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!"

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