For a foreign correspondent used to covering the sounds of war, chaos and bombs, the bang of the starting pistol and the order of track and field are more than a welcome break.
But although the Olympic Games reflect the pinnacle of human achievement in many fields and are startlingly impressive on many levels, such as the physical strength and beauty of the athletes, the majestic architecture of the venues, television's total mastery of its medium, nevertheless I'm bothered by some of what I see.
For instance, the Cinderella story of the Iraqi soccer team. From nowhere they reached the semifinals, accompanied by a rising crescendo of media hype, stressing how far they've come, from Odai's torture chambers to Olympic glory, the subtext being that they should be thankful for the war. Their success somehow justified the invasion of Iraq, and even President Bush, when asked about his favorite Olympic spectacle answered, rather unconvincingly, "the Iraqi soccer team."
Mostly unreported was the uncomfortable fact that the only people who didn't seem to share this fervor was the Iraqi soccer team and their Iraqi fans. Players were quoted as saying they hated America and the occupation of their country and their coach said that his players talked about killing six Americans. But little of this was allowed to undermine the rousing narrative of their success.
Truer to form was the reaction of one of their fans when Iraq lost to Argentina. As the disappointed Iraqi fan passed NBC cameraman Sebastian Rich he sucker-punched him in the back, sending Sebastian to the hospital with a suspected bruised kidney. At least Sebastian didn't get his head cut off.
Then there's the television executive, when asked about the success of the broadcasting, responded that the most important thing was that the advertisers were happy.
As a matter of fact, from what I saw, so were the athletes and the spectators but that appeared to be of secondary interest. But at least the executive was telling it like it was.
It's all about the money. The Olympics are a gigantic selling opportunity and everybody involved milks the golden cow for all they can. From special edition Olympic watches to anything with the Olympic rings on it, through Athenian taxi-drivers who seem directly descended from the charioteers of the early Olympics to my hotel owner who jacked his prices up six-fold, the Olympics are the pinnacle of the quick buck.
But these are small disappointments compared to the sheer joy and fun of being here. And to mark my unexpected small involvement in Athens 2004, here are my personal medal awards.
Gold goes to the 60,000 unpaid Greek volunteers, mostly students, who slept in the homes of friends, hitch-hiked to work and smiled till their cheeks ached, all to help give Greece a good name. They did.
Silver is awarded to the Olympic driving lane which allowed accredited Olympics visitors to bypass horrendous traffic jams. The silver is shared with the rest of the Athens drivers who could have complained at this blatant favoritism. They didn't.
Bronze goes to youth. I must say, surrounded by all these incredibly fit athletes who appear to be a super-species from a different planet, I've never felt so old. Luckily most journalists look even worse than me.
And finally, before returning to my usual beat of bombs and chaos that I mentioned at the top, a note to NBC executives. I know a lot about skiing. hint hint.
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