I originally wrote this piece for my blog on May 12, 2008, three months ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
For fun, here’s my greatest day in sports writing:
So, this was at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. I mentioned here earlier that the Olympics are like nothing else in sports journalism. You become entirely and inexplicably consumed by the Games, especially at the Summer Olympics where there are always about 20 different things going on at once. It really is hard to explain the absurd enormity of being in the middle of it all. From home, I always thought, the Olympics seemed pretty big. But when you are there, diving is like the World Series, water polo is like the Super Bowl, rhythmic gymnastics are like the Masters. Yes, from afar these are still diving, water polo and rhythmic gymnastics, but there, at the heart of it, you are blinded to perspective. You are bumping shoulders with reporters and fans from pretty much every country in the world. You are surrounded by sellout crowds, including many people who may have actually paid a scalper a lot of money to see that day’s beach volleyball match. You are talking only to athletes who have DEDICATED THEIR ENTIRE LIVES to be there for that one moment. You are also pretty much shut off from pennant races and NFL training camps and golf majors and presidential news and anything else that might be distracting. You are living, breathing, drinking, sleeping Olympics. It is everything.*
*I’ve always thought that after three weeks of Olympic immersion, reporters would blindly kill after being shown the Queen of Diamonds.
So, with that background, it was the day of the gold-medal baseball game. Tommy Lasorda was manager of that team, you might recall. I wanted to go somewhere else. It wasn’t personal. We had someone going to the game, and I had already written about Lasorda and that team, and, anyway – I don’t like baseball at the Olympics. I don’t like tennis at the Olympics. For a while they were trying to add golf; I’m glad they didn’t. I like it when the Olympics are CLEARLY the most important event in your sport.
So, I was looking for something cool to write about; this is a big thing at the Olympics. The thing is so vast that most of the time when something cool happens, you are 10 miles away watching something decidedly uncool, like the ancient Pocket Hercules failing to lift weight*.
*OK, quickly, I have to tell this Olympic story. So in 1996, in Atlanta, I saw the great weightlifter Pocket Hercules win a gold medal in front of a wild crowd and it was one of the cooler sports moments of my life. I’m not going to go into that except to say that for the next four years, I kept telling my buddy Vac [Mike Vaccaro] how great this Pocket Hercules story was. I mean I PEPPERED him with Pocket Hercules teasers. “Oh man, you should have been there.” So in 2000, Vac basically went to the Olympics for one reason only: He was GOING TO SEE Pocket Hercules lift weights.
So we go to the event and, well, it’s not the same Pocket Hercules. Now the guy’s out of shape, uninterested, going through the motions, sort of like a weight-lifting version of Roger Dorn. If I remember right, he did not have a single successful lift. And the everlasting image from that Olympics was not the cheering crowd or the triumphant Hercules holding an impossible amount of weight over his head. No, it was a fat Pocket Hercules smoking cigarettes in the parking lot outside after he was disqualified. “Yeah,” Vac said. “Great story.” I don’t believe he has ever forgiven me.
Anyway, while everyone else was heading for baseball, my friend, the impossibly cool Chuck Culpepper, told me about the unbeatable Russian wrestler. It seems there was this Russian wrestler who had never lost an Olympic match. Ever. He had won like three gold medals already, and, if I’m remembering correctly, he had not given up a single point in years.
Now, as someone raised on the power of Ivan Koloff and who had seen “Rocky IV” at least 12 times, I was of course drawn to the story. What could be better? An unbeatable Russian wrestler? This guy was so good there were many scalpers outside the arena. He was so good the president of the IOC was there to give him some sort of special Olympic medal. He was apparently a very big deal in those countries that don’t have baseball, and so I thought he could make a great story.
We showed up in the arena, and, like I say, it was absolutely packed. And it was loud. It was like Boston Garden hockey crowd loud. Now, I should say at this point that I did not understand the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling then and I think this should be pretty easy to believe because I don’t understand the rules of Greco-Roman wrestling NOW. I just watched this Russian guy grapple with this other guy for a few seconds, and I guess it was impressive enough, though no one seemed to be reaching for a metal chair. And then suddenly, without warning, everyone in the crowd all at once shouted “OOOOOOOOH!”
“What the heck just happened?” I asked Chuck.
“I have no idea,” Chuck said.
“Something happened,” I said.
Then we looked up at the scoreboard. It turned out the other guy, whoever he was, had gotten a point. I didn’t know how he got the point then. I don’t really know how he got the point now. Apparently he broke a hold or something. Whatever — even I understood this was a big deal. The Russian had not given up a point in forever. I thought I heard the “Rocky” trainer saying: “You see? He’s not a machine! He’s a man!” So, I now expected the Russian to pick up this poser, fold him up into one of those paper fortunetellers* and be done with it.
*Remember those things — those little origami crafts that girls in school would do, and then they would move it around with their fingers, ask you to pick a color, then a number, and then tell your fortune was “You’re ugly”? Or maybe that was just in my school.
Only, that didn’t happen. The Russian couldn’t budge this guy. And the crowd sensed that something magical was happening. They were getting louder and louder, and the clock was draining, and the Russian was trying to move this kid but nothing was happening, and the sound roared even higher, and people started stomping and clapping and going crazy, and the score was still 1-0 unknown guy, and the clock kept going down, and then I saw what to this day is one of the most emotional sports things I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw Derek Jeter hit the homer after midnight. I saw the Rams tackle a receiver at the 1 as the Super Bowl expired. I saw Tiger Woods chip into a sunlit spot at the 16th in Augusta and watched the ball roll backward, stop for an early curtain call, and then drop into the hole. I saw a young girl land on one leg to help America win a gold medal. I saw Mario Chalmers make a three-point jump shot to tie the national championship game in the final seconds. I saw a journeyman from Japan throw a perfect game (for eight innings — then the closer finished it off) to clinch the Japan Series.
