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Sunday, August 10, 2008

More Opening Ceremonies Insights

The Opening Ceremonies were HOT. And I'm not talking about the fireworks. I'm talking about sweaty, steamy, dress-shirt-stuck-to-my-back, wearing-a-plastic-bag-in-the-sauna HOT. But we looked so good, I didn't care. The outfits Polo Ralph Lauren gave us – blue blazer, white dress shirt, khaki pants, dock shoes, and what they call an "estate driving hat"– were really classy. The were so sharp, I almost cut myself!

Unfortunately, it was a hot, sticky night in the stadium. Some countries were dressed in tan blazers and they were actually soaked through with big sweat marks all over the armpits, shoulders, and back. The ride back to the Village in the bus was nice, kinda like a rolling locker room.

We left the Olympic Village as a team, all of the US athletes together in several buses, almost three hours before the Ceremonies started. Many of the athletes competing in the first couple days of the Games didn't walk: swimmers, cyclists, volleyballers. There were still a few hundred of us that rode to the fencing venue for a photo op with Presidents Bush Jr & Sr. Rather than individual photos, they tried to separate us into groups. While we milled about waiting for things to happen, most of the athletes chatted or got photos with some of the NBA stars that were there: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tayshuan Prince. I was put in the group with the hurdlers, but check out the sign they had for us. Ooops. Looks like they gave me a 10km discount.

I don't watch enough basketball to care, so I talked with Anthony Famiglietti and some of the other distance runners. Fam is funny. He's got a good perspective on things. We talked politics for awhile, especially about the selection of the US flagbearer, Lopez Lomong. Fam was the one that suggested Lopez run in the 'election' for flagbearer. Each sport nominates one athlete and Lopez was the clear winner of the track & field delegation. In the second round of general voting, he won the honor of carrying the red, white and blue into the stadium.

Lopez is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. He escaped to Kenya at the age of six with several other boys, lived in refugee camps for 10 years, and immigrated to the US to live in a foster home. Bio on Lopez's home page (with quote from yours truly!) Good article in the LA Times. On the athletic side, one of the most remarkable things about Lopez is that his Olympic 1500mt race will be his first international race. He's never raced in anything but collegiate or domestic U.S. races... and now he's in the Olympics!

After I passed on the Bush photo op (like the NBA stars, I didn't care for a photo with him), we all walked over to the National Indoor Stadium where the gymnastics competitions are being held. All 204 countries were seated by country in the stands. It was quite the patchwork quilt of colors. Each delegation wore a different outfit: bright reds and yellows of China, silver blues of Australia, white robes and turbans of Saudi Arabia, blues and reds of Russia, green jackets of Pakistan....

When the Games officially began at 8:08pm local time, the US team was seated in the upper deck, sweating already, drinking water and eating from snack bags that had been passed out. While the drama of the Opening Ceremonies was unfolding next door in the Bird's Nest, the athletes were being gathered to begin the parade of athletes. Greece is always the first country to enter the stadium, an honor given to the country that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. We were number 140 out of 204. The countries were lined up in alphabetical order in the Chinese alphabet. As it was explained to me, the number of strokes in the Chinese character for the country's name determined the placement. So, in Chinese, "United States of America" isn't at the end of the alphabet, it's in the last third or so.

To organize things, the large video monitors were used to list the next country. Occasionally they would cut to the actual Opening Ceremonies for a few minutes and we would "Oooh and aaah" with the rest of the world watching at home on TV. Then they would cut to "Number 117, British Virgin Islands" and everyone in the stands would "Boooo!" Nothing personal, we just wanted to watch the ceremonies. Once we were called down, there was a huge backlog of countries and we shuffled and waited, shuffled and waited for a long time before we dropped down the ramp into the tunnel (it's the same tunnel that I will walk out of and back into for the finish of the 50km). I tried to line up near the right side where the cameras would be and I stayed near the women's softball team hoping that NBC focused on Jenny Finch and her teammates. So far, no one claims to have seen me, but Joanne Dow's husband saw her and we were close. We'll have to review the tape.

At my first Olympics in Sydney, I walked into the Opening Ceremonies expecting a huge emotional rush but it didn't happen. I was too nervous about my race or not in the moment. This time, I really let it sink in and thought of all the work it took to get here. I choked up a little bit waving at people in the stands. Shouting, smiling, screaming their lungs out, all the people in the stadium reminded me of all of you back home who have cheered for me or encouraged me along my journey. At one point, I took a real short break and just soaked it in. And then I kept walking, because that's what I do.

The rest of the Opening Ceremonies, standing and sweating (did I mention the sweating?), the lighting of the flame, the walk back out the tunnel to the buses and the ride to the Village is a bit of a blur. What sticks in my mind right now is that lap around the track. I'm looking forward to getting back onto that track for my race. Just twelve more days! Whoa!


Runningstitch said...

Phillip, thanks for the "Bird's Eye" view of the opening ceremonies! I looked for you and the other US racewalkers, but didn't catch any of you that I could tell either. Best wishes at your race (which I'll also watch online or on TV). If possible, let the Hungarian racewalkers also know that one amateur Hungarian-American racewalker here in Arizona will also be cheering for them as well as our US walkers!

Peter Barna said...

Hey Philip, I think I may have seen your head at the very last second of the NBC broadcast just as they were finishing talking about Jenny Finch. I think you just dropped your head forward for a second.
I'm enjoying the blogs, keep them them coming.

Phil Finlay said...

Thanks Philip for taking the time to write this blog. It makes the Olympics so much more real for us at home. Best of luck to you, enjoy your time as much as possible.

Pat and Phil in San Diego

Phil Finlay said...

Thanks Philip for taking the time to do this blog. It makes the whole Olympics so much more real for us at home. Enjoy your time as much as possible, we are cheering for you.
Pat and Phil