Monday, September 29, 2008

Garrison Keillor and the Olympics, part two

Per the previous post, Garrison Keillor took time to talk about Olympic Rings and Other Things at the Atlanta History Center. The video below is our follow up conversation during his autograph session. Enjoy!

And if Mr. Keillor is out there reading this, my follow up question is this: Did you ever meet any of the "Miracle On Ice" hockey players you heard on the radio so long ago (and thank you again for answering my other questions)?

Garrison Keillor and the Olympics, part one

Author, humorist, national radio/film personality and very cool gentleman/nice guy Garrison Keillor was in town last week showcasing his new book -- "Liberty: A Lake Wobegon Novel" -- to a packed house at the Atlanta History Center.

I'm three chapters into the text and it is quite good (a bit lighter than my favorite Keillor text, "Homegrown Democrat," which is outstanding!). "Liberty" is getting great reviews, too.

During the evening's audience Q&A, I seized the opportunity to ask Mr. Keillor about the extent to which his writing was ever inspired by Olympic feats.

Unfortunately, in front of the crowd he had not much to say about Olympians (see the video with this post). But after the Q&A session -- cornered while he signed four books -- he did open up and mention tuning in to the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" as an Olympic memory of note (check the second video, which I will display in a "part two" follow up post).

A native Minnesotan, Keillor did seem a bit surprised (also on video) to learn that Minneapolis/St. Paul was at one time a contendor for the 1996 Olympic bid, briefly competing against Atlanta to the the U.S. bid city (we all know how that turned out).

He did not mince words about the Land of 10,000 Lakes' chances -- guess we'll have to wait a few more decades before Olympic yachting can be raced on Lake Minnetonka!

Thanks go out to the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum for putting on a great evening event with Mr. Keillor.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Space Olympics

Over the weekend, my friend Brian was in town for the local (and well-organized and fun) Olympic pin show in Lawrenceville, Ga.. It was a good time to get reacquainted with several collectors from back to 1996 and beyond.

After an evening of spending all the money raised selling items at the show, Brian and I wound up tuning in to Michael Phelps' big debut on "Saturday Night Live." Most of the segments of the show did not bring laughs, but it is possible the new SNL video short titled "Space Olympics" may soon be among the top spoofs of the Olympic movement since the Martin Short/Harry Shearer/Christopher Guest synchronized swimming segment of 198os.

Enjoy your trip to the Space Olympics. A pin to the first to comment with correct guess about my favorite line of its lyrics.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Phelps Phan, in conclusion

(continued from previous post)

... And there we were. Bound for the Water Cube, but stuck in a taxi halted by Beijing traffic police. Women's marathon, god bless it, was keeping us from our destination (the runner route crossed over the highway where we were stopped, and vehicles could not proceed until a break in the runner pack). The skies were not as sunny by this point.

From our vantage point at that moment (see photos), we thought out loud "it can only be half a mile or so" and pondered Murphy's Law, which -- applied in this case -- meant no doubt that if we sat in the cab, we would miss Phelps, and if we got out to hike, inevitably the traffic would be released (this happened to me when President Bush's 80-plus vehicle motorcade ground highway traffic to a halt on Aug. 11) and we would regret our premature hoofing it.

We went with the latter option, and started running up the highway, and actually made it a few hundred yards before looking back. That's when Murphy came through with what I swear was our "Lucky Eight" cab driver waving back to us as his vehicle got back up to highway speed (passing us several lanes out of reach of hailing him again).

The next part of our trek could be set to several favorite songs. Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" or perhaps Van Halen's great running tune, or even the Kate Bush song (it was, after all, up hill much of the way to The Cube). But we weren't really thinking about music. We were just running. Running through what seemed to be, at first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of Chinese Olympic fans heading in the direction opposite our own. Heading to Olympic aquatics we were swimming against the current ... (O.K., okay, no salmon metaphors ... on with the story).

After the first 2/3 of a mile, we were drenched in sweat. Paul is in good shape. I am not. And Brian was weighed down down with a bit of stuff, so the gaps between us, and our strides, were starting to spread out. But we kept in ear and eye contact yelling above the throngs of spectators who were all gathered 20 deep around the Olympic Green perimeter fence. The highway formed the south border of the green, and we had just crossed most of it on foot. We were yelling directions to gaps in the crowd. We were yelling the time 10:15, 10:20, etc., so we could keep our pace on track to get into The Cube before Phelps' starting gun around 11 a.m.. We bit our tongues on countless expletives. Rain started to sprinkle.

At last, we caught site of the first goal -- a security entrance for the Green.

