We continue our Olympics coverage with an account of the Athens Games of 2004 from a journalist’s perspective. Guest writer Joe Henderson is a veteran sports columnist for the Tampa (Florida) Tribune. He has covered every major sporting event in the U.S. (except, perhaps, bull riding, if that’s a sport), and is widely recognized for his incisive reporting, his vibrant style, sense of humor and an unerring ability to uncover compelling personal stories that inform and inspire his readers. He has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including one stemming from his assignment to cover the 1989 World Series in San Francisco. After an earthquake hit the city and delayed the Series, Joe put on his reporter’s hat and filed a steady stream of stories from the stricken city that won him a national award for news reporting. In 2004, Joe went international, traveling to Athens to cover the Olympics.
Where It All Began
About halfway through the opening ceremony of this year’s Vancouver Games, I looked over at my sons and yawned. Vancouver was putting on good show, I told them, but nothing could top what I saw in Athens in 2004. To prove it, I pulled out a DVD of that magic night more than five years ago and played it.
They agreed. Athens was better.
There are so many memories about the three weeks I spent in Greece that it’s hard to capture them all, but I’ll try to hit the highlights. It was my first (and probably only) Olympics to cover as a journalist for The Tampa Tribune. Metro newspapers routinely covered large-scale world events like that in those days, so there was no doubt we’d be going. Besides, we had plenty of local stories to follow. Florida and the Tampa Bay area were well-represented with athletes.
I landed in Athens four days before the Games began after flying 17 hours from Tampa. This gave me time to get used to the men with automatic weapons who patrolled the Athens streets near the Olympic press center, part of the incredible security force that was in place. There were cameras watching everything, soldiers everywhere, metal detectors, attack dogs, you name it.
There were also no major incidents during the Games, which means the security must have worked.
That doesn’t mean there wasn’t personal drama the night the Games opened, though.
Hurricane Charley – a monster Category 4 storm – was inching up the west coast of Florida, forecast to hit the mouth of Tampa Bay right around the time I’d be sitting in the Olympic Stadium half a world away.
I was glued to my laptop, watching radar and weather updates, and calling my wife every few hours to see how she and my two sons were doing. My newspaper’s office is located on the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa, very near the waters of Tampa Bay and very much at risk. Charley veered off at the last minute, ducking unexpectedly ashore at Port Charlotte about 100 miles south of Tampa. It caused severe damage across central Florida, as close as 20 miles from us as it cut across the state. Computer projections later showed that downtown Tampa would have looked like New Orleans after Katrina had Charley hit us.
The weird thing is, everyone had been telling me for months to watch myself and stay safe in Athens because of the terrorism threat. Those same people were hiding in closets and huddling in shelters as Charley approached. Ironic?
Back at the Games, the first event I covered was a Michael Phelps swimming event. Uh … he won.
A friend of mine from the University of South Florida was an assistant coach for the US women’s softball team, so I got to know them very well. They were on a mission to win for their head coach, whose wife had died unexpectedly just prior to the Games. Journalists are supposed to be detached, but it was hard not to get swept up in that one.
I interviewed a table tennis player.
I covered gymnastics for the first (and last) time.
I watched the US men’s basketball team struggle to a bronze medal.
I watched the women’s basketball team stampede to the gold.
I watched Michael Phelps win more races.
I watched some incredible tennis.
I watched world class track and field.
I watched the women’s soccer team win gold.
Then, along with a couple of other journalists, I chartered a car for a 4-hour drive to Olympia – site of the original Olympic Games. In a stroke of brilliance, the organizers had staged the shot put at the original Olympic “stadium” – a patch of turf amid the ruins of an ancient civilization (see top photo and below).
Modern Olympia is a small town in western Greece, population about 12,000, with a few shops and restaurants. It’s about 330 kilometers from Athens, riding the coastline of the Adriatic Sea to the Peloponnesian Peninsula and to this secluded enclave steeped in history. The ride from Athens was almost as memorable as the event. The road wound through hills with spectacular views, occasionally interrupted by onrushing traffic. The roads were just 2-1/2 lanes wide, meaning if you wanted to pass someone – and our driver did – he had to drift to the right side of a half lane, leaving you almost enough space to pass.
