizing. I’d just seen my first live tennis, and my last: Best to go out on top. Federer grabbed his stuff and slunk out, while Murray clambered into the stands to hug his crew. Later, he’d admit how much the crowd sustained him, and speculate that it threw off Federer, the usual recipient of the audience’s adoration.
“Sebald,” I said, “He did it! He pulled it off!”
The app said, “Whenever one is imagining a bright future, the next disaster is right around the corner.”
Admiral Buzzkill reporting for duty. Was the Sebald 3000 referring to Federer, who had been favored to win, or to Murray’s next loss — the next time “his bones were buried”? The cycle of victory and defeat? Certainly that was the lot of any athlete, or artist. They put themselves onstage, and sometimes our Andys pull it off, and sometimes they lick their wounds and bide their time until the rematch. I was going to ask the Sebald 3000 for a clarification, but my phone’s screen showed merely, “Rate This App! Rate Now or Maybe Later.”
For an hour, Centre Court was one tribe. Now the spell was broken. People headed for exits. How quickly these athletes became communal property, and how quickly the feeling disappeared. The next time I’d witness such a potent display of patriotic exuberance would be at the ExCeL Center. I spent a couple days at the ExCeL, where the weight lifting, taekwondo, fencing, table tennis, and boxing matches took place.
2012 was the first year women’s boxing was admitted into the Olympics. The up-and-comer supplants the reigning champion, and the new Olympic events, such as women’s boxing, rush in to fill the vacuum left by the departures of standbys such as tug-of-war (yanking on a rope, 1900-1920), wax bullet (dueling with rounds made of paraffin, 1908), and scapegoat toss (maintaining social order, most of the 20th century). The announcers reminded us of the female boxers’ long struggle for proper respect. Barbara Buttrick, an early British boxer, was introduced at the start of each day’s lineup. “I really got put down by the press,” she told the crowd. “Everybody was against it.” Buttrick traveled the circuit in the ’40s; if she couldn’t get a female opponent, she’d have an exhibition match with one of the men. “Last year,” she told us, “I got an apology from the Daily Mail for all the things they said about me in the ’40s.” I wonder what the Fabulous Moolah, another female trailblazer (who just happened to be a part of the 1980 Showdown at Shea, the day that shaped the course of my life in so many ways), would have said if she’d lived to see this day.
I was not the only black person in the boxing arena. There were plenty of brown people — boxing was going to be a nationlistic spectacle, I’d learn, and numerous Indian fans showed up to holler for Mary Kom, who eventually won the flyweight bronze. No tribe would outshout the Irish, however. If you watched the “I” section of the Parade of Nations on opening night, you saw Katie Taylor carry the Irish flag into Olympic Stadium. The current amateur lightweight world champion, Taylor brought more than her flag into the ExCeL’s boxing arena. Her hundreds of fans converted the stands into a miraculous cheering device, shaking the temporary stadium, setting everything to a furious rumble. I almost dropped my beer the first time it started up, as scores of feet pounded the floor and a multitude of voices started in with “Olé, olé, olé,” that football chant. Taylor’s opponent in the quarterfinals, Natasha Jonas, was actually from Liverpool, but her local fans couldn’t compete with Taylor’s imported talent. Taylor beat her, and the cheering device set record decibel levels for the stadium — louder than a jet engine, as the announcers informed us before her next two matches.
When Taylor took the gold medal, defeating the Russian Sofya Ochigava, the stadium shook and rattled as it had before, sounding as if it wanted to disintegrate. Taylor took her victory lap, and the noises gradually died. The stands thinned as people went for more beers, or to grab pictures of Katie outside the arena. Then it was time for the last women’s match of the day, the middleweight gold.
At 17, Claressa Shields was the youngest person to ever make the U.S. boxing team. She didn’t have a mess of hooting, imported fans. Her family couldn’t make the trip. Her coach, Jason Crutchfield, took up a collection to pay for the journey, but he was not in her corner. He was in the audience — according to Olympic rules, Shields had to train with the U.S. boxing team, and not her traditional gang. In her first middleweight match in London, where Shields faced Sweden’s Anna Laurell, Crutchfield was reduced to shouting instructions from the bleachers, trying to override the U.S. team’s advice.
The stadium did not claim her as its own. There were a few Americans scattered in the stands, but maybe she didn’t need a crowd. She could do it without them. I was there for her three bouts and watched her dominate the luckless people stuck in the ring with her. She grew more confident, round by round, match by match. Shields won her semi, after a slow start against Laurell, a two-time world champion who was a head taller and appeared to have freakishly long arms. (They haunted my dreams for a couple of nights.) The middleweight brackets narrowed, like a funnel ushering the boxers to the final matches. Shields cheerfully dispatched Kazakhstan’s Marina Volnova.
“The original plan was initially just to go to the right and jab and box, but she didn’t respect me,” Shields shit-talked later. “So I turned it into a fun game and started banging with her and got the best of it.” She was standing behind the little fence in the press area, that series of cattle pens the athletes are led down after events. I wasn’t surprised when she won the gold the next day, after bounding into the arena to the sound of Rihanna’s “Only Girl (in the World).” Her fate was written in her face, the day before, in her effortless grin and unworried gaze.
Once again I was reminded of how much joy I’d derived from the Showdown at Shea, except that this contest was real, the protagonists were actual athletes, and no one possessed bizarre, penis-veined limbs. Maybe it was time to start attending more sporting events, to no longer be haunted by the specter of steel cages past. Sure, everything at the Olympics was history, but this was really history. Shields would return to Flint, Michigan, a hero, having won the first-ever women’s middleweight gold.
“Sebald,” I said, “you have to admit, her run was pretty awesome. Maybe she didn’t have half a country in here cheering her on, but you know all of Flint was watching. If she doesn’t get the key to the city, I’ll eat my hat.”
There was a pause, and then I heard, “From where we stand, there seems no reason why things should not go in this vein forever, from one spectacular success to the next.”
I didn’t press him further. For once, I understood what he meant.
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.