The following statement should not come as a surprise, as I imagine it has become evident through my Olympic blog posts so far:
I am a huge sports fan.
I grew up wanting to broadcast the Super Bowl. I religiously followed my favorite teams and, for three years, wrote annual football preview magazines that filled 200 pages. I never sold them, and I never published them online because “online”, at that point, barely existed. But I loved writing them, just as I loved every way I could find to soak in the world of sport.
Back then, I longed for the moments when I could watch, in person, the best athletes in the world.
I still remember, in the early Nineties, going to the Meadowlands in New Jersey to see my hometown Nets take on the Chicago Bulls – and, of course, their superstar, Michael Jordan. That night His Airness played an average game (for him) but still provided a handful of highlights that dazzled the crowd. I savored that game because, for one night, I got to witness the best.
This past Saturday, covering the 2016 Summer Games, I experienced that again – twice.
That morning my colleague Blayne Alexander and I headed to the track and field stadium in Rio to follow and interview some of our local athletes. Several were competing that morning in various events, but they were not alone in our attention.
Usain Bolt was also in the house.
Saturday marked the preliminary heats of the men’s 100-meter dash, in which Bolt is a legend. The “Fastest Man in the World” would attempt to defend his title in the 2016 Games, starting with this relatively low-stakes race. Blayne and I interviewed our competing athletes and then stuck around for Bolt.
He did not disappoint, as an athlete or an entertainer.
Bolt came out to absolute adulation. I hadn’t noticed Jamaican fans at any of the previous Olympic events I attended, but I saw them across the stands here, screaming for Bolt as he arrived and prepared to run. Many of us in the press area stopped what we were doing and waited with excitement to see one man sprint 100 meters.
The gun went off, and Bolt actually got off to a slow start.
But then he caught up.
And he overtook first place.
In a 100-meter dash.
As Blayne pointed out, hardly anyone in the Olympic field could actually make up substantial ground in such a burst of time. But even in a preliminary race, Bolt had displayed his greatness.
Then he walked by us and became a straight-up celebrity. Journalists (myself excluded) took selfies with Bolt in the background as he walked by. One reporter even grabbed Bolt by the arm to get him to talk – an action I found appalling and would never condone.
Bolt didn’t want to talk to most of us, but he showed plenty of love to the fans. He gestured to the Jamaican crowd, which immediately erupted with applause and cheers. He played the role of athlete and entertainer to perfection.
That more than made my morning.
But the evening brought another brush with a legend.
We decided to cover the final night of swimming, which happened to include the final career race of perhaps the most accomplished swimmer ever:
Blayne and I arrived with an hour to spare, which enabled us to witness some excellent races that included a gold-medal performance by the USA women’s 4×100 medley relay team. That provided enough excitement even before Phelps and his relay team took the stage.
Then they came out. The fans, many of whom holding American flags, cheered as loudly as they had all night. I will never forget the noise, but I will also never forget the silence that followed.
The PA announcer requested everyone be quiet so the first swimmers could hear the starting buzzer. In previous races, most of the crowd had obliged, but one could still hear a steady stream of murmurs.
Not this time. As I said on the air later that night, the place was “water droplet quiet”.
The race began, and each country’s first two swimmers raced in their respective laps. As Phelps’ time neared, I couldn’t help but notice everyone around me seem to discover their cell phone’s video camera.
Phelps stepped on the diving board, and a whole bunch of fans pressed “RECORD”.
Much like with Bolt, we witnessed Phelps in action for an infinitesimal amount of time. He swam for maybe a minute … but I still relished that minute, especially when, like Bolt, Phelps proved his greatness by getting an extra burst out of his turn.
He gave the US relay team a commanding lead, and anchor swimmer Nathan Adrian kept it to secure the gold.
I couldn’t help but be grateful for the opportunities to watch both of these legends, especially in such rapid succession. Bolt ran a prelim while Phelps swam the likely last race of his career, but they both proved captivating in a similar way: I sensed I was watching history – and experiencing an event that I could see myself recounting to my future children.
I do not follow sports as much as I once did. I have certainly taken my career in a different direction, this assignment notwithstanding. I don’t write annual football previews anymore, and I don’t watch every game involving my favorite team.
But I know the rarity and memorability of seeing greatness in person.
And this weekend more than fulfilled that promise.
Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.