Olympics bound

A December trip to Japan rekindles Gina Arnold's life-shaping Olympic obsessions.

Published January 19, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I once met a man whose hobby was solar eclipses. Every four years, he went with a tour group to the place where it was best viewed, be it Kamchatka, Borneo or Tierra del Fuego. His living room had a map on the wall with all the places he'd been to marked with little red flags; a stranger might be forgiven for thinking he was plotting world domination.

To me, eclipse junkiehood is understandable, since travel is always so much more valuable if it involves some kind of quest or mission. I know, because to date I have swum at the pools used for the London (1948), Helsinki (1952) and Barcelona (1992) Olympics, and I would have swum in Tokyo's Yoyogi Stadium (1964) as well, except that I was there in the winter, when it's turned into an ice rink.

I didn't visit any of those cities in order to go swimming. But the fact is that having a slightly quirky personal agenda has enriched every journey I've ever taken. It has, among other things, taken me to different neighborhoods than I might have gone to otherwise; it has taught me strange bus routes and the word for "bathing cap" in Spanish.

These trips have broadened my perspective in other ways as well. America, and especially my home state of California, takes pride in its swimming pools, but the fact is, they pale in comparison to those of other countries. Take the outdoor pool in Helsinki, for example, where I swam early in the morning of Midsummer's Day 1996, reveling in the clean, rich beauty of a Scandinavian summer. Though this pool can be used only about two months of the year, it is still a fabulously beautiful, immaculately well-kept structure. What does this say about Scandinavians' love of the outdoors? And the Barcelona pool, like so many Spanish things, is not only lovely, but conveniently open for lap swimming -- albeit without lane lines -- until midnight.

As for London's Crystal Palace -- formerly a Victorian-era pleasure ground that is now the National Sports Centre -- well, it has become a kind of sub-obsession with me. After I visited it for the first time, my father, who grew up in Southwest London, confessed to me that he well remembered the night in 1934 when it burned to the ground, and now I collect all mentions of it, everywhere. This is what H.G. Wells wrote about its former glories in "The New Machiavelli": "The plaster Venuses and Apollos that used to adorn the vast aisle and huge grey terraces of the Crystal Palace were the first intimations of the beauty of the body that ever came into my life ... As I write of it I feel again the shameful attraction of those gracious forms." And in a song about London in the '50s, Ray Davies sings, "If you're ever up on Highgate Hill on a clear day/you can see right down to Leicester Square,/Crystal Palace, Clapham Common, right up to Streatham Hill/... north and south, I feel that I'm a Londoner still."

That's how I feel whenever I'm on the train from Victoria to the Palace now, and I have equally pungent fantasies about the roads that lead to all the other pools I've swum in. Indeed, my desire to swim in every country I visit has broadened my acquaintanceship with those cities in incalculably valuable ways; the project has been a pleasant byproduct of my obsession with the Olympics -- and that's nice, because in most other ways this obsession has been both morbid and all-consuming.

It is also, like most obsessions, an indication of a warped perception, to which I will freely own up. Yes, I admit that I have been obsessed with the Olympics -- that periodic orgy in pomposity and sentiment -- since a June Saturday in 1972 when I turned on "American Bandstand" only to find it had been preempted by the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Munich. I was 10 years old and mesmerized by the myriad flags and anthems; and from that moment on, my life had a distinct direction.

A few days after I first saw the Olympics, terrorists took over Munich and killed 11 athletes, thus ending forever the idea that the Olympics were everything they said they were. But I was already a convert to the Olympic point of view; I believed in the dream implicitly. To me, the highest honor life could hold would be to compete in the Olympics, and I was willing to do whatever it took

I was all of 10 when I made this decision, and by 1976, although I was not by any means an Olympian, I had already positioned myself in a place and a sport where such a goal seemed eminently feasible. Of course I'd have preferred to be a gymnast (or even a diver, my first choice), but nature dictated that I take up competitive swimming instead. In 1976, I practiced every day at a pool that would send several people -- most prominently John Naber -- to the Montreal Games that summer. Mrs. Naber was a nurse, and later she would let us hold his gold medals while she drew our blood at the annual blood drive. She probably meant well, but in retrospect, I can see that such experiences only fueled my nightly dreams of marching into a stadium in uniform, most probably in Moscow, in 1980.

