John Smallwood: A case of Olympic envy

Two defining moments from the Olympics are the Americans' ice-hockey win in 1980 (top) and Cathy Freeman's win in the 400 in her native Australia in 2000. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Two defining moments from the Olympics are the Americans' ice-hockey win in 1980 (top) and Cathy Freeman's win in the 400 in her native Australia in 2000. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Posted: July 27, 2012

I ADMIT that I envied Inquirer columnist Phil Sheridan on Thursday when I saw the dateline on his story: LONDON.

I wish I was there.

I love the Olympics. I have since I was 10 years old and watched the 1976 Montreal games.

The image of Bruce Jenner waving that little American flag that some fan handed him after he won the decathlon is one of those embedded sports images in my mind.

I remember the unrelenting pride to be an American in 1980 when our college kids beat the "big, bad" Soviet ice hockey machine in the "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Winter games.

I remember my anger at President Carter later that summer when he had the audacity to use American athletes as pawns in the Cold War with the Soviet Union by boycotting the Moscow Summer Games.

I was 14 and didn't understand global politics. All I thought was, how could our government, which didn't give a penny in support of American athletes, tell them they could not go?

Growing up, I had hoped someday to be able to attend an Olympics. I've covered the 2000 Sydney Games and 2004 Athens Games for the Daily News.

The Olympics were more than I expected. Of all the events I have covered in my nearly 2 decades at the Daily News, nothing has compared to the time I spent in Australia at the Olympics.

The only thing close was in 2004, when I made the trip to Greece for the Athens Games.

I'll watch the London Olympics, which has its Opening Ceremony Friday night, on TV, but it's not the same as being there.

I am not naïve about the Olympics. I've been witness to cheating by athletes and officials that defiles the spirit of everything the Games are supposed to be about.

One of my most embarrassing moments as a sports columnist was believing disgraced United States sprinter Marion Jones — buying her poker face when she told the world over and over that she had passed all the drug tests and wasn't dirty when she thrilled us in Sydney.

I remember the somber malaise that dropped down on Greece when sprinters Konstantinos Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou withdrew from the Games after first failing to show up for a drug test and then staging a motorcycle accident as an excuse for missing the test.

I have little doubt that at some point over the next 2 weeks, a handful of the more than 10,000 participating athletes will be expelled for testing dirty.

But I have seen unforgettable moments at my two Olympics, and if had a few hours, I could tell you about all of them.

I still get chills when I think back to the atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney when Australian Cathy Freeman ran the 400 with the weight of a nation on her shoulders as she became the first Aboriginal to win Olympic gold. For a moment, it was as if centuries of strife between native Australians and the white settlers who took over the continent were lifted by this one woman's victory.

After 12 years, I am still clueless about the move American Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner used to beat Russia's Aleskandr Karelin.

Still, I recall those in the audience being stunned when Gardner, in the blink of an eye, did whatever he did to beat Karelin, who had been undefeated for 13 years and had not surrendered a point in the previous 6 years.

I remember running across Olympic Park from the track to the basketball arena as word trickled out that the United States men's basketball team — composed of NBA All-Stars — was in a death struggle with Lithuania. I arrived just in time to see Sarunas Jasikevicius square up and miss an attempt at a game-winning three-pointer. I knew he was a big deal, but I put most of the blame on the U.S. players for not giving the Olympics enough respect.

I didn't fully grasp what that had meant to worldwide basketball until 4 years later when Argentina closed the deal against Team USA/NBA, 89-81, in the semifinals in Athens.

"They are great players, but we are a great team," Juan "Pepe" Sanchez, an Argentine who played point guard for Temple, said afterward.

Although I told my editors that I would cover every and any Olympic Games, my run ended in 2008 when I was left off the team for Beijing.

I was disappointed, but not selfish. Every sports reporter should get the chance to cover an Olympics. Covering a Winter Olympics is one of the few things left on my bucket list of sporting events before I retire.

When the initial decision about London was made official, I figured the changing economics of the newspaper industry had put the Olympics forever out of my reach. That may be true, but if I'm not in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, I'll envy all the reporters who are, just as I now envy Sheridan.

Contact John Smallwood at For recent columns, go to

comments powered by Disqus