Mr. Vladimir Putin intends that the current Olympic games be forever stamped with his glory. Sochi is being protected by a “Ring of Steel.” Thus has spoken Russia’s current Man of Steel, who sees himself as the rightful descendant of the original, although Mr. Putin’s bared breasts on such frequent display tend to undermine the desired effect; as with most sexagenarians, there is at least as much suet as steel to his pectorals. But of course the security forces who embody Putin’s will and compose the Ring, over 30,000 strong, are younger and fresher than their master, if perhaps less practiced in ultraviolence than he. So Chechen and Dagestani mad bombers have been put on notice. The mad bombers, however, are no slouches themselves in the destructive arts; witness the murderous explosions last December in Volgograd, the gray city formerly known as Stalingrad. Such a clever choice of target that was, done with the wit one has come to expect of militant Islam: men of steel come and go, but jihad is forever. One cannot but be apprehensive, then, that this Olympiad will be known less for sporting excellence than for some terrorist abomination or for the hardline crackdown in the name of civilization, or the Russian simulacrum thereof. At some point every athlete and every spectator in Sochi will sense the danger in being there.
It wasn’t always so. One of the biggest thrills of my young life at the age of 18 was attending the Summer Olympics in the company of my Dartmouth College classmate, and dearest friend since we were both eleven, Mikael Salovaara. We were there to see only one event: men’s whitewater kayaking, an Olympic sport for the first time, and for which a man-made course had been engineered where no water flowed before.
In those days, Dartmouth was a haven for jocks with a sufficiency of brainpower: most everyone was a high school valedictorian who had also starred in at least one sport, and who was revved up at the thought of eventual success as corporate lawyer, orthopedic surgeon, newspaper columnist, or mergers and acquisitions wizard. Mikael fit that description precisely, but he was already bored by the ballgames of his glorious boyhood. So during his freshman year he took up whitewater kayaking—building his own fiberglass boat, learning the life-saving Eskimo roll in the swimming pool, and subsequently trying his skill and nerve on swift and treacherous living streams, including some real killers. Mikael’s nerve was never in doubt; his skill would always lag somewhat. His sporting brethren tagged him with the honorific “Suicide Mike,” or simply “Suicide,” for his sublime indifference toward the prospect of violent watery death, which was ever imminent in the next cascade or whirlpool or haystack, or the one after that. Suicide was the most beloved of this band of brothers. Courage counted for a great deal.
A lot of those guys were very good indeed at this sport. One of them stood out above the rest: Eric “The Hammer” Evans, the national whitewater champion, who would go on to defend that title successfully for some ten years in a row. Evans was The Hammer because he smashed his way through roaring water with strokes of preternatural force and deftness, and because he excelled in the post-game decompression known locally as pounding toxins—emptying a keg and the convivial dogpile aftermath constituting the basis of social life in that quaint masculine enclave.
I met The Hammer socially on occasion, most memorably at three o’clock one morning when he and Suicide, ever on the lookout for sport, were hurling chairs, wastebaskets, and other loose objects the length of the dormitory hallway, where they crashed against the wall right outside my room. The young guns were howling with the fullness of the moment. Perturbed by the disturbance, I came out, examined the scene, and made an appropriate remark, which The Hammer construed as a highly inappropriate remark. He advanced toward me, evidently bent on chastisement, his gait deliberate if a bit unsteady. I happened to be, of all things, a hammer thrower on the freshman track and field team, was easily stronger than ninety-five out of a hundred men, and had a couple inches and a solid thirty pounds on The Hammer, whom I was ready to throw back where he came from. But then Suicide came sprinting rubber-legged past his companion, locked me in a bear hug, and screamed in my ear, “Are you crazy? Are you crazy? Go back to bed. He’ll destroy you.” From twenty feet away and closing, The Hammer eyed me with maniacal glee. It was the look with which a lord among men expresses his pity for and amusement at his obvious inferior before he snaps his spine in half. Suddenly prudent, I averted my gaze, as one is instructed to do when happening upon a grizzly in the wild, or being inspected while snorkeling by an eight-foot bull shark. Back to bed: a fine idea. The crashing outside my door did not continue for more than another hour or two, and I fell asleep again before the sun came up. The next time I saw Eric Evans he seemed to have no recollection of that evening; but perhaps the lapse in memory was simple noblesse oblige.
On the roughest water going, Evans was no mere aristocrat; he was sporting royalty. When it was announced that whitewater kayak would be an Olympic event, there was no question but that he would be the leading American medal hope. And even just to see him go for the gold there would be immense excitement for his friends and acquaintances.
Not many people get excited about whitewater kayaking. This was not one of the banner events of the Games, and the relatively sparse turnout was mostly young men, likely a mix of practitioners, aficionados, and friends of friends, as at a recital of late 20th century chamber music. There was plenty of elbow room on the banks of the artificial watercourse; the action was right there. The stream was only slightly too wide to spit across, but all the energy of fast water was focused to a concentrated rage, like a blast from a fire hose. Only the best at the game could dare accept this challenge without immediate regret. Whitewater kayakers compete on a slalom course, maneuvering around gates that dangle above the water on arms extending from the shore. The adepts treat the run as a technical problem, to be solved by artfulness born of experience that reads the water as a master builder does a blueprint, but ultimately conquered only by phenomenal brute strength applied with the utmost efficiency. It’s like a chess game conducted against a merciless rapid-fire clock, in which the pieces are tall as a man and weigh 250 pounds apiece and the players must hurl them from space to space.
If only they knew: the spectacle was more exciting by far than watching men run around in large circles or hurl heavy implements through the air. The element of serious danger always provides that primordial slap to the back of the head; a wrong move and even the most expert kayaker can be upended for an uncomfortably long time, or find his skull bouncing off a boulder. Daring as gymnasts, powerful as wrestlers, relentless as oarsmen, these were athletes impressive as any at the Games.
Most of the racers gasped and grimaced with the strain of the hardest physical trial they had ever faced. The Hammer hammered away, obviously demanding of himself every bit of strength and will he had. He was known for this sort of peerless effort. He took pride that nobody worked harder than he did, and he always faced down pain and fear like a hero, if fear really figured in the picture at all for him.
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.