Kevin Sherrington: Coronavirus forced us inside, but Tokyo 2021 will help us see the world again

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Postponing the 2020 Olympics because of a global pandemic might have seemed a drastic measure, but, based on my experience tromping through nine of these things, it’ll be business as usual.

From a purely logistical standpoint, few nations are as well-equipped as Japan to run an Olympiad on the fly.

And what’s another hitch in a traveling circus, anyway?

There’s nothing so perishable about the Olympics that a delay could compromise, unless you consider that it gives critics another 12 months to get in their shots. Even as you’re reading this, a movement called NOlympics is attempting to rid the world of de Coubertin’s progeny in general and the Los Angeles Games of 2028, in particular. It’s not hard to see the argument. Financial resources are diverted, the homeless victimized, police militarized and any promise of an economic boon a sham, unless you count what ends up in the pockets of a gilded few.

For that matter, why would anyone in their right mind want to host one? Olympics are messy. It’s like holding the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve party. People come to your house, drink your booze, soil your carpet, and when they finally get up and leave, they write nasty reviews.

But it doesn’t mean we don’t want to go.

My last Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, nearly killed me. Needed a bypass once home. No, it wasn’t because of the Zika virus or pollution. For that matter, the conditions weren’t nearly as bad as the air in Beijing. The first week or so of the 2008 Games, you couldn’t see a hundred feet in any direction. I’m surprised the marathoners found their way back. Then, magically, the gray curtain lifted. Except the magic was the result of shutting down industry and clearing traffic.

What the 2016 Olympics hammered home was that if Rio can deliver a worldwide event without catastrophe, anyone can. Political instability, an economic crisis, health scares, bad Wi-Fi and rude fans. Anyone competing against a Brazilian, they booed. And that’s when they showed up at all.

Even with all its problems, Rio had its moments. A U.S. team member told me that he’d sailed all over and found no setting more beautiful than the harbor shining under the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer. It was certainly a break from views of unrelenting poverty.

Some places probably aren’t cut out to host Olympics. My first was Albertville, in ’92. Venues were spread out farther than your family members at dinner last night. Bus rides were interminable. Figured it was just the way the Olympics worked until UPI’s late, great Mike Rabun, who would travel to 10, called it one of his toughest assignments. And he was in the Dallas police department basement when Jack Ruby opened up on Lee Oswald.

As noted above, as efficiency goes, it’s hard to beat Japan. An Eastern European journalist told me that he’d been to every Olympics since Mexico City, and only Lillehammer and Sarajevo rivaled Nagano in ’98.

“The Japanese do all your thinking for you,” he said.

Like most hosts, they knew how to party. At closing ceremonies, the master of ceremonies, dressed in something borrowed from Elton John, worked the audience in Japanese until offering his only English translation.

“The Earth is our home, OK?”

The crowd roared.

“Good,” he said.

Moments like those over the years made as much of an impression as the athletes did. I was in Detroit for the Olympic trials when Nancy Kerrigan cried after getting whacked on the knee, and I was in Lillehammer when she cried over getting silver. I witnessed the birth of the Dream Team in Barcelona; the flash of Michael Johnson’s golden slippers in Atlanta; the splash of Michael Phelps’ eight golds in Beijing.

But the most memorable Olympic athlete? A Norwegian cross country skier named Vegard Ulvang. Vegard the Viking, the media called him. Won three gold medals in Albertville but only a silver in Lillehammer. He’d been distracted. His brother, Ketil, had gone missing the previous October on a run near their remote home. Vegard talked about going back to Kirkenes to find his brother when the spring came and the snow was gone.

They found Ketil’s body in a frozen lake the following summer. Two days later, Ketil’s girlfriend gave birth to their son.

“It was a very special week,” Vegard told reporters. “We found Ketil on Sunday, the baby was born on Tuesday evening, and we had the funeral on Friday.

“The baby means a lot to us. It gives us something back.”

The little stuff stands out: Our Russian interpreter poking me in the ribs during a news conference in Albertville and telling me the official interpreter for the former Soviet hockey team was lying; Ron Fraser starting Rangers draftee Rick Helling against the Cubans in Barcelona, not because he thought he’d win, but because he was the least likely to cry; getting food poisoning on bad Mexican food in Salt Lake City; telling the cashier helping me count change in Atlanta, “I’m not foreign, just stupid.”; the small kindnesses of people everywhere.

Despite all its faults, what’s great about the Olympics is that every couple years, we move outside our comfort zones and see the world for what it is, a big, beautiful place, warts and all.

Even before the coronavirus forced us inside, we’d probably become too insular. We need to get out more. Once this is over, it’ll be nice to see the world again.


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