Tuesday, Day 11 of the official count, I finally made it to the real Olympics. It started the moment I walked out on the second half of a handball match, fed up with cheering sections of potbellied Norwegians and Hungarian men going ape over some girls in shorts repeatedly flinging a small ball toward one another's throats. This wasn't what the gods on Mount Olympus had intended, nor anything like the pursuits of laurel-crowned heroes etched on Greek vases that had first got me hooked as a kid (having left me with the erroneous impression that even modern competitors went about running and jumping in the nude).
Fed up with the miscellany of bizarre contests that stray tickets had handed me, I headed straight over to the by-now booming scalper market, conducted openly and with official blessing outside the main subway transfer point to the Olympic complex. I wasn't looking forward to cutthroat haggling, but I had to get back to the roots of my fandom -- and, with just a few hours left before the evening athletic session, I found pricing dropping rapidly into my range.
An upper-tier ticket in hand -- fingers crossed that the electronic scanners would pronounce it real -- I had just time enough to walk six long blocks to the first local restaurant within the vast, vapid zone of sterile new construction surrounding the National Stadium. In a giddy mood, I overordered as usual: hand-shredded mutton with chilies and leeks, home-style tofu, half-moon leek cakes and numbing Sichuan hot eel strips over vermicelli. If ever there were an Olympics of cuisine, China would dominate even more than it was doing already: At this tatty, humble dive, the menu (with lurid color photos to point at) ran to 36 pages and everything from pumpkin to frog.
A full moon was coming up over the Olympic Green, by evening properly populated with ticket holders. Banks of giant TVs were set into rows of new skyscrapers beyond the iridescent humming of the "ice cube" aquatic center. Up close, the latticed "bird's nest" itself was worthy of hours of gawking, if somewhat marred by the lurid color scheme of its lighting and stairways. Inside, it seemed more like just another half-domed stadium, and, given its illusion of openness, was so devoid of cross-breeze ventilation that every Chinese lady in the crowd fanned herself through the multiple heats and medal ceremonies.
Aside from their primal beauty, the main advantage of the track and field events were that they really did draw everyone in the world, to both the events and the stands. There was no way for one nation to dominate through noise or accomplishments, not even the Chinese on this night.
And what a night of drama for my $90 investment: the stocky Estonian so elated at winning the discus throw with one extraordinary heave that he did a full 100-meter dash as celebration, jiggling all the way; the last-second stumble of Lolo Jones and her agonized clutching at her hair as she remained on the track, not wanting to leave; likewise, the exhortations of Briton high jumper Germaine Mason to get the crowd to rhythmically clap him toward an unexpected silver medal; a devoutly hooded girl from Bahrain looking like Batgirl as she even more unexpectedly led her heat; a 1,500 meters without favorites, won once more by a Bahrain entrant; watching runners Jeremy Wariner, Usain Bolt and Dayron Robles win their heats without even getting out of breath.
It was even a day when the security volunteers went out of their way to shout, "Have a great time!"; when English-speaking Beijingers helped lead the subway exodus where signs were missing; and a family of farmers from the countryside, holding several sleeping babes on their shoulders in the hot sun, kept insisting that I take the first taxi ahead of them. On this day, even I wanted to believe that the Olympic ideal was indeed untattered, the flame eternal rather than powered by methane and the heat of jingoistic blather.
Even so, between anthems and agonies, I sketched out a plan to save the Olympic movement from itself and move back to the purity of my boyhood visions, if not the Greeks themselves. Some of these ideas have been floated in some form or another already, but in any case, here's my immodest proposal.
First, save huge costs, the planet and political tussling by rotating the Olympics among perfectible, permanent sites on each continent. (For instance, winter in Norway, Canada, Japan, Russia, Chile; summer in Sydney, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Nairobi.) So that too many events aren't crammed together, causing spectators at home or at the games from missing most of the action, reduce the main body of the Olympics to its traditional core sports: athletics, gymnastics, wrestling, weightlifting, swimming. Precede these with an "entertainment" Olympics, more of an exhibition, in which too silly or too professional sports are eliminated and more common ones like squash, golf and bowling are added.
To reduce nationalism, have all flags banned from stadiums -- countries can host celebrations in educational national pavilions afterward. All participants should wear Olympic uniforms, devoid of national symbols, and be crowned in laurels, not heavy metal medals. The official count of winners by country would also be eliminated. And while it would be impossible now to return to the days of strict amateurism, with its smug hypocrisy, Olympians would be made to agree not to accept any commercial endorsements or profits for at least two years from their performance.
Finally, the fat bureaucracy of the IOC and all its perks would be eliminated in favor of elected governing bodies for individual sports. And above all, the largess of corporate sponsors could be used to make the games entirely free of admission charges -- with the large proceeds from world television rights donated to worthy charitable causes. In other words, a nonprofit Olympics with no behind-the-scene games.
Sound too utopian? Too "bleeding heart"? Until then, I guess, the best that we've got is track and field and a bunch of sweet swift deities in spikes.