And such experiences kept me getting up at 5:30, biking over to my friend Annette's house in my PJs for our ride to morning practice and, 12 hours later, biking home with dank wet hair. We did about 6,000 yards every morning and 8,000 at night, year in, year out; swimming watery mile after water mile in a haze of fog and chlorine, ever chasing that elusive "personal best." It sounds incredible in retrospect, but I know it happened, because as I swam, I used to memorize poetry. "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/creeps in this petty pace from day to day," I'd chant to myself, in the middle of an 8-by-400 freestyle descending on an interval of 5:30 (meaning that each 16-lap segment had to be swum in less than five and a half minutes), the lactic acid building up inside my muscles until they felt like they were made of cement. Or, "Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky." These were the mantras that got me through workout, night after chilly night.

In 1978, my best year at swimming, I got second in the 100-yard breast stroke at the Far Westerns and was named a High School All-American, a feat that won me scholarship offers at Duke and at the universities of Florida, Texas and Washington. Unfortunately, I chose instead to go to UCLA, where the entire team of 18- and 19-year-olds had been to the Olympics already, and hated swimming with a passion that only a person with a four-year scholarship who is well past her physical prime could understand. These women's attitude affected my training adversely, and besides, once I'd started college, I suddenly discovered I had other things to do than swim five hours a day.

I was done with swimming by 1980, the year the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics. A few months before that, I lay prone in a public shower sobbing and heaving when my hopes exploded. My dream died because it was two-tenths of a second too long -- but despite my own personal failure, my obsession with the Olympics has remained intact. I believe I know what motivates the Olympian better than most, and although these days my sympathy is always with the losers and those like me, who never made it, on the day of the Opening Ceremony, I stop my life and give myself over to the TV for two weeks.

During that time, I laugh. I cry. I thrill with the victories -- not to mention, of course, with the agonies of defeat. Summer's better than winter of course, but any Olympics is OK with me: Indeed, in 1994, I rearranged a necessary trip to Europe so that I could watch the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan matchup in "real time" just to make it more exciting.

Additionally, this winter, when it so happened that my family went to Japan for Christmas vacation, I took a day trip to Nagano, the site of the upcoming Winter Games. It was still six weeks until opening ceremonies, but I knew such a trip would enhance my viewing pleasure; besides, I wanted the merch.

So one day in December, my sister and I took the brand new shinkansen bullet train across the island of Honshu to Nagano City. Even without the Games in the offing, this would have been a great escape from the vast urbanity of Tokyo. At one point, we even caught a breathtaking glimpse of Mount Fuji; it passed out of view well before we were sick of it.

Nagano City has a brand new train station that has been super-sized for the Olympics, and there's a visitor's bureau with helpful maps in English, but otherwise, the place is nearly English-free. From the station one can see, far off, the tip of a stadium, but that was as close to the Olympics as we got. In downtown Nagano, we found a very nice book store-cafe and a Cafe Pronto, one of the few self-serve (and thus reasonably priced) chains where one can get a cappuccino in Japan. We also found, next to the train station, the department store whose second floor is devoted to the all-important Olympic merchandise, called Snowlets. Still, I was surprised at how little Olympic merchandise was available, not just in Nagano, but throughout Japan. By contrast, in Salt Lake City, they've been selling merch for the 2002 Olympics for the last four years -- one year longer than they've known whether they would be awarded the site or not.

