Nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of the Olympic Games.
Forget the fireworks, the marketing, and the endless torch relay - when the Olympics gets to the business end there is not a show on earth to beat it. I've covered professional sport for 15 years, but nothing comes close to watching the fastest and strongest do their thing. There is nothing, and I truly mean nothing, which matches the awe of watching these real-life superheroes.
However fast you think they run on television, that's like a slow-motion replay to watching them in the flesh. I saw a women pick up a javelin and launch it into the stars. Seeing it fall 70 metres into the outfield almost stole the breath from my lungs. Watching an Olympian in action is a trip for the brain, it can't quite compute what the eye is seeing. I've watched magic shows which seemed more grounded in reality.
My first Olympic experience without the aid of a television came in 2000. I was working for SOCOG, and found myself in a privileged position one afternoon of sitting amongst the athletes.
These are the best seats in the house. You are amongst those who are about to perform. The flow of traffic was constant. Athletes headed off to prepare for their events whilst others took their seats having just competed. Some came back wearing medals. I got to see close-up what it meant to be an Olympian. How this day would be etched in their minds forever, as it has been to mine.
Years of training have honed their bodies into the perfect machine. They've sacrificed everything to get there. Everything for that one day when four years work would come to fruition. I'd seen broken men and women sat there. I'd seen others constantly looking at the gold in their hands, quite unable to take it all in. Though, from that day something else sticks in my memory. A darker side to the Olympic games.
Every now and then the track would fall silent. An chorus of trumpets would sound and the three medalists would walk out to salute their respective flags and the crowd. The athletes in the stands would all rise to their feet in respect for their fellow competitors. They did this for every anthem that day, all except one -the star-spangled banner.
In Sydney the US were hauling in gold like drift-net fishermen. Their anthem seemed to play more than most. Was this lack of respect merely the act of athletes tired of getting to their feet for the same nation? Were they just preserving their energy for others of the underdog brigade? As that evening's athletics moved on, I began to notice that there was definitely some sort of silent protest happening. In the end I turned to the athletes behind me and asked them. Their response was blunt. "They cheat," said one. Really? "Yes," they all replied in union. One even mimed the act of a needle being injected into the vain on their arm.
This troubled me. As an athletics fan I was tired of the stain the drug cheats had made on the sport. Later during the games, in a private conversation with one of the official doctors I recounted my tale of the other athletes not standing for the Americans. She looked around nervously before saying she wasn't surprised.
"There's something not right with the US team," she told me.
"They've found a way of masking the drugs so we can't detect them. They are one step ahead and we're still playing catch up."
She wouldn't name names, but she would say she knew at least one multiple gold medalist, an American sprinter, who would be found out.
So it was not a surprise when Marion Jones, a five-time medalist in Sydney, was later stripped of her medals. Others would fall in the drug scandals which tore through US athletics. Ben Johnson has often claimed that he was the fall guy in '88, and re-examinations of samples given in Seoul seem to back that up. Those athletes are lucky that the carpet has not been lifted. The statutory eight years had long since passed.
The drug cheats of the 21st Century will not be so lucky. Just as Jones, CJ Hunter, and Tim Montgomery have fallen, those who cheat must do so in the knowledge that their day of reckoning will come. That no matter how clever they are in masking their illegal stimulants, the testers are relentless in their pursuit.
The demons continue to haunt the drugs cheats, perhaps they haunted nobody more than Antonio Pettigrew. Pettigrew, along with Montgomery was part of the Gold Medal winning 4x400 team of US sprinters in Sydney.
The demons continue to haunt the drugs cheats, perhaps they haunted nobody more than Antonio Pettigrew. Pettigrew along with Montgomery was part of the Gold Medal winning 4x400 team of US sprinters in Sydney. He was later stripped of his medal after he admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. Ten years after that golden run in Australia Antonio Pettigrew was found dead in his car. Unable to cope with his tainted reputation, he'd taken his own life. He was just 42 years old.
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