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Olympic Moments

2:30 PM, Feb 8, 2014 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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But some few competitors looked impassive as tombstones as they tore along, utterly unhurried, just doing their job.  They did not subdue the raging waters exactly, but their evident self-command made them seem equal in every inch to the violence of the test.  These were the days when the Soviet bloc took every possible competition with the West with deadly seriousness, and the coolest customers on the water that day were the East German paddlers; I would observe that same laser-eyed demeanor some years later in the guards manning the watchtowers along the Berlin Wall.  And of course the Communist athletic juggernaut would become notorious for its reliance on illicit, undetectable, and very effective chemical enhancement.  The Hammer was an imposing physical specimen, but the whitewater heroes of the DDR were monsters, nurtured on substances far more formidable than Dartmouth dining hall chow, their bulk and cuts every bit as frightening as the musculature of their compatriot swimming women.  It was East Germans who took two of the three kayak medals that day, and I think it was a Soviet or near relation who joined them on the podium.  Eric Evans came in sixth, a disappointing but honorable finish: he was the best of the athletes there who relied on mere nature for their excellence.

Mikael and I did not speak to Evans after the competition; he was hustled off to provide urine and blood and who knows what else.  My good friend and I had counted on crashing that night at the familial home of a Dartmouth pal of ours who had grown up in that Olympic city.  We didn’t have his phone number or address, or know his father’s first name, but figured that the surname was unusual enough that there couldn’t be more than two or three such listings in the phone book.  As it happened, there were two whole columns of them.  And of course there was no room at the inn—at any inn for miles around.  We wandered here and there without knowing where we were headed and in the end we unrolled our sleeping bags in a small wood just outside the Olympic Village.

At dawn I awoke with my mouth full of blood.  Ten days earlier I had had wisdom teeth extracted, and the wounds had opened.  When the blood kept welling up faster than I could spit it out, I became more than a little uneasy.  Getting to a doctor seemed the thing to do; I reckoned there must be one nearby in the Olympic Village.  I had to climb a fence to get in, but it was no more than four feet high, and hopping it could not have been easier.  I walked straight ahead for a few minutes without seeing anyone, and came upon a pavilion, where I think there was something like a mini-mart or snack bar, and there was also a station marked with a red cross.  I’m not sure if the man who helped me was a doctor or a nurse; he gave me something to flush out my mouth, packed the incisions with gauze, apologized that there wasn’t more he could do, told me I ought to see a dentist, and sent me on my way.

Mikael and I were on our way presently, taking the long way round to London, where we would take part in a foreign study program at University College.  Some days later, at a cantina on a beach in the north of Spain, we were drinking Sangria, our brain activity reduced to that blissed-out condition just above the flat line, when on the television screen above the bar there appeared images of something sinister happening in darkness: men running every which way, bodies on gurneys being wheeled off at top speed, ambulances with lights flashing.   I think that was what they were: it was all violent disorder anyhow, an unintelligible catastrophe, who knows just what; probably a plane crash, I thought eventually.  What the hell: planes crashed, but none was to about to do so with Mikael or me or anyone we knew aboard.  It was somebody’s bad luck; we had no worries.

Maybe that evening or maybe the next day we learned of the massacre of Israeli athletes and officials by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympic Village.  That was what we had seen on the television at the bar, without realizing what it was, or troubling to ask anyone who might have told us.  That terrorist attack is of course what most people remember of the 1972 Munich Olympics.  The Games would never be the same after that, for anyone.  But the horror of that occasion, and of others that have followed, and of who knows what to come, cannot erase the pleasure of seeing from twenty feet away some of the world’s best athletes in full glory, in a sport obscure then and discontinued as an Olympic event since, but demanding more courage and devotion than just about anything one is likely ever to do.  I love the Olympics.  Not even Mr. Putin or a pack of blood-crazed Chechens is going to spoil them for me.

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