Sunday, August 10. 2008
The Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. Where to begin…I suppose I’ll start with a schedule of the early evening:
5 pm take shower and put on deodorant (significant information for later in post)
5:15 get on bus with American Delegation. Sit with Peter Ueberroth on bus.
6:30 arrive at USA Staging Arena and become a member of the self-paparazzi
7:00 meet the 41st and 43rd Presidents of the United States
7:30 arrive at the International Staging Arena talk with New York Knicks coach
8:00 start to recognize that there is an odor in the air that I am not particularly fond of
8:10 get restless when I realize that the odor is me
8:30 get picture with Kazakhstan volleyball team
9ish get ushered from my seat in the Staging Arena and slowly shuffle to the Bird’s Nest
The chronology of rest of the night is a bit of a blur, but I know the night didn’t end until 2 this morning - so a lot happened. This is going to be a long post.
Backtracking to the beginning. Because the night is so long and crazy, and because swimming starts competing the first day of the Olympics, most of the swimmers do not partake in the Opening Ceremonies. Only 6 men and 2 women decided to be apart of the night. I’m tired, dehydrated and my entire body aches, but I don’t compete for another 2 weeks, so the experience was worth it. For people like Michael Phelps, who compete today, the Opening Ceremonies would be a disaster.
After the USA Swimming Opening Ceremony Delegation team took our group pictures we all got on the bus to go to the USA staging arena. I got to sit next to the United States Olympic Committee Chairman, Peter Ueberroth, on the bus ride from the village to the staging arena. We talked about spear fishing in Laguna Beach. Mr. Ueberroth, other than being a very successful businessman and philanthropist, is also a very dignified man and I’m really glad that our conversation took place at the beginning of the night when my deodorant was still putting up a fight.
A short bus ride took us to the Fencing Arena, the location that the American athletes would meet President Bush. Fortunately the President was a bit late in his arrival, so all of the American athletes got to loiter around and take pictures with one another. This is when I became a member of the self-paparazzi. Here is the transcript of almost every conversation that took place:
“Hey, can I get a picture with you?”
“Sure, can I get one of us with my camera too?”
The whole experience took me back to my high school prom, and, just like prom, the coolest kids in school arrived last. Just as soon as we had finished exhausting ourselves in self-adoration, the most recognizable athletes on the planet arrived. I succumbed to temptation and joined the other athletes as we tried, as maturely as we could, to get photos with NBA stars.
The hype of getting a picture with the NBA stars weakened dramatically when the President walked in the room. It’s a rather funny commentary on our culture: we’re always looking for one person better than the one we’re with. We’d have been perfectly happy taking pictures of ourselves until we saw the NBA players, and we’d have been happy with our picture with Kobe Bryant until we saw we could get a picture with the President.
My first great photo was with the First Lady, who was really nice, and we engaged in a bit of chit-chat on swimming. I then made my way over to the First Daughter to get a picture and, absentmindedly, I nearly asked someone in the Secret Service to take the picture. Fortunately I caught myself before asking the serious man to do something very silly. I stopped, reminded myself that I was acting like an idiot, and then found a person not carrying a gun to take my picture.
I then got a picture with the former President, a man who wasn’t really interested in me at all, but gave me the obligatory 3 seconds needed to get a photo with him. Afterwards I tried to imagine how much of his life has been wasted waiting those 3 seconds for the camera to take a picture.
After about an hour of waiting it was time for the Swimming delegation to get a picture with the president. Erik Vendt and I had exchanged cameras a few minutes earlier when we hatched a plan to each get a personal picture with the President even though earlier in the evening we had been told that this would not be possible. We were told that a group picture would be taken and then mailed to us. However, we noticed that some of the athletes in the other disciplines had managed to get personal pictures anyway, and so Erik and I were determined to get ours as well. If you know Erik it will not surprise you when I recount what Erik told me just before we met the President:
“Mark, no matter what ANYONE says, you get a picture of me with the President.”