Access denied. "Staff and volunteers only -- go to next gate."

Another half mile. Another 5,000 people. Another gate.

"This one staff only -- go to next one," said the too-chipper Olympic volunteer, pointing to a tent another half-mile away. At least it was a level road.

"Stop freakin' smiling, volunteer!," was one thought to myself. I had shin-splints by this part of the unplanned jog. We lumbered along. Rain a bit more steady now.

Security gate in sight. Lungs heaving. Steps away. "They better not even THINK about sending us to another gate! Made it.

Finally a break -- thanks to our credentials, Paul and I were IN (sorry, Brian, another half-mile for you as he was with ticket but without a Games credential).

No ... air ... in ... lungs ...

Heart ... and ... legs ... malfunction ... ing ...

But from the security checkpoint to what we thought was salvation (the door to The Cube), only 100 meters! Euphoria. Relief. Rest soon. We had time to catch our breaths and high-five each other. See you at the seats, Brian.

Heavier rain. But that was O.K. as we were about to be seated, we thought.

We got to the door of The Cube. The volunteers and security smiled and checked our tickets. So close!

"This athlete entrance only -- go around," said the volunteer, smiling.

This is the part of the story when Paul and I lost it. I mean, lost it in the Cameron Fry going berserk in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and Steve Martin at the car rental parking lot sense of it all. Every word in the book was unloaded on those poor volunteers (believe me, we tried the 'nice' approach, then whining, then begging first, to no avail -- cussing did not work either, and we cussed often some more while stomping through tall grass and making ANOTHER half-mile stroll to get around the massive Water Cube footpath to the spectator entrance).

I think word of our athlete entrance outburst must have reached the spectator entrance volunteers before us, because they were even more enthusiastic than normal to welcome us to show our tickets for scanning.

"So glad you made it!" I felt large drops of perspiration and rain draining down my saturated outfit and did not respond as my hand snatched the "lucky ticket" from her hand.

We were there. Only one hour, 1.75 miles, thousands of personified hurdles and three gates later. We were there. Mercy!

We collapsed into our seats, completely spent, as the medal ceremony including Dara Torres' silver medal was presented.

Things started to get normal again. Brian made it to the seats a few minutes later. Smiles. We continued to catch our breath during the second to last race of the day, which also gave us time to unfurl the flags we brought with us. Time to cheer, at last.

I honestly barely remember the actual race for Phelps and team. The venue was (as shown on the Flipcam video of the race) somewhat subdued compared to other major sporting milestones attended in the past. But it was amazing to witness it all, including Phelps' later hand off of flowers to his mom, and the U.S. flag being raised with the national anthem (if memory serves me, Paul left the building to go find a taxi to head to the airport about this time).

Brian and I took some time to wander behind the scenes in the venue, where we witnessed Bob Costas' post race interview with Phelps, met Bela Karolyi (there for the big event, sweatless, sans harrowing run across town), and even snapped a shot or two of Phelps leaving the building.

We also got to shake hands with a few other Olympic medalists from Australia and even Tunisia's first gold medal swimmer (from the early races we missed while on the streets of Beijing). We started to feel guilt about screaming at those volunteers (eventually I returned to their post and gave them some Atlanta Olympic pins with an apology and thanks for directing us to the correct Water Cube door -- funny how they reacted when I walked OUT of The Cube through the door where they previously denied access).

Now it is easy to laugh about it all. The morning was punctuated one last time by another funny moment, which takes me back to the Atlanta Olympic Village in 1996, site of my first Olympic job.

In the Water Cube, just before leaving, I spotted a German TV station doing their wrap-up report from the venue and recognized one of the commentators as the great German Olympic medalist, Franzi Van Almsick. Franzi took home medals from four Olympiads: Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens.

Long story short: I previously met Franzi in Atlanta's Olympic Village (after plunging her roommate's Olympic Village toilet on the night of the Olympic Park Bombing in 1996), and I was curious whether she would remember that introduction.

Alas, in the Water Cube now 12 years later, she did not recall our introduction (no big surprise, though I did think she would remember me holding a plunger back in ATL). But Van Almsick was friendly and willing to sign an autograph and walk out of the Water Cube with me, and she asked me THE BEST question ever.

Like Dave Barry, I swear, I am NOT making this up:

"Is it difficult to take a taxi in Beijing?" asked Van Almsick. "I just got here and have not yet taken one, but now I need one for another event that starts in an hour."

"If the women's marathon is over now," I replied, "Today, Franzi, is your lucky day!"