I’m not sure I ever saw anything quite like this. With the clock running out, the great Russian wrestler bowed his head and held out his hand in defeat.
Mayhem. Madness. Insanity. I turned to Chuck and asked, “What the heck did we just see?” But he couldn’t even hear me. It was that loud. Chuck and I started working our way through the crowd and to the press room, and we kept just looking at each other in sheer disbelief. This American — it turned out he was an American — had beaten the unbeatable Russian. It was like all the “Rocky” movies combined into one. Of course, at the time we knew NOTHING about the American — just his name: Rulon Gardner. But that was enough. What a story.
So we got into the press room, sat in the front row, and Chuck whispered to me: “This is amazing. I hope this guy’s a good story.” Then Rulon Gardner walked up on the podium, and he turned to the guy running the show, and he said: “Wow, this is pretty cool. I’ve never done a press conference before.”
Chuck and I looked at each other. Holy cow. This thing was getting better. The first question came, and it was something like, “So, did you think you had it in you to beat the great and unbeatable Russian?”
And Rulon Gardner said, “Well, when I was growing, I used to wrestle cows on our dairy farm.”
Um. Yeah. Guy wrestled cows. Seriously, sports writers, you DREAM of moments like this. I mean that literally. You go to sleep after having interviewed another boring golfer who started playing because his dad was a member of the local country club or some bland pitcher who was the star of his high school team, got drafted high, got paid a sweet signing bonus, played two years in the minors and then got called to the show — and you DREAM about an American farm kid who wrestled cows and ended up winning a gold medal by beating an invincible Russian.
“He mumbled something in Russian at the end,” Rulon said. “I think it was ‘I give up.’”
So Chuck and I were dizzy when we left that press conference. It was flat incredible. The kid was funny and charming and modest and he had wrestled cows. The story could not get any better. And then we walked out, and we ran into this woman, and it turns out that she was Rulon Gardner’s mother. So we asked her when she knew that her son had a chance to be an Olympic champion. And she told us that she knew when, at a very young age, she saw Rulon carry four milk buckets at one time.
Our cup runneth over. The mom turned out to be as great as Rulon. She invited Chuck and I up to her part of Wyoming to go fishing because “that’s where Wilford Brimley fishes — you know, the Quaker Oats guy?” This was the story that just did not stop giving. We said goodbye and we raced back to our chairs and sat behind our computers and we looked at each other, and Chuck said: “How the heck do we even write this? It’s too great.”
I said: “Hold on, I need to find out a little bit about Rulon’s town, see if they’re excited back home.” There was obviously a huge time difference: It was morning, I guess, back in Wyoming. Rulon, as I recall, was from a place called Afton, Wyo., so I called an Afton radio station to find out what the mood was like. And here’s what happened: The disc jockey picked up the phone, but he did not answer it. Instead, he put it down right next to him. He was on the air and could not talk.
And here’s what I heard him say: “OK, well, it’s time for the birthdays. Happy birthday to Steve Johnson over there on Coventry Road. He’s 41 today. Way to go Steve. Happy birthday to little Timmy Wilkins. Can you believe he’s already 11?”
And then, suddenly: “We’re going to have to dispense with the birthdays. We have some breaking news.”
I wobbled back to Chuck. He said, “What did you find out?” I said: “You wouldn’t even believe it. We have wandered into the middle of Bedford Falls.”
And then it really was time to write. It was impossible. We had too much stuff. We have too much GREAT stuff. This guy was like a character out of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It couldn’t be real. Chuck and I were laughing and trying to write and laughing more. Never had a story like it in our lives.
People often ask me how I handle writer’s block. Well, knock on wood, thank my lucky stars, I’ve never had it. My thought about writer’s block is basically that my dad worked in a factory almost his whole life and he never had “factory block.” Sometimes the words don’t come as easily as others, but you do what you have to do.
But this wasn’t writer’s block. This was a writer’s overdose. I had no idea how to sum up a Wyoming farm boy who wrestled cows in a small town where a DJ reads the morning birthdays near Wilford Brimley’s fishing pond and grew up to defeat the indestructible Russian in perhaps the greatest Olympic upset going back to the days when Greeks ran naked through the Games.
“Excuse me,” a man said to me.
Oh boy. Who was this guy? “Yes?” I said. “Can I help you?”
“I was looking for the Gardner party,” he said. “Do you happen to know where they went?”
“Yes,” I said. “I think they went to celebrate at the Hard Rock Cafe.”
“Oh,” he said. “I have to catch up with them. I’m Rulon’s father.”
Oh oh. No. Not the father. I really, really don’t need to talk to the father right now. Why is it that when dealing with the deliberately boring athletes who fill the sports pages on a regular basis, I’ve never had a father just walk up to me?
“Well, sir,” I said, “you must be very proud.”
“Oh, absolutely,” he said. “I’m just so happy to be here. I didn’t think were going to make it.”
No. Don’t ask him. Just point him toward the Hard Rock.
“Really?” I said. “Why’s that?”
“Well,” he said, “you know, we don’t really have a lot of money. So in order to raise enough money to get here I had to sell my world famous sausage stew at the Lincoln County Fair.”
And that broke it. That’s when my head exploded. The father then started telling us about someone who saved him in Korea, but I wasn’t even listening anymore. I couldn’t hear anymore. It was like being in the chocolate factory and having to eat your way out. In the end, it was a match between two men I had never heard of before, in a sport with rules I did not understand, in a place 9,000 miles away, the other side of the world. And I’ll never cover anything like it.
“Can you believe this?” Chuck said to me as we hysterically tried to finish up our stories.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” I said. “I really didn’t need that stew.”