For some crazy reason this actually made sense at the moment. It wasn’t until afterwards that I thought about the insanity of DEMANDING on getting your way when you’re 2 feet from the President of the United States.
Erik got to the President before I did and thus he engaged Mr. Bush in this conversation:
Erik: Mr. President will you be at the swimming finals on Sunday morning?
President Bush: Sorry, but I’ll be going to church on Sunday morning.
Erik: I thought there wasn’t church in China.
President Bush: There’s church alright, it’s just underground.
Somewhere around that last line I took the picture for Erik, and then, lacking anything really profound to say at the moment I gave Erik the signal to hold up his end of the bargain. I said:
Mark: “Mr. President can I get a picture with you?”
President Bush: “Sure you can.”
I know, I’m pretty weak. But, I got a picture with the President at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, so I’m okay with being tongue-tied in the moment.
Swimming was the last group to get pictures with the President and we were behind someone’s schedule so after the cameras were put away we were encouraged to hustle outside to go from the USA staging arena to the international staging arena. It just so happened that we were exiting the USA staging area at the same time as the basketball team, and we were now walking with Kobe Bryant. I bring this up not because I was star-struck, but rather because there were thousands of Chinese people lining the streets chanting “Kobe! Kobe! Kobe!” and pretty much going completely crazy. I’m quite certain that my mug is in thousands of Chinese digital camera pictures right now, and equally certain that I’m getting cropped out of those pictures thousands of times over.
The primary purpose of the international staging arena was to make us as hot and sweaty as possible. USA was shuffled up to the highest spot in the indoor arena to a place where it was certain that all the hottest air would accumulate. I sat next to Mike D’Antoni, former Phoenix Suns basketball coach now coaching the awful New York Knicks. After the obligatory introductions I asked him about how the NY media had been treating him and we talked about the perils of coaching in New York. Somewhere in the middle of this conversation I realized that my deodorant had fought the good fight and had lost and so I started to become incredibly self-conscious of the situation.
Fortunately LeBron James saved me when he came over to the coaches and told them to follow him out of the USA seating area. There was some confusion about where they were going and why, but Coach Krzyzewski summed up the matter by saying: “I don’t know what he wants, but we can’t win a gold medal without him, so lets go.” I was tempted to follow, but thought better of it for a number of reasons.
The next hour or so I wandered around the arena observing people as we all waited for our country to be called for the Opening Ceremonies procession. I got a picture with the Kazakhstan women’s volleyball team and with a shooter from Kuwait that reminded me 3 times in 45 seconds that Kuwait and America are friends. I’m trying to determine his reasoning for the repeatedly enthusiastic friendship reminders.
Eventually America’s turn came and we shuffled from the staging arena into a maze of barricades and into the Bird’s Nest. I put my camera away at a certain point and just started to take it all in. The walk to the arena was similar to inching towards the biggest roller-coaster ride you’ve ever been on: the adrenaline increases as you move closer and closer.
I got out into the arena and immediately felt a difference. I looked around the stadium and the whole scene felt so big and awe-inspiring that it almost seemed like a Hollywood movie. I walked in slow-motion, not really looking for anything in particular, but rather in a daze of wonder at the moment. I waved at everyone, smiled at everyone, and just enjoyed the moment. It was incredible.
After America had made it around the track we got into our spots in the field and watched the rest of the teams file in. On television I’m quite sure it looked good, but down there on the field it was disgusting. The smell of sweat hung in the air and dominated the mood of the athletes for remaining hour of the ceremony. Thousands of athletes had waited so long to get to that point and all we could think about was when it would be over.
The rest of the night wasn’t anything incredible that you didn’t see as well. The lighting of the torch was amazingly creative. Cheers to the Chinese, they did a great job with that moment.
After the ceremony we were bused back to the village. We spent a lot of time in traffic and at various security checkpoints and I felt terrible for the guy from the Dominican Republic that was forced to sit next to me on the bus. Incredibly I think I sat next to the only guy NOT sweating like crazy. And so began the Olympics.
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