Olympic Odyssey

Tucson will be well-represented in the smoggy, controversial Beijing games

Nacey Nymeyer is a great kid, a real role model for homegrown, take-no-shortcuts Tucson athletes--and she has a good shot at winning an Olympic medal in Beijing.

Tucson transplant Bernard Lagat apparently has never felt fatigue in his entire life and could win more than one medal, running in two nasty-long races.

And Abdi Abdirahman, who attended Tucson High School, Pima Community College and the UA, is in great shape and has an outside shot at a medal, running in an even nastier-long race.

Meanwhile, the U S. softball team--chock-full of Tucsonans, UA players and Coach Mike Candrea--stands to dominate the world and run itself out of Olympic existence by pounding all comers into submission. Tairia Mims Flowers, also a homegrown Tucsonan, will be part of that softball team for the second straight Olympic Games. She's a fantastic person, but we tend to ignore her, because she committed the blasphemy of going to UCLA to play college ball. In the world of softball, that's infinitely worse than going to Arizona State.

There. Now, after getting all of the good and positive stuff upfront, I must now add that, for those of us who will be paying attention to these games from here, these Olympics will almost certainly be the lousiest in three decades. And were it not for the fact that the United States didn't even go to the Summer Olympics in 1980, because President Jimmy Carter wanted to make a statement about the host Soviet Union having invaded Afghanistan (what was he thinking?!), these might very well be the crappiest Olympics ever!

Here's a local note for you: Dee Dinota was a longtime Canyon del Oro softball coach and one of the most popular educators in the history of Tucson. When she was in high school out on Long Island, Dee actually made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team in handball, a bizarre game that will probably be on the Olympic docket forever, while softball and baseball get dumped. She's one of the many Americans whose Olympic window of opportunity slammed shut with the official boycott of the games.

If the Montreal Olympics of 1976 were Austin Powers, these 2008 Olympics would be The Love Guru.

Here are at least 10 reasons why these games are going to stink on toast:

1. The worst air pollution in the world!

2. Rampant professionalism, which cheapens the event.

3. Drug use.

4. Men posing as women.

5. Terrible traffic.

6. Kobe Bryant is playing.

7. Government paranoia.

8. Police paranoia.

9. Official racism.

10. Pathetic efforts by the government to hide how bad things really are.

I realize that the first six sound like a trip to Los Angeles, and the last four are like the Bush administration, but these things are all together in one place, and that place is Beijing. Of course, things might turn out to be just lousy and not horrible, but that's not the smart money. I get the feeling that, when all is said and done, somebody from the International Olympic Committee is going to get in front of a microphone, and his voice is going to sound just like Mr. Carlson's did on WKRP in Cincinnati when he said, "As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

It took China a long time to get the Olympics. Japan had them in 1964, and South Korea did in 1988. China put the full-court press on, but despite the fact that they were bidding during the time of open bribery of IOC members, the country still couldn't get it done. It came close for 2000, but the IOC went with Sydney, Australia, instead. The 2004 games had been promised to Athens, but after that, the IOC ran out of excuses and shrugged in acquiescence.

This is not to say that China hasn't gone all out for these games. It's amazing what a centralized government and an almost endless supply of near-slave labor can do. The venues are spiffy. Whether the competition will be equally impressive remains to be seen.

If we'll be able to see anything.

Lacey Nymeyer is a coach's dream, one of those rare first-to-arrive, last-to-leave kids who understands the equation involving hard work and ultimate success. She's been putting in long hours in the pool for years now, and it has paid off, big-time. This past spring, she led the UA Wildcats to their first-ever national championship in women's swimming. (Not long after, the UA men duplicated the feat by giving the school its first men's title in the sport.)

Nymeyer's puckered fingerprints were all over the national-championship trophy. She won individual events, anchored relay teams and screamed herself hoarse rooting for her teammates. She was named an All-American for the second straight year.

