- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

ATHENS — Let’s be honest: You’re not interested in trampoline gymnastics, can’t tell badminton from lawn darts and would rather watch professional bass fishing than synchronized diving.

Trust me, I can relate. Well, maybe not to the bass fishing part.

Still, the dirty little nonsecret of the Summer Games is that some sports count more than others. Of course, relevance is always relative: In China, table tennis is a big deal; in the United States, it’s a way to liven up the basement. Which just goes to show that six billion Chinese can be wrong.

But I digress. Flipping through my Olympic assignment notebook, I noticed the following: Swimming, doping, pixie gymnastics, doping, basketball, doping, track. Plus doping. Not a whit of weightlifting to be found, not a single checkmark next to water polo. And where the heck was Rollerball?

That’s when the guilt hit me.

This was the Olympics. The greatest spectacle in sports. Contested by the world’s best athletes, save the NBA players too chicken to come. Shouldn’t I show modern pentathlon just a little love?

Nah. But I could still clear my conscience and maybe find a decent sandwich to boot. The Greek food at the press center was leaving me queasier than Katie Hoff.

The plan? In a single day, check out as many different second-tier sports as possible. I had two weeks to write Tolstoy-length copy on Michael Phelps; surely I could spare a couple hundred words for archery.

Besides, track and field didn’t start until later in the week, meaning I’d have to settle for seeing American high jumper Amy Acuff in the current issue of Playboy.

With notebook in hand, I sallied forth Sunday in search of citius, altius, fortius … and lunch.

8:30 a.m.: Archery, Panathinaiko Stadium

This was a marathon, not a sprint. I needed to pace myself. Otherwise, I’d end up like Phidippides, the ancient Greek herald who, legend has it, perished from exhaustion after running the 25-mile route between Marathon and Athens to announce a battlefield triumph.

Breathing his last, Phidippides shouted “Nike!” — Greek for “victory” — ensuring that one day in the distant future, Marion Jones would become very, very rich. Archers like America’s Jennifer Nichols aren’t as lucky, largely because $130 bow-pullin’ sneakers have yet to take off. On the other hand, the Swoosh isn’t mucking up bow technology the way it mucked up Tiger’s clubs. So call it a wash.

Moreover, archery takes place in the Olympics’ most picturesque venue, Panathinaiko Stadium, an ancient marble edifice restored for the 1896 Games. “This is so great,” said Nichols, of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I’ve never shot in a place like this before. I shoot in my backyard at home.”

Does it have marble seats?

“Oh, no. Lots of dirt. We have prairies.”

Sounds like the landscaping around Olympic Stadium. Nichols was slated to shoot first against Indonesia’s Rina Dewi Puspitasari. This came as quite a shock; wasn’t Geena Davis the star of Team USA? Perhaps she was busy filming “Cutthroat Island II.”

After chatting with a friendly State Department security agent — I’d mention his name, but since his badge ID’d him as a U.S. coach, I assume he was undercover — I took a seat on press row. The crowd hushed. The archers began to draw. A stadium volunteer approached.

“You cannot sit here,” she screeched, oblivious to the pressure-packed shootout below. “Th-ee-se is for television.”

I looked around. Of three dozen seats, exactly one was occupied.

“Did you pay for a seat?” the volunteer continued. “The TV paid for their seats.”

Interesting. I didn’t think reporters had to buy tickets. Maybe the Olympic budget shortfall was worse than I thought.

Nichols won her match, as did a Ukrainian woman whose name escapes me. Seems I wasn’t alone. The stadium announcer kept referring to her as “the archer from Ukraine.” Welcome to the big time, kid.

10:30 a.m.: Water Polo, OAKA Indoor Pool

What I knew about water polo wouldn’t fill a kiddie pool. Lots of paddling. A fair amount of scoring. Plenty of underwater action — the good stuff, such as below-the-belt twisting.

Australia was taking on Egypt. I arrived just in time to see Aussie Craig Miller shake off a punch to the jaw, then rifle home a goal. Hmmm, this could prove better than expected.

Making my way to the press area, I grabbed a seat. Literally. The chairback tore off in my hands. Now, granted, I work out but not like that. Perhaps chair quality was overlooked in the mad scramble to finish the Olympic venues.

In any case, I couldn’t really complain — this pool had a roof, which is no small thing in Greece.

