Wednesday, in august splendor, the Olympic flame was lit and began its long journey from Athens, Greece, to Sydney, Australia. A moving link with one of mankind's oldest and noblest traditions, the torch-passing ceremony was also the unexpected occasion of the first gold medal of the 2000 Olympic Games: The coveted Juan Antonio Samaranch Award for the Quickest Accusation of Cronyism in a Modern Olympiad. The torch had barely been lit when the first runner, by tradition always a Greek, passed it to an 11-year-old girl who happened to be the daughter of an Australian International Olympic Committee honcho. The Australian press, still outraged over IOC pooh-bahs receiving gifts from bidders for future games, immediately fumed that the fix was in again. After two days of maintaining that he'd done nothing wrong, the official, Kevan Gosper, apologized Friday.
As they say in the Racing Form, "Stumbled out of gate." But why dwell on such peccadillos? The Olympic countdown has officially begun. Four months from now, the youth of the world will gather, flags of all nations will fly and heart-tugging tales of lovable oddballs from impoverished countries who built models of the Parthenon out of matchsticks to buy track shoes will be shown in every TV-owning home on the planet. Let the Games begin!
And when they do I will be there, spanning the globe (hopefully sedated and in business class) to bring you the human drama of athletic competition, the thrill of victory and the agony of crashing through a fence on skis in slow motion every Saturday afternoon for 15 years. But at certain crucial, heart-stopping moments in the unfolding epic novel that is every Olympics, I will not be present.
While Salon's readers clamor for a live report from the gut-clenching ninth inning of the baseball gold medal game, I will be watching well-trained horses defecating in a ring. During the basketball final, that delicious all-American turkey shoot in which robotic white men from Croatia or other nations specially chosen for their population's lack of skeletal flexibility play the role of the turkeys, you will find me observing the ipie quarterfinals, copy of "Duelling Scars of Heidelberg Gentry 1745-1780" in hand. As the women's softball medals are handed out and America weeps with joy over our girls, you will find my eyes bouncing up and down, up and down, at the trampoline qualifiers.
Welcome to the world of the unaccredited journalist, dropped with only a credit card into the 17-ring circus of the Olympics ticket-ordering crap shoot.
Actually, it isn't that bad. I just got my ticket order confirmed, and I got into most of the big events. And those I didn't get into (see list above) I am going to somehow finagle tickets for, even if it means I have to auction off portions of American Samoa to those same fish-faced scalpers from Brighton who fleeced me two years ago in Nagano, Japan.
Being accredited has its advantages, as I enviously discovered when I covered the Winter Games sans documents. You get to wear a big laminated press pass on a chain that dangles impressively. You get to ride on the media bus and plug your computer into the media outlet. Mostly, though, you get the best seats for any event you want -- free.
I actually prefer being unaccredited, mostly because it makes it impossible for me to even pretend to be a bona fide sports reporter. Sorry, chief, can't do those formulaic locker-room interviews! Don't even have to pretend I know or want to know anything about the training regime of that phlegmatic Latvian hurdler! Have to go to the bar now for local color! Not enough local color in that bar, have to go to the beach! That beach didn't have the real Aussie spirit, must go to the nude beach! And so on.
Still, if being civilian is in almost every way a good thing, it does mean that you have to order tickets yourself. (And then pay for them, but more on that later.) This is an odd and interesting process.
You order tickets through Cartan, the official ticket seller of the Games. You call them and they send you a big brochure listing all the events, their dates, times and venues. Figuring out which ones you want to go to out of 28 events, and the logistics -- can you make it from the Aquilina Reserve softball venue to the Bondi Beach volleyball site in 45 minutes? -- is hard enough. And on top of that, you have to do the Type I and Type II ticket juggle.
Here's how this works. There are two types of events: Type I and Type II. Type I events are the big, glamorous, more expensive ones -- the gymnastics finals, the opening and closing ceremonies, major track and field events, the basketball and soccer finals, and so on. Type II events include some of the preliminaries in the glamour events, but they are largely made up of those athletic contests that appear on Olympic TV coverage, if at all, right after "Modern Farmer" at 5 a.m. Rowing. Dressage. Table tennis. Fencing. Modern pentathlon. Archery. Synchronized swimming. Badminton. Kayak. Handball. Field hockey. Shooting. Sailing. Tae kwon do. Greco-Roman wrestling. The championship rounds of these less-popular events are Type I tickets, but mostly they're Type II.
The catch is, for every Type I ticket you order, you have to order a Type II. This rule prevents the unseemly spectacle of two world-class badminton players battling for eternal Olympic glory before an audience consisting of their mothers, Bertie Wooster, a dozing drunk and somebody who stumbled in looking for the Badfinger concert, but it makes the ticket-ordering decision interesting. Do you front-load Type I tickets, going to a lot of hot-shot swimming and gymnastics in the first week of the Games and paying for it later in the bitter coin of modern pentathlon? (And just why do they call it "modern" pentathlon, anyway? If they've abandoned "ancient pentathlon," whatever that is -- a combo chariot race/cuneiform tablet speed-writing/reading the entrails of a goat kinda thing? -- why not just call it "pentathlon"? And if it's "modern pentathlon" today, what's to prevent it from becoming "postmodern pentathlon" tomorrow -- with all the nauseating self-referentiality and lack of rules that implies?) Or do you mix and match on a daily basis, bringing yourself down from a baseball-final high with a humbling dose of preliminary rowing?
I opted for the latter, going back and forth from gymnastics to judo, basketball to table tennis. By the time I was done, I ended up as intrigued by the small-time events as by the big ones; I was brooding bitterly over having to choose between Greco-Roman wrestling and trampolining. Besides, there probably aren't any bad events at the Summer Games. Not really bad. You may scoff at sailing, but I've watched curling.
Finally, there's the little matter of payment. Doing the Games right turns out to require a bank account of Zeus-like proportions. Tickets range from $8 to $1,054, with good tickets for major events like swimming, gymnastics, track and basketball going in the range of $100-$350. I ordered 40 tickets, covering almost all the major events for the entire 16 days of the Games -- two-plus events a day, on average. Had I gotten everything I asked for, the price would have been $5,898. Several big-ticket events, including the outlandishly expensive opening and closing ceremonies, were sold out, but the final damage was still $4,026. Throw in air fare and the brutally expensive accommodation (there is almost nothing to be had in Sydney for under $250 a night) and it becomes readily apparent why very few Americans who aren't on junkets or some type of scam will be in the stands at the Olympics. Groups of 30 Coke executives wearing identical red jackets, yes -- just plain folks who are into track and field, no.
Everyman may not be there, but I'm still going to try to stand in for him. I can't wait for September. Cronies or no cronies, keep that torch moving!