But that was just the prelude to what was to come. As soon as she returned from the triumph at the NCAAs, she started training for the Olympic Trials. Her regimen was brutal, but in her events (the freestyle sprints), hundredths of seconds mean the difference between first place and eighth. She knew that she had to shave time off her best-ever efforts, because she would not only be facing the best collegiate swimmers, but also people who didn't have to get up every morning and go to class.

In Omaha, she first swam the 200-meter freestyle, her worst event. "I went out fast and tried to burn people out in the first 100," she says. But she eventually faded and finished out of the money. Then came the 100--her best event. She posted a monster time in the first round, a better time in the semis and then swam her fastest 100 meters ever (54.02) in the finals. Even so, it was only good for third place, putting her behind the mildly legendary Natalie Coughlin and the wildly overhyped Dara Torres. (Being on the dark side of 40, I suppose I'm supposed to root for the 41-year-old Torres, but I'll pass. While I don't think she's juiced, she admits to having had six figures' worth of surgery and has a full-time stretching coach!) The top two finishers make the Olympic team, but in that event, the top four make up the 4-by-100 relay team. However, Nymeyer also will get a chance to swim in the 100 after all, because Torres decided to step aside to focus on the relay.

So Nymeyer is a national champion and an Olympian in the same year. "It's amazing," she says, her somehow nonchlorinated eyes sparkling as she does so. "The NCAAs were amazing, but the Olympics are the ultimate."

Forecasters have the relay team challenging Australia for the Gold Medal.

When the Olympics are over, she'll return to the UA to finish her schooling. She actually wants to become a middle school teacher, which is the equivalent of a guy saying, "If I could choose any job in law enforcement, I want the graveyard shift as a prison guard." Middle school is where she thinks she can do the most good, because that's where kids start sliding into bad physical habits that will haunt them for life ... like slouching while watching TV.

NBC owns the rights to televise the Olympics, and through its family of networks, it's going to try to get its money's worth. The media giant claims that there will be 3,000 hours of coverage, which is amazing, since there are only 360 hours, total, in the time that the games will be contested. It's actually 1,400 hours of television and 2,200 hours of online coverage, which is still more than 360 (unless Halliburton is doing the counting).

Besides the mothership, stuff will also be on MSNBC, with Keith Olbermann proclaiming the "Worst Athlete EVER!"; CNBC, with Jim Cramer just yelling a lot; the USA Network, interrupting its lineup of Monk reruns; Telemundo, suspending its telenovelas for soccer coverage; Universal HD, which is just way cool; and two made-up networks--the NBC Olympic Basketball Channel, where we'll once again be able to watch our supremely talented athletes struggle to beat shorter and slower guys who play team ball, and the NBC Olympic Soccer Channel, which nobody will watch.

There will even be a couple of hours of coverage on Oh! The Oxygen Network. It will probably star Melissa Gilbert and/or Virginia Madsen. Actually, the channel will cover some gymnastics and equestrian stuff. At my house, we've had the digital-cable package for two or three years now, but I don't know if we even have Oxygen. I hope we never find out. (I know we have Telemundo, because my son likes to watch the female newscasters with the sound off.)

The real problem with the television coverage is that there is a 15-hour difference between Tucson and Beijing. If you're reading this at noon, it's already 3 a.m. tomorrow morning in Beijing. In the old days, networks could just tape everything and then show it in the United States during prime time. (When the U.S. hockey team pulled off the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, New York!, they even tape-delayed that. I was watching an NBA game, and the announcers suggested than fans might want to tune in to the hockey game. They didn't give the score or even say that the U.S. had won.)

Nowadays, with technology being what it is, and bloggers and news junkies having nothing better to do, there will be no secrets and no blackouts, and all the really cool stuff will be happening when we're in our REM cycle. We'll have to avoid the news, make sure there's a CD on in the car and not talk to anybody. Just like most Republicans.