As far as I can tell, water polo is a strategic game, chess with shower caps. The side with the ball swims across the pool, forming a semicircle around the opposing goal. One guy sets up in the goalmouth, where a defender proceeds to pummel him — shoving, arm-barring, riding the attacker’s back. Everyone else tries to center the ball. It’s all very homoerotic in a pro wrestling sort of way. Then again, this is Greece.

Oh, and Vlade Divac would be right at home; water polo has lots of flopping. During an Egypt possession, an Australian defender pinched his man in a leg lock. When the flailing Egyptian took a feeble half-swing in retaliation, the Aussie recoiled as if hit with a frying pan. The poor Egyptian was slapped with a minor foul. I don’t want to see a major one.

Next came a break and, with it, Men At Work over the stadium loudspeakers. I come from the land down unnnn-deeeer! Disconcertingly, the Aussies on hand got down, shaking pompoms and waving flags. That prompted a vision: American fans cabbage-patching to “R-O-C-K in the U-S-A.” No. No. A thousand times no. I had seen enough, or at least enough of dudes in Speedos with their country’s name printed across the back. Which, come to think of it, is probably better than across the front.

12:15 p.m.: Table Tennis, Galatsi Hall

The first thing I noticed were the satellite trucks parked next to the arena — as in, they have satellite trucks for a pingpong match. Outside the media entrance hung a sign reading “Designated Smoking Area.” Coincidentally, I’m pretty sure Serbia’s basketball jerseys say the same thing — and if not, they should.

Two American women’s doubles teams were in action. One included Oregon high schooler Whitney Ping. Talk about a lazy headline writer’s dream: Ping ponged from Olympic tournament. Ping pongs into Olympic final. That’s a wrap. Everyone go home early.

At another table, Americans Tawny Banh and one-time Gaithersburg resident Gao Jun were putting the kibosh on Venezuela’s Luisana Perez and Fabiola Ramos. The stout Ramos looked like she weighed in at roughly two bills, which is probably why she plays table tennis as opposed to the real thing. Not much room in a racquet bag for a box of Krispy Kremes.

Like full-size tennis, the table game features chair umpires — only these umpires wear suits, ties and cute little sneakers, a la dorky executives everywhere and Tom Hanks in “Big.” Believe it or not, the juvenile look works in part because the umps might as well be overseeing Olympic dodgeball.

But don’t tell that to Singapore’s Paey Tan, who between sets bounced up and down like a boxer, a towel draped across her back. Surprisingly, she never called for the corner cutman. Tan also blew on the ball before serves — probably for luck, possibly to impart extra topspin.

2:45 p.m.: Badminton, Goudi Hall

I nearly bailed on this. For one, I was hungry; more to the point, we’re talking about badminton. Still, duty calls. And I didn’t feel like standing in the media cafe’s Space Mountain-shaming lunch line, not for a hunk of questionable moussaka that would run through me faster than Carl Lewis.

A longer-than-anticipated bus ride left me stuck watching mixed doubles. Finally, I had come across something more irrelevant than the Anna Kournikova-Jonas Bjorkman paring I once saw at the U.S. Open. Even the line judges looked bored.

Just kidding. Line judges always look bored. In reality, badminton is quicker and more athletic than you would guess: New Zealand’s Daniel Shirley hit a series of overhead smashes that were downright Sampras-like. Yet as much as I’d like to embrace any sport featuring something called a shuttlecock, there’s one thing I can’t sanction — the service return ready stance.

Picture this: The players stand maybe 10 feet apart. One holds the shuttlecock. The other drops into a splay-legged crouch, racquet quivering, arms flexed in the manner of an on-guard kickboxer — looking a lot like me on the toilet after too much moussaka.

Honestly, the only thing more ridiculous-looking would be Daniel-San’s crane stance from “The Karate Kid.”

5:10 p.m.: Weightlifting, Nikaia Hall

Here’s my take on weightlifting: It’s hot, it’s dusty and the potted flowers next to the temporary steel barriers are littered with cigarette butts.

Oops. That’s actually my take on waiting for the bus to the weightlifting venue. Thanks to a transportation mix-up — that would be a bus driver who absolutely refused to stop for me, even as I ran alongside, pounding on the passenger door — I spent an extra half-hour at the media bus depot, a dirty, sunbaked parking lot that did wonders for my allergies.

