Olympics 2004: Diary from Athens

August 23, 2004

Diving Alone and Undaunted

Japan's Takiri Miyazaki dives during the semifinals of the women's 10-meter platform diving competition in Athens, Aug. 21, 2004.
Japan's Takiri Miyazaki dives during the semifinals of the women's 10-meter platform diving competition in Athens, Aug. 21, 2004. ·
Credit: Reuters
By Uri Berliner
Television can do a great job of conveying the drama of sport thorough the use of close-ups, varied camera angles and slow motion. But sometimes it takes being on the scene to understand the essence of an event -- especially those individual sports where athletes compete on a stage of their own. Diving events in Athens are held in a cavernous, indoor arena that holds 5,800 people.

Walking into the place, I was initially disoriented because I didn't see the diving platform. Then I looked higher. And higher. There, 10 meters above the pool's surface, was the platform, with a single figure, a teenage girl perched on the edge. All eyes were on her. That perch seemed like the loneliest place in the world. Simply jumping into the water from that height would be enough to make a normal person's heart race. Now consider the young diver's situation. She's the single object of attention in an arena filled with coaches, competitors and total strangers. Others are watching on TV. And she has a complex acrobatic routine to execute that culminates years of training -- from the height of a three-story building.

The dive isn't perfect, but it's still a logic-defying descent of tightly controlled twists and somersaults. The judges render their scores -- good, but not outstanding. The diver calmly climbs out of the pool and towels off, suddenly anonymous. They don't give marks for courage at the Olympics. But what else would compel the solitary diver to take the plunge?

August 19, 2004

NPR's Aunt Nikky: Lawbreaker, Lifesaver

Nikky Caligiri owns a souvenir shop in Olympia and takes pity on desperate travelers, including NPR producer Taki Telonidis.
Nikky Caligiri owns a souvenir shop in Olympia and takes pity on desperate travelers, including NPR producer Taki Telonidis. ·
Credit: Ed Hula/ aroundtherings.com
By Taki Telonidis
As many of you know by now, one of the recent highlights of the games was the shot put event held in ancient Olympia -- at the exact spot the Olympics were born almost 3,000 years ago. It was an exhilarating and unforgettable day for Howard Berkes and me. But it didn't start out that way.

We arrived in the modern village of Olympia at 8:30 A.M. after a four-hour bus ride from Athens. Our plan was to attend the games, then do an interview with All Things Considered at the end of the day. To maximize the audio quality of the interview, we'd brought with us a portable satellite phone and ISDN, a device that produces near studio-quality sound from anywhere in the world. You point the small dish at the sky, lock onto a satellite and beam your voice into space and into the studio. EASY.

The problem was that we needed to find a place to store our equipment until early evening. This would normally be easy in a place as friendly as Greece. But yesterday, helping us was punishable by law. As a security measure, the Greek police had strictly forbidden local residents from accepting packages from unknown persons. A good idea on any day. Absolutely necessary at an event like the Olympics. But we needed to find someone willing to break the law, or we weren't going to get our job done. We tried the local hotels. Nope. We thought we'd found someone at the town hall, but he was overruled by his boss. We must have dragged our rolling black suitcase up and down the town's main street six times -- looking mighty suspicious I might add. We were about to break down and pay $225 for a luxury hotel room for our suitcase when a light went off in Howard's head. He remembered that a fellow reporter in Athens had said that if we ever need anything at Olympia, to find Aunt Nikky, a shopkeeper he'd met a few years back.

T-shirts flapped in the breeze above her tourist shop as we turned the corner from the main street. Our conversation began in a typical tourist-to-shopkeeper fashion until we mentioned our friend's name. She froze. Her eyes widened. And before we knew it, we were being hugged, offered coffee and generally treated like long lost relatives. Suitcase? No problem! And since you're here, how about lunch? How about a place to wash up? We were having such a good time with our new "relative" that we were running late for the shot put competition.

We made it to Olympia and witnessed this ancient stadium come to life for the first time in 1,600 years -- an amazing scene which we were able to share with American listeners, thanks to NPR's Aunt Nikky.

