Some of these stories, at least in bits in pieces, I have recounted before. Others I have not. But I think they are worth reflecting on now, not only because the 2016 Rio Games open in Brazil on Friday, but for the way certain politicians today seek currency by trying to make us think we should distance ourselves from people on the other side of the world because they are different and will hurt us — be it physically, financially, emotionally — rather than help us.
That’s neither the Golden Rule, nor my Olympic gold experience.
Here’s an example:
On my first day in Nagano, Japan for the 1998 Winter Games, I left my new camera on the floor of the taxi that I had taken to the main press center. Within minutes I realized what I had done and I was at a loss. I didn’t know the name of the cab company, nor whom to reach out to.
An hour into my funk, there was a ruckus near the front of the press center. A cab had lurched to a stop and the driver — my driver — had run past guards with the camera.
I tried thanking him, but he shook his head.
He said it had been his fault, that I was in his care and he should have delivered me — and my belongings — safely.
He asked me to forgive him.
Now I’m not a total Pollyanna here. I know along with the give, there is plenty take in the world. And I witnessed both at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
It was actually a day after the Games had ended and I was talking on a pay phone along Las Ramblas, the mile-long promenade that winds beneath a canopy of leafy trees. It is flanked by old churches, flower vendors, finch sellers, outdoor cafes, kiosks displaying raunchy porn and a grand market from whose meat hooks hang slaughtered pigs and the bulls who lost to Sunday’s matadors.
Besides a walkway, Las Ramblas is also a carnival of panhandlers, fortune tellers, and, on this day, a persistent guy who wanted change to use the phone next to me.
I was in the midst of telling my folks back in Ohio how much I liked Spain when the guy interrupted again. I shook my head and started to turn when he suddenly reared back and punched me in the chest.
My leather hand bag fell to the ground and instantly an arm snaked out from behind me. That other guy grabbed the bag — which foolishly held all but $50 of my money, my camera, hotel key and plane ticket home — and took off like the souped-up Ben Johnson.
I spat out a string of obscenities — “Whaaaat did he just say?” my mother gasped — and dropped the receiver. Then, realizing the sprinter was long gone, I went after the guy who’d punched me.
A scrap ensued. My shirt ended up ripped, my cheek cut, my lip fattened … and we both ended up at the police station.
My empty bag was found down the street. My assailant — not a Spaniard — went to jail and I returned to the street in a wave of panic. I was on the other side of the world, was staying several more days and had lost everything.
That evening, I stopped by Casa Leopoldo, a restaurant where I’d eaten regularly, and when Rosa Gil, the woman who ran the place, saw my face, she wanted details.
After I told her, she said sadly: “This is not who we are.”
As I ate, she slipped off and soon was back with a smile:
I would eat for free every night at her restaurant. My breakfast at another place would be gratis as would be evening drinks at a nearby tavern.
She and her friends just wanted me to experience the real Barcelona.
‘Food for their spirits’
When you take an interest in people, they take an interest in you.
That was the case at the 1988 Games in Seoul, Korea and a past-midnight meeting at a place called Indian Joe’s, which set at the dark end of a crowded back street in the city’s Itaewon section.
The sidewalk was filled with a human circus that staggered and sashayed its way through a surreal world of drifting charcoal smoke, flashing neon and pounding noise.
Squid and octopus peddlers pressed their wares, cavorting soldiers from the nearby U.S. 8th Army base roughhoused past, mascara-eyed hookers beckoned and polyester-suited hustlers reached for your arm and pointed to their disco doors.
Looking for refuge, I tromped into Joe’s, which looked like a beat-up East Dayton bar.
I figured the place for nothing more than cheap beer and no promise.
But soon the music of Choi Jin Hi had replaced Bruce Springsteen on the jukebox. Across the room, I watched a young Korean couple push aside a half-eaten bag of Burger King french fries when they saw the old peddler walk in carrying a tray of warm chestnuts.
Soon after two women wearing those colorful Korean ceremonial dresses called hanboks walked in. One was Lee Hae Son, who met her waiting boyfriend and sat next to me. When I asked about her dress I suddenly found myself subjected to enthralling discourse.
“I bought this for holiday. Tomorrow is Chusok,” she said proudly. “This is a special time. Tomorrow I take a bus three hours to my town. My brother and sisters and their children are there and we will visit the graves of our parents.
“It is custom. We will make a big meal — bulgogi, rice cakes, kimchi — and eat in honor of our parents. We’ll go to their graves and leave food for their spirits. For the children, we’ll tell stories about what our parents were like.”
Two days later I returned to Indian Joe’s and the bartender handed me a small gift-wrapped package. Inside were two cassette tapes of Korean music.
Lee Hae Son and her friend had left them for me.
Gaining a nickname
Sometimes, though, your interest leaves you empty-handed.
Such was the case after one of my first nights at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway when a buddy and I were trudging through the snow along Storgata — Lillehammer’s narrow main street — with Ellen Kolberg.
Passing the dress shop, above which she lived with her two daughters, she happened to mention: “There may be a reindeer in my garage.”
I knew THIS was an Olympic moment and after some coaxing, she took us down an alley where we crawled over a large snow embankment and slowly approached the half-open door on the barn-like garage. Peering into the darkness, we first saw nothing.
Then there was movement in the shadows: A big eye … a large, velvety antler … and, rising from its haunches and stepping forward, a full-grown, white reindeer.
The next day I told everybody about it, and that evening I led four new guys to the garage. But when we peered in … nothing.
The shed was empty.
With the laughter came the cracks and my new nickname: Rudolph.
Red-nosed, red-faced, it still made for a golden moment.
One I have never forgotten.