You know those Claritin commercials where all the Stepford people are skipping and smiling under a clear blue sky in happy land? Imagine the opposite.

The Greeks like weightlifting. A lot. Three-time gold medalist Pyrros Dimas is a national hero and carried the Greek flag during the opening ceremony. Nikaia Hall sits above Athens, next to a plunging gorge, as dramatic a site as you will find.

Plus, they play Grecian rap music between sessions, which means the kids must be hip to it.

As for the actual sport, it’s somehow monotonous and cool at the same time. On one hand, it’s nothing more than a series of hoists, the same way every time; on the other, the weights are really, really heavy.

The real draw is the potential for gruesome injury. Like NASCAR drivers, lifters are one errant move away from highlight-reel disaster. At the U.S. trials, lifter Pete Kelley tore a hamstring on his first attempt in the clean and jerk; the crowd applauded his effort.

Since I was running behind schedule, I caught just 25 minutes of the women’s 53-kilogram competition. Sadly, no one ruptured anything. At least not visibly.

6:30 p.m.: Softball, Helliniko Stadium

The Helliniko complex was built on an old airport runway — fitting because Team USA has been using the place as a launch pad.

The Americans pummeled Italy 7-0 in their opener, a game called in the fifth inning because of international mercy rules. If only reality TV programmers would be so considerate.

Anyway, I arrived to see, well, nothing: The U.S.-Australia contest was called in the fifth with Team USA up 10-0. The U.S. Olympic Committee press office called this matchup a “rivalry” — strange, given America’s two gold medals and 18 straight years as the world No. 1. Then again, some people think the Yankees and Red Sox are rivals, too.

On my way out, I saw American ace and designated hottie Jennie Finch walking to the team bus. So the event wasn’t a total loss.

7:40 p.m.: Field Hockey, Helliniko Pitch

Now this was a sport I could get behind: Schoolgirl outfits, big sticks, tan and taut competitors racing up and down the field, hellbent on smacking a ball and/or each other. My wife played field hockey in high school; suffice to say I won’t let the missus part with her old uniform.

So why did these women seem so hairy?

Uh-oh. Turns out I stumbled across the men’s competition, Germany-Pakistan to be exact. And the place was nearly packed. How?

Bad enough that I skipped lunch. Worse still that I smelled like a sweaty yak, the result of a dozen bus rides under the scorching Grecian sun. But to miss the concurrent U.S.-Puerto Rico men’s basketball debacle to watch a game that flows like soccer with sticks?

Uh-uh. I might be a citizen of the world, but time had come to act unilaterally. Right out the door.

9:33 p.m.: Team Handball, Faliro Olympic Complex

Four things everyone should know about team handball:

1) Players are allowed to dribble the ball, sometimes even twice, and generally take between two and five steps. In that sense, it’s a lot like the NBA.

2) Handball fans are by far the most excitable I’ve seen at the Games. A France-Denmark women’s match had them standing, screaming, chanting and stomping. I swear I saw the bleachers shake, though that could just be the product of a rushed construction schedule.

3) There is something called World Handball Magazine, which won’t be coming back with me to the States.

4) I lied. There aren’t four things worth knowing.

10:49 p.m.: Soccer, Karaiskaki Stadium

Before my Greek odyssey came to a end — a sweet, merciful end — there was one thing left to do: check out the only group of guys who inarguably had it worse than me — the Iraqi national soccer team.

Under Saddam Hussein, players were beaten and tortured by Uday, the dictator’s churlish son. Thanks to the war, they played home games in other countries. And according to a recent article in ESPN the Magazine, Uday’s cronies still run the squad. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Yet despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, the Iraqis stunned everyone by qualifying for the Games and then shocked Portugal in their Olympic opener. Two nights ago they did it again by defeating Costa Rica. I arrived late — this was getting to be a habit — at the end of a 2-0 Iraqi victory. No matter.

I walked the roads around Karaiskaki Stadium. Greek drivers honked and shouted for flag-waving Iraqi fans. I stood in a half-empty conference room. The Iraqi delegation quietly pleaded for an end to their nation’s ongoing bloodshed. This was the moment, the place, the time. Finally: honest-to-goodness Olympic inspiration.

Good for me. Good for them. Good for us all. At long last, I had found a reason to care, about sports I’ll never, ever watch again.

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