August 18, 2004

Countries -- and Cultures -- Clash at the Games

British fans cheer on their team at the Olympic Equestrian Center near Athens, August 17, 2004.
British fans cheer on their team at the Olympic Equestrian Center near Athens, August 17, 2004. · Credit: Reuters © 2004
By Sylvia Poggioli
I am a first-time Olympics reporter, yet what I have been struck by at these summer games is not strictly related to sports. The Olympics is a global event, attracting athletes, fans and reporters from all over the world. National pride -- and prejudices -- are not far behind.

The distances between venues are long and taxi rides are instructive -- especially in a country where ride sharing is common. Olympics 2004 meet 2008: exuberant Greek taxi driver tries to strike up conversation with taciturn Chinese journalist.

Greek taxi driver: "So how many Greek restaurants in Beijing?"
Chinese journalist (after question is repeated 3 times): "One."
Greek taxi driver: "Is it good?"
Chinese journalist: "I don't know, I've never been there."
Greek taxi driver (voice booming): "Why you never been there?"
Chinese journalist (looking straight ahead): "Because I don't like foreign food. I only eat Chinese."

At this point, the taxi nearly crashes into a lamppost as the driver takes his hands off the wheel to declaim the superiority of Greek food over all the other cuisines of the world.

A French family from Normandy is following the cycling event in the streets of downtown Athens. We exchange observations on the high prices Athens hotels are charging visitors during the games. The father smirks and says, "Just like in Italy, there's lots of mafia here in Greece, n'est-ce pas?"

Many visiting fans are making a fashion statement: draping themselves in their national flags. This can lead to some lively exchanges -- especially in the city tavernas, where customers watch the sporting events on big TV screens, while wine and beer flow freely. But the one flag that nobody's wearing in Athens is the Stars and Stripes. In the current global climate of widespread hostility toward America, both U.S. athletes and visitors have been warned to keep a low profile.

August 12, 2004

Quietly, Olympic Swimmers Try Out the Pool

Austrian Markus Rogan swims the freestyle stroke at the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, August 12, 2004.
Austrian Markus Rogan swims the freestyle stroke at the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, August 12, 2004. · Credit: Reuters © 2004
By Uri Berliner
Maybe you've been spending a lot of time this month at your local swimming pool. In August, everyone wants to be in the water, and it was no different when Olympians from a handful of countries practiced together yesterday at the Aquatic Center, the site of the Olympic swimming competition. In certain ways, the scene resembled your average municipal pool, half a dozen or more swimmers sharing lanes, casual conversations by the wall at the shallow end of the pool. Sun block and towels spread out on the pool deck.

But that's where the similarities end.

For one thing, as you might expect, there are no slow, medium and fast lanes. Everyone is fast -- remarkably fast. Olympic swimmers are fast even when they're not trying to be. They power through the water even while taking casual warm-up laps. The striking thing when 100 or so world-class swimmers share a pool is that it's pretty quiet. There's none of the loud thrashing and splashing of arms and legs that occur when normal people swim. Great swimmers are like surgeons who make precise, exact incisions to leave the smallest possible trace of their work. They carve through the water hyper efficiently, without much disturbance on the pool's surface.

The Athens pool caused a kerfuffle when Olympics organizers backed off from a plan to put a roof over the facility. It was already toasty under the sun by midmorning, but the swimmers didn't seem to mind swimming al fresco. Spectators might not enjoy the roofless pool in the stifling Athens heat, but the swimmers say the pool is fast and they're ready to go.

Related NPR Stories:

Summer Games Feature High-Tech Swimwear
For U.S. Swimmer Maritza Correia, an Olympic First

August 12, 2004

Café in a No-Man's Land

By Taki Telonidis

As the escalator crept up to street level, I knew immediately that I'd made a mistake. I'd just flown into Athens from Salt Lake City -- three flights, 20 hours, no sleep and luggage that felt like it had been dipped in cement. Rather than take a taxi to my Greek host's office, I had decided to save money and test the city's new light rail system. But when I emerged onto the street, I realized I was in a no-man's land, under a highway overpass with no sidewalk, no people, and no pay phone in sight.