The network knows that its numbers will be down; it happens whenever there's a huge time difference. It really can't be helped. What they're hoping for is at least a few good stories so they don't have to manufacture things. Not that they won't try.

One story they won't have to manufacture is that of Tucsonan Abdi Abdirahman--war refugee, late starter, semi-local kid and now a national champion. He was born in Somalia, a place in Africa whose national motto should be, "At least we're not Eritrea." The history of that entire region is grim, and so it came that his father decided the get his family out of harm's way. They went first to Kenya and then finally to the United States.

Abdi attended Tucson High and never gave athletics a thought. It was at Pima that a friend suggested that Abdi try running a race. He did so in long pants and boots--and finished second. "I know it sounds silly," he says in a lilting voice that sounds as though he could be announcing arrivals and departures at a train station in Mumbai, "but it's true. I didn't have the proper equipment. I always knew I could run (distances), but I didn't know it would be any kind of big deal. I was as surprised as anybody."

In no time at all, he was a member of the Pima cross-country team and was winning the state junior-college cross-country championship (twice). He branched out into track and settled into the longer distances.

After Pima, he moved on to the UA, where he finished second in the nation in cross-country and then won both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Pacific 10 championships.

In 1999, he finished third in the U.S. outdoor championships, but had to relinquish the honor, because he wasn't yet a U.S. citizen. (You would think that somebody would have checked on that beforehand.) He earned his U.S. citizenship and went on to make the U.S. Olympic team in both 2000 and 2004.

This past June, he easily won the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials. It partially made up for the disappointment he suffered at the Olympic marathon trials last November in New York City.

"That was one of the worst days of my life," he recalls. "I had done all that training at (Northern Arizona University's Center for High Altitude Training) in Flagstaff, and I was ready. I really wanted to win that race."

But a painful hip flexor bothered him the entire day, starting out as a barely noticeable annoyance and then building into a gait-changing pain that eventually took its toll on his entire body. He had to drop out after 18 miles.

"I was at first feeling bad for myself. But then I heard the news."

The news was that his friend and close competitor, Ryan Shay, had suffered a fatal heart attack at around the 5-mile mark. He and Shay had both trained in Flagstaff, and it hit him hard. "At first, I couldn't believe it. It still doesn't make sense that somebody can be in that great of shape and suddenly die. It's not right."

Failing to make the team in the marathon put added pressure on Abdirahman to finish in the top three in the 10,000 meters. He won his second-consecutive national championship in the event in April, but that didn't guarantee him anything.

He continued to work at altitude and began working with Bernard Lagat, a product of Kenya who went to Washington State and then settled in Tucson, partly because of its year-round training possibilities and partly because his college coach (and now personal coach) James Li is currently the cross-country coach at the UA.

Lagat, who will be competing in both the 1,500 and 5,000 events in Beijing, is known for blowing by people in the last 200 meters, crushing many a spirit in the process.

"I've always admired Bernard's kick," says Abdirahman. "I don't know what I used to think in the beginning. I guess I thought I didn't need a kick."

Abdirahman's coach, longtime UA coach Dave Murray, concurs. "(Abdi's) strategy was always to just go out fast and run people into the ground. His success speaks for itself, but when you get to the top level in the world, you might just need something more."

(Interestingly, Murray declined to go to Beijing, even though it would have been all-expenses-paid. He didn't know where to begin to list the reasons for passing on Beijing, but said that if Abdi is still running in 2012, he'll accompany him to London.)

So, Abdirahman worked out with Lagat, and the two of them kicked some serious boo-tay at the Olympic Trials. Lagat won both of his events, and Abdirahman ran his competition into the ground--and showed a bit of a kick at the end as well.

He gives partial credit to his adopted hometown: "I love Tucson. If I'm gone for more than a few days, I miss the weather. I'll always live in Tucson," says Abdirahman.

He also cites his diet of red meat and Gatorade. "I hear the stories from vegetarians, but meat makes me strong. Red meat gives me the strength to do what I have to do."