Nagano was great fun -- but only because the Olympics were not yet going on there. I've never been to the Olympics in person, although in 1992, I was in Spain with Nirvana a mere two weeks before the start of the Games, and last summer, while traveling with Lollapalooza between Knoxville, Tenn., and New Orleans, I had a chance to hop Soundgarden's bus for their one-off gig in Atlanta -- which I refused. I could, of course, have attended the L.A. Olympics in 1984, but that was at the height of my denial, a time when I passionately hid my jockish past and told everyone what a punk rocker I was.

Besides, that time was too close to the time of my own defeat. I still knew people who'd made it, and therein lies the rub. I tell myself that I don't go to the Games because it'd be an expensive and unpleasant hassle, but the truth is, I'm still disappointed that I didn't ever make it. Oh, I can watch it on TV, but I know that if I was ever really there in person I'd be scorched with envy and regret; I'd look hungrily at the people in uniform with their all access passes and Olympic-ring tattoos -- the ones we swore we'd get the minute we made the team -- the way Howlin' Wolf probably watched the Rolling Stones in London in 1964.

Because you know what? I deserved to make it. I did. I put in my yardage; I logged my time. But at a certain point, nature took over, and the winners were bigger, taller, stronger, more flexible. Tracy Caulkins beat me because she had longer legs and more flexible shoulders, not because she worked any harder at workout than I did.

And you know what else? When I found that out, I was stunned. Up until then, I had thought that, in America, if you tried hard enough, you succeeded. I was inculcated with this belief that if you want something bad enough, you'll get it; that determination and hard work will always win out, like on all those ABC Afterschool specials.

But the Olympics taught me that that's not true, that what wins out in the end is inborn talent, luck and a complete lack of nerves. To get to the Olympics, you have to have no imagination -- because once you can picture defeat, you're lost.

I actually know people who smacked up with reality harder than I did: a sure-fire team member who broke his arm two weeks before trials; a person who missed by one one-hundredth of a second and so on. But those things aren't even as sad as the case of Tonia Kwiatkowski, the 26-year-old figure skater who got fourth at the Olympic trials this year -- right after winner Michelle Kwan and qualifiers Tara Lipinski and Nicole Bobek. It was Kwiatkowski's 13th time at Nationals and her last chance to go to the Olympics, but she fell on her triple lutz.

The U.S. ice skating committee could still have chosen to send her, but I am told that it's more likely that they would have bumped her in favor of Lipinski and Bobek, even if she had beaten them. Because the truth is that, although Tonia Kwiatkowski exemplifies everything positive about sports -- guts, good humor, stick-to-it-ness and courage in the face of adversity -- those are not the things that the Olympic Committee wishes to reward. They reward the people who have Campbell soup contracts: little girls with big smiles and no experience of pain.

But you know, it's a weird thing. Although I can see through the Olympic system like glass now, and the truth of its hypocrisies are self-evident, my feelings about the Olympics are still highly conflicted. Despite all the people I've known who've failed to qualify -- the tragedies, the drug addicts, the Jesus Freaks, the dullards -- despite Tonia Kwiatkowski and Tonya Harding, for God's sake, the damn thing still holds me in thrall.

That's why I go swim in the pools I should have conquered, and why, every two years, I tune in, rapt. A part of me is able to laugh at men in tights and women in tutus, at "The Terminator" and "Tomba la Bomba." But another part is held absolutely captive, frozen emotionally at age 10. I love it when someone makes the Olympics who's dad did before them (like Michael Weiss, on this year's men's figure skating team), or when they overcome great personal trials, like Oksana Baiul; the cornier the story, the better.

See, now that I'm out of the brutal chase, the Olympics seem to reside in some Harlequin corner of my heart where they still symbolize what they said they symbolized in the first place. And in that place deep inside me, it's not about being swifter, or fleeter, or higher, or stronger; it's not about winning but about taking part. That may not be true at the real Olympics, but it's a policy that's enriched my life, and in the end, what matters more: one two-minute race, or a lifetime of little attempts?

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

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