Cursing, I picked up my bags to begin walking when I suddenly felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to face a security guard who'd just emerged from her tiny white booth hidden below the onramp. Blinded by the glare from the badge on her cap, I fumbled to explain my plight and asked for directions to the nearest pay phone. She started to point up the hill, but stopped short, reached into her pocket and handed me her cell phone with a smile. "Here, call your friend." And just to make sure he'd know where to find me, she insisted on giving him directions, repeating them twice. Relieved that I'd soon leave behind this awful, lonely spot, I began to feel sorry for this Good Samaritan who wouldn't be so lucky.

Before I could say anything, though, a small beat-up car pulled up and double-parked in front of us. Three people rushed out of the car as the guard jumped into her booth. In seconds, she emerged with plastic chairs and a small round table. A scramble of giggles, and presto! An instant Greek café complete with sandwiches, coffee, and flowing gossip. In a few minutes, my friend pulled up in his car, and the guard and her friends waved good-bye and wished me well, their laughter slowly drowned out by the rush-hour roar as we drove away.

August 9, 2004

Team NPR Gets Settled -- in the Maternity Ward

Flags fly over the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, Aug. 7, 2004. Credit: Reuters.
Flags fly over the Olympic Aquatic Center in Athens, Aug. 7, 2004. · Credit: Reuters © 2004
By Howard Berkes
The 2004 Summer Games is my fifth Olympics as part of "Team NPR," which the Los Angeles Times dubbed our seven-person group of reporters, editors and technicians in 1984. Five Olympics over 20 years has me thinking of Olympics past and present. Most people remember the Games for extraordinary athletic achievement, unexpected losses and wins, or shameful scandals. But some of the little, inconsequential things swirl around in my Olympic memory.

Here in Athens, the lines at the metal detectors grow longer as the Games get closer. But in Los Angeles 20 years ago, I remember only one metal detector. That was at the opening ceremony attended by President Ronald Reagan. This was an uncommon experience in life in general, as well as at the Olympics.

In Sydney four years ago it was birds that chirped like cell phones, sending all the out-of-towners to their pockets with every tweet. And in Salt Lake City in 2002, it was the hometown crowd having wild, unabashed fun in a place not known for letting loose.

There's already a searing image here in Athens, even though the Games have yet to begin. It's the housing for "Team NPR" and about 30 other journalists. We occupy two floors of a maternity hospital. Our rooms have fully adjustable hospital beds in case we want to sleep like tacos. There are outlets in the walls for fetal monitors. A red tag hangs from a string in the shower. "Pull," it says, "for help." But the best part is wading through the lobby to get to the elevator. It swirls with expectant families, new moms cradling newborns and proud papas buying flowers and stuffed animals in the gift shop. This maelstrom of normal life takes place in what is otherwise a secure Olympic venue. City officials insisted the hospital would still deliver babies, even though it is an island of maternity in a sea of journalists, athletes and officials.

Our hosts at the hospital tell us we have the best rooms. We're sure to have the oddest memories.

Related NPR Stories:

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Team NPR

Howard Berkes

Howard Berkes

NPR Rural Affairs Correspondent

Uri Berliner

Uri Berliner

NPR Supervising Editor, National Desk

Tom Goldman

Tom Goldman

NPR Sports Correspondent

Sylvia Poggioli

Sylvia Poggioli

NPR Senior European Correspondent

Taki Telonidis

Taki Telonidis


Athens 2004

NPR Goes to the Games:

Olympic news, athlete profiles, and updates from Athens.More


The Ancient Games

Unearthing The Olympics

The Temple of Zeus in Nemea. Credit: Jessica Goldstein, NPR

Archeologists rebuild an ancient Olympic Games Site in Nemea, Greece.


History Underfoot in Athens

The Importance of Greek Civilization

A Look at the 'Naked Olympics'