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Nothing Like Recalling Where the Road Leads

October 02, 2000|BILL DWYRE

SYDNEY, Australia — My most important Olympic moment occurred the day I met Lilly. She had these huge brown eyes and curly black hair and the cutest little bug nose. She told me she was 5 and, next year, she would be 7.

Lilly was my slap across the face, my "Thanks, I needed that."

The day I met her on the train to Olympic Park, I had reached that point in this journalistic triathlon where I had decided, maybe for the first time in my career, that it all wasn't worth it. I wasn't feeling well, didn't have the time to rest so I would, and was battling to get myself excited for another 18-hour day of tennis and boxing and sailors and swimmers and gymnasts and home runs and soccer goals and horse jumping and race-walkers being disqualified for not walking and athletes taking drugs and whining that they hadn't.

As a friend used to say, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

It wasn't the Games that were getting me down as much as getting to the Games.

By the end of the first week, the Australians had declared this a rousing success. They had held their breath through the first week, hoping to avoid any embarrassing incidents and hoping not to get trashed by a bunch of foreign journalists, especially those from the United States. They should have known they were safe. They were following Atlanta, and the only journalists who hated the Atlanta Olympics worse than the Europeans and the Asians and Australians and the South Americans and the Africans were those from the United States who did not live within the borders of the state of Georgia.

But the Aussies, who earned the right to some gushing and certainly had the local newspapers eager to lead the way, didn't earn an A-plus in every category.

For one thing, I was fascinated by their fascination with barriers. They had them everywhere, blocking walkways and entrances and exits and roadways and restaurant entrances and doors to hospitals. Which was OK if they didn't move them every day, which they did.

One of my colleagues theorized that they were just experimenting on the people-moving until they got it right. I rejected that theory in favor of my own, which was that they had a Barrier Czar, and that he had trained for the Olympics by attending the Gestapo Academy of Masochism and graduating No. 1. He quickly demonstrated that the Australian definition of the shortest distance between two points was via Perth. The trains here were wonderful. But getting to them was a 45-minute obstacle course where, like getting to the top of Everest, you eventually needed an oxygen mask.

The other issue I had with the Aussies was that they were using 426,191 volunteers. I know because I counted every one of them as they managed to get in the way, smile broadly and point in the direction of yet another barrier that had to be circled.

One of the great cliches of any Olympics is that you can't put one on without volunteers. Peter Ueberroth had that figured out better than anybody. In 1984, he used just enough to get the job done, and he made sure they were professional and not simply on hand to get the free Olympic shirt and have their friends join them for picture-taking. And when the Los Angeles Games were done, and he had made a nice profit, he even sent some of them checks, even though that hadn't been part of the deal going in.

To the end, the Aussie volunteers, with a few exceptions, were annoying and uninformed and incredibly cheerful about it. Their daily approach was: If only all these people who had purchased tickets and all these journalists and photographers on deadline would quit asking questions and stay out of their way so they could get some more pictures of all the blokes on the shift for their scrapbooks . . .

So it was, on the day that I was to celebrate a personal Olympic milestone--my 200th passage through a metal detector--that I met Lilly.

I was on the train and I had just settled into one of those facing three-seat setups, when a family of five squeezed in with me. They were from Melbourne, had driven 12 hours that morning to get there, had purchased their tickets in a lottery a year earlier, and were as excited as could be. Besides Lilly and Mom and Dad were older sisters Greta and Guy, about 8 and 10.

They were going to track and field, or athletics, as they called it--I had to explain to Lilly why we Americans didn't call it athletics, to which she responded, "That's silly."

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

After track and, er . . . athletics, they were going to get back on the train at about midnight, return to their car and drive all night to Melbourne.

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