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Phelps Phans, part one

During the first few days of the Beijing Games, tickets were really, really tough to score. Everything was officially "sold out" and even Ebay had a scarce supply (and the few tickets there had hefty prices). Well in advance of heading to China, I did invest more than $150 to experience the women's beach volleyball gold medal game (an event my good friend, Brian, and I attended at Athens in 2004).

But as I mentioned in the post for Sunday, Aug. 10 (archived here with Annie Lennox's famed Eurhythmics photo), a special ticket source entered our Olympic world at just the right place and time.

Now that all is said and done, there's no longer a need to keep it a secret.

The ticket source we (and eventually many others) found was in Novotel (the hotel where I stayed the first three nights in Beijing -- across the street from our B.C. Canada Pavilion team corporate apartment/hotel, Lee Gardens). Co-Sport had a special office there, and for the first five or six days of the Games, few people seemed to know of its existence (which helped me help more than a few friends to get some primo tickets). A colleague told me a reporter friend from Canada was trying to help the family of an Olympian who had been scammed by the online ticket fraud that made headlines, and we helped that reporter to get some tickets in that family's deserving hands.

Tickets, tickets, tickets. If I had 20 hours a day to deal in tickets, I'd be a rich man about now. But we had many official duties to tend to that first week of the Games. So I limited my purchases only to friends in need, as well as to score a few cake seats at evening events inside the magnificent Water Cube. It was a morning ritual that first week -- get up, get coffee, get breakfast (at Novotel's Western food buffet, my saviour), then get tickets -- all by 8:45.

Who knew the special ticket source would come through when it mattered most?

They sure did.

The night of August 16, my colleague/roommate Paul, and newly arriving to Beijing friend Brian, and I each closed out the evening (and Paul's last night in China) with dinner and drinks. I think Paul's expectation for the following morning (Aug. 17) was that he would pack for the flight back to Canada at a leisurely pace, do some last minute shopping, and head to the airport.

Brian's plan for Aug. 17 included an attempt to hit a few late morning events, or something along those lines. Or hit the pin trading circuit. A calm morning.

My plan: Score a ticket (one ticket) for Michael Phelps' final race. The big race. Numero Ocho -- Lucky Race Eight.

On the morning of August 17, I was up at 5:30, showered, and first in line at Co-Sport's temporary office. I read a few newspapers, drank juice and canned Nescafe coffee, and cleaned up my FlipCam and digital camera files while patiently waiting for the office to open at 8:30 a.m. Made new friends of a couple of former California cops, the first duo to join me in line (they arrived at 7:30-ish). By 8 a.m., the line was several dozen people deep and out to the hotel lobby -- the word was definitely 'out there' on the recently unknown ticket source.

The early bird gets the worm. This early bird got one-two-three -- that's THREE -- tickets to Phelps 11 a.m. race!

I don't know whether the former cops got the other (last two) tickets I left behind, because in spite of my newly emptied wallet, I was beaming and flying out of that office to get to Paul and Brian with the good news!

Back at the apartment, Paul was speechless. So much for shopping.

Brian, by phone, I think was hyperventilating. So much for pin trading.

It was SO ... ON! We were going to see the GREATEST OLYMPIAN of ALL TIME swim in his final Beijing race!

We calmly and collectively agreed to meet in the lobby of Lee Gardens for a 9:30 a.m. taxi ride to the Olympic Green. We figured this gave us time to spare -- arrive at the Water Cube security entrance around 9:50 a.m., in advance of the 10 a.m. session start time (which we later learned included Dara Torres in her final race as well).

9:15 -- Nick completes post ticket purchase shower and shave. Check.
9:20 -- Paul completes packing. Check.
9:25 -- Brian arrives from morning walk from his hotel. Check.
9:28 -- Bellman hails taxi. Check.

We are Water Cube bound! No traffic! The sun is shining! It is our LUCKY DAY!

Even the Chinese-speaking taxi driver, upon learning of our destination and seeing our tickets, made a huge "LUCKY EIGHT" figure eight on the dashboard! He was beaming. We were beside ourselves at our good fortune.

And then the radio reminded us ... women's marathon ... just started ... route ends at Bird's Nest (next door to Water Cube) ... roads are ... OPEN! We were sailing toward our destination. Traffic never was so easy. We toasted our good fortune with a round of Nescafe canned coffee. TO THE WATER CUBE!

And with the Water Cube in sight, just one exit away from the 10-lane expressway, everything stopped. Well, at least every car -- including our taxi, ground to a halt.

To be continued ...
(PS: The photos with this particular post, and the video, are from Aug. 14 and Aug. 15 visits to The Cube -- Phelps photos and video to follow next post)

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