He doesn't eat fast food or even go out to restaurants much. But he does like to barbecue. "Oh yes," he smiles, "barbecued steak is the best. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it."

A perfect day for Abdirahman is a long run, followed by a shower, then a leisurely meal. He likes to cook and then eat a barbecued steak while watching his favorite movie, the Denzel Washington sci-fi pic Déjà Vu. He thinks that the movie is wonderfully complex, and he especially enjoys watching co-star Paula Patton's (ahem) performance.

I mention that Patton is married to her high school sweetheart, white soul singer Robin Thicke. It has nothing to do with anything. I just wanted to hear him say, "Oooohhh, really?" as though he had just learned that the train from Calcutta is behind schedule.

Still, Abdi is a loooong shot at the games. While he is the fastest American in the event, he only has the 16th-fastest time in the 10,000 meters this year. On the plus side for him is the fact that 14 of the 15 runners with faster times include seven each from Kenya and Ethiopia, and only three from each country will be in Beijing. (The other is from Eritrea.)

He'll have to run a perfect race to medal, but stranger things have happened. The favorite is Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, who might also be the sentimental favorite. Bekele's fiancée died of a heart attack while on a training run with him.

Abdi's not looking forward to the conditions in Beijing. He's heard the stories and seen the pictures, but nothing can prepare him for the real thing.

Beijing has the worst air pollution in the world. The absolute worst. Worse than Sao Paolo, Brazil, where the heat-island effect sometimes causes the temperature in midtown to be 50 degrees higher than in the jungles at the city's edge. Worse than Tokyo, the world's most populous city. And three times worse than Los Angeles.

When it comes to air pollution, 16 of the 20 worst cities in the world are in China, and the pollution levels are up 50 percent in the past 10 years. One-third of the rain that falls in the country qualifies as acid rain, and 70 percent of the nation's rivers and streams have water that isn't safe for human consumption.

The unhealthy level for air quality is 100, a number that's considered moderate for Beijing. The city recently had a breezy rain that scrubbed the air clean for a brief time. The number dropped to 44, but by the next day, it was 69 and climbing rapidly. Rumors are that American Olympic officials are considering having athletes wear specially made masks when not competing.

When Olympic officials expressed concern, China's response was to move the smog sensors out of downtown and into the city's far outskirts. One guy carrying a sensor backed up so far that he tripped over a weapon of mass destruction.

The bad air probably won't hurt people who do short-burst events (gymnastics, sprints in track), but will wreak havoc on those who have to perform for long periods of time (soccer players, distance runners). One scientist in Australia is predicting that someone will die from the bad air. That may be a bit extreme, but the world-record holder in the marathon, Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, says he will skip the games entirely rather than risk doing permanent damage to his lungs.

The air will probably hurt track and field (which the official Beijing Web site refers to simply as "athletics") a lot. There probably won't be many records set, but records are overrated as long as the competition is good. But the competition will probably suffer as well.

At least Gebrselassie will spare himself the humiliation of trying to get a drink in Beijing. A couple of weeks ago, Chinese authorities went around to bars and taverns near the Olympic Village and warned proprietors not to serve drinks to blacks or Mongolians. (It's been 40 years since John Carlos and Tommie Smith did the famous black-power salute at the Mexico City games.) Lord knows what the authorities would do with someone who's half-black and half-Mongolian. Probably call out the tanks.

As someone who loves sports and the Olympics, I'm going to watch--a lot--but my expectations are pretty low. I hope nobody gets hurt badly; I hope the Tucsonans do their best; and I hope no knuckleheads try to disrupt the games.

Chicago is on the short list for the 2016 games. (Chicago was actually awarded the games in 1904, but gave them away to St. Louis to be run in conjunction with that city's World's Fair. That sort of thing probably won't ever happen again.)

Nobody knows if the United States will get the Olympics again any time soon, but it's a good bet that they won't go back to China for a while.

It's not like there's going to be The Love Guru: Part Two.

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