The Games there date back as far as 776 BC, possibly even earlier. Olympia was home to a giant statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This was the first time competition was held in the original Olympic stadium in an estimated 16 centuries. So, yeah, I knew I was viewing something special. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
The Greeks took great care to ensure preservation of the site by limiting crowds to around 15,000. Media credentials were limited as well. Spectators sat on grassy slopes while competitors performed. There were no replay boards, no loudspeakers, no blaring music, no modern trappings.
The event included 64 participants – 32 men, 32 women – and was completed in one day. That was to lessen the amount of foot traffic on these ancient grounds.
I remember buying a chess set at a small shop for my son Ben. The owner was gregarious, friendly, and insisted I take a Greek keychain as a gift and remembrance of the day. I still carry it.
My mind couldn’t help but drift back 16 centuries while watching the event. How must it have been? We’ll never know for sure.
What I do know is got a slice of it that day and a memory that will last forever. That’s one they can never take away from me.
You want to know the good stuff, though.
Most days started around 8 a.m. with a trip to the press center. Because we were 8 or 9 hours ahead of U.S. deadline time, I wound up working until around 1 or 2 in the morning. I did want those stories to be perfect.
I didn’t have a lot of time to sample local Greek cuisine, settling most nights for chow in the press center. I ate a lot of lamb, as I recall. They had a McDonald’s in the press center and I learned that Sausage McMuffins taste pretty much the same in Athens as they do in the States.
I was housed about a 2-block walk from the press center and the Olympic stadium. It was a small apartment I shared with a co-worker from the Tribune and two guys from a country I can’t pronounce. I think I said, “Hi” to them once. My location was a distinct advantage over many other U.S. journalists, who were housed outside the city. They faced long bus rides and multiple transfers just to get to the transportation center (a block away from me) and, once there, they then faced another ride to their venue.
I was spared that little joy.
It was extremely hot in Athens but it didn’t bother me, being from Florida. The people were very friendly, especially if you made the attempt to speak Greek to them. The word for “good morning” is “Calimara.” Once I learned it, the armed soldiers at security outside my housing unit actually smiled and relaxed a bit. Diplomacy, my friends!
Of course, I made sure to see the sights. An early stop was the Parthenon, which was completely amazing. Athens has a good subway system, easy to use. My rides were free with an Olympic press credential but that didn’t seem to matter. Although locals are supposed to pay, it’s on the honor system – most people didn’t seem to pay, but no one cared.
As the Games wound down, I did get out a couple of nights to a couple of lively areas away from downtown. Restaurants fill up late there and I remember the menu didn’t come with prices. Our server kind of estimated the cost at the end (it was reasonable, I remember that).
I remember wondering what Greece would do with all those magnificent facilities they built for the Games. I guess we found out; the country is teetering on financial collapse now, reeling from the debt it took on and fueled, regrettably, by the evil robber barons from Wall Street who urged the Greeks into these risky moves by helping disguise their problems to the European common market.
I flew to Paris the day of the closing ceremony, watching a bit of it on French TV while drinking expensive wine and eating a well-prepared steak in self-reward. I just tried to absorb what the whole experience had been like, but I’m not sure I’ve done that even yet.
I’ve covered sports for a living for nearly four decades. I’ve lost track of the number of World Series games I’ve attended; the Super Bowls, Final Fours, and everything else. Nothing comes close to those three weeks in Greece. Part of me wants to go back sometime, but a bigger part says it would only be a letdown.
Besides, I’ll always have the DVD.
Joe does the toughest thing there is in the writing biz: filing multiple stories each week in a newspaper. Follow his column in the Tampa Tribune HERE.
Photos copyright 2010, Joe Henderson. Used by kind permission.
Please scroll down to see John DeBello’s account of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.