Mike Wilson: I think I caught a case of Olympic fever

Published 5:01 pm Thursday, July 27, 2023

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With the Olympics back in the news, as talk continues about the 2024 Games in Paris, it’s got me thinking. Now I can calmly reflect on a nightmare that I have suppressed for a quarter century: my attendance at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

Understand that for most of my life I have been a major fan of the Games, starting when I myself was a teenage swimmer and miler (it’s true, doubters) and thus avidly followed the exploits of Mark Spitz, Steve Prefontaine, et al. My wife and I were glued to the television set as Nadia Comaneci dazzled the world with her perfect 10, and a year later we took great pains to see her in a special exhibition performance in Mexico City. My daughters played Mary Lou Retton in their red, white, and blue tights; we were the solemn judges of their cartwheels there in the living room.

My family has always been subject to Sudden Motivation. Consider: I was minding my own business watching the final round of the U.S. Open on Father’s Day years ago when the girls saw a commercial on tv indicating that there were still tickets available for a women’s World Cup game (and this was in the Mia Hamm/Brandi Chastain era) between the U.S. and Nigeria in just a few days. Suddenly we were driving to Chicago.

We could not have anticipated that our seats would adjoin the Nigerian cheering section, which maintained a deafening din throughout the contest. Following that game, I vowed that I would attend no more major sporting events in person, reasoning that economy and comfort called me to the recliner.

When the Olympics came to Atlanta, I assiduously avoided any reference to their approach. It was clear that it would not be financially feasible to attend any of the marquee events. Then the girls saw a report that there were still “tickets to the Olympics” available, and the scramble was suddenly on. A web search revealed that there were indeed tickets available: men’s field hockey between Azerbaijan and Pakistan or equestrian dressage. The girls all love horses. I happen to think their brain cavities are way too small for something so big and strong.

We managed to find a motel room for one night near Conyers, the actual site of the equestrian events. On the morning of the competition, we had a major piece of luck: as we crested the last rise near the venue, we could see a line of cars from Atlanta that stretched all the way to the horizon. Since we had inadvertently stayed on the other side of that area, we were quickly guided by friendly state troopers through the left turn that would lead us to parking.

The weather promised to be very sunny, humid, and hot with little breeze that day. As we entered the sparkling new venue, I had the sensation of standing inside a giant version of one of those reflectors that serious tanning addicts use to assure the evenness of their necks. The entire stadium was crafted of blindingly brilliant polished aluminum. Thus began our roasting.

I had vague notions of the meaning of “dressage,” but soon I understood it fully. There was none of the drama of jumping, etc. Instead, riders from every country, dressed perfectly alike in the prescribed uniform, led horses through exactly the same maneuvers all day long, typically provoking polite applause. The single exception was the appearance of the Brazilian riders, who garnered shouting and applause and dancing that were nearly Nigerian. As the heat began to intensify, I realized that the organizers had conveniently forgotten to include water fountains, so we could only survive by drinking $5 bottles of Olympic Water. By mid-afternoon, my youngest and I were lying in the dust beneath the stands to find a spot of shade. We finally all agreed that we had seen enough black jackets to last us quite a while.

The next time the girls get a Big Idea, I swear I will say, “Bon voyage!”

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.