After two weeks of cashing in favors with various contacts in the worlds of international table tennis and Australian-rules football, this column was able to land an exclusive interview with the Olympic Torch Wednesday as it prepared for the Australia leg of its world tour.
The torch has been beset at several locations around the world by demonstrators protesting China's human-rights record and its actions in Tibet, Burma and the Sudan. Beijing Olympics officials have repeatedly changed the route of the relay and kept the torch hidden to avoid the embarrassment of having it extinguished or otherwise interfered with by protesters.
We spoke by telephone.
How's it been going since I last saw you, in San Francisco?
It's hot, man, hot. San Fran was weird, crazy, ugly. But then things were OK for a while. Argentina, Tanzania, Oman. Nice and quiet. Pakistan and India, they kept me away from everybody.
Where are you now?
I'm not sure. It's getting where you can't keep track. I think, maybe Malaysia?
No, you're in Australia, but I mean, where do they have you right now?
Oh, right. If it's Wednesday this must be Australia. They won't tell me what this place is. It's dark in here, for one thing, except for, you know, me. I'm in some kind of storage room. I think it's an embassy. Or a Starbucks.
How do you feel about all the protests that have greeted you around the world?
It's like, I'm not sure what I'm doing, you know? I'm supposed to be there for the people to see me, and they keep locking me down, whipping me over to the other side of town, running me around a track inside an arena instead of out in the streets where all the people are.
I mean, we all have our thing we do, you know what I'm saying? You do, uh, whatever it is you do, I'm an eternal flame. Well, I'm not eternal. There's like an official eternal source flame thing, which frankly is pretty full of itself and I've had just about enough of traveling with that dude. "Oh, I'm the real eternal flame, you're just a proxy." Put some asbestos on it, pal. I'm just trying to get through this tour.
But like I'm a flame, OK? I represent the Olympics. I bring the message of peace and global cooperation and brotherhood and the Olympic Credo.
That's the thing about how the important thing isn't to win but to take part?
That's the Olympic Creed. Creed, not Credo. "The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."
Right, that's what I was thinking of.
OK, dude, let's go with that. It's not exactly fighting well to hide out in the back of a Starbucks or to sneak over to the other side of town so nobody can see me, because if they see me they might get to protest about Darfur or Tibet. In other words, Beijing doesn't want them to take part, because they might win. The Creed says, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part."
It must really burn you up.
I gotta go. But the Credo is "Citius, altius, fortius." Faster, higher, stronger. Right now it feels like timider, hiddener, pointlesser.
Those aren't really words.
I'm not a word guy. I'm all about light and heat.
Before you go, can you tell us about the Beijing Olympic Games Sacred Flame Protection Unit, the guys in the blue track suits who travel with you?
Can you talk now? Are they there with you?
Yes, right, we're going to Japan next. Very excited about bringing the joy and glory of the Olympics to all the happy people around the world who love China so they can show their support for Beijing and China and the Olympics and we can all ignore the lying Dalai Lama and the extremists --
OK. Those guys are tough is all I can say. Tough. Gotta go.
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A happy side effect of the edict that base coaches throughout the minor and major leagues must wear batting helmets on the field is the return of the flapless helmet. Coaches are allowed to wear protective lids with one or two ear flaps, the types worn in the batter's box, but most have chosen to wear the flapless models.
The helmet rule was enacted after former major leaguer Mike Coolbaugh, a first-base coach for the minor-league Tulsa Drillers, was hit by a line drive and killed in a game last year.
Those flapless helmets, essentially baseball hats, but hard, look good to me. Of course they do. They're what batting helmets looked like when I was a kid. I had a bunch of plastic replica batting helmets that I'd sometimes wear for neighborhood games, instead of a cap. They were cool. They didn't have any ear flaps.
Ballboys and ballgirls have been wearing flapless helmets for years, but who ever looks at them?
The one-flap helmets, which a few players used as early as the mid-'60s became more common in the '70s and were made mandatory for everyone coming into the big leagues in 1983 and after. They always looked dorky to me, as did the two-flap version we used in Little League.
Reggie Jackson didn't wear an ear flap, Steve Garvey did. Enough said. I was a Dodgers fan and Yankees hater, but there wasn't any doubt which of those two looked cooler.
Larry Bowa, the Dodgers third-base coach who has been the loudest of the small group complaining about having to wear a helmet, doesn't look cool. But his helmet does.
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