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Malachowski-Harting-JasinkiA-Rio16.JPGPiotr Malachowski, Christophe Harting, Daniel Jasinski, Discus medalists, cool dudes, photo by PhotoRun.net

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

This is my first Olympic Games. God willing, it won't be my last. I am only days into my first Olympic experience, but some truths have already become apparent to me. The Games can be a majestic theater where athletes - their emotions laid bare for all to see - fight fiercely for medals. But the fortnight - as a global gathering and quadrennial celebration - also serves as a magnet for evil: from the annoyance of petty criminals and pickpockets to the unspoken fear of some truly organized act of terror - as occurred at the '72 Games in Munich. And while the metropolitan centers that compete for and labor mightily to host these Games do the best they can, they, too, are exposed for all to see - not only their glamorous areas but also the tawdry, impoverished neighborhoods of their hometown. As the Olympics assaults your senses on all fronts, you have to do your best every day to take it all in; savor it all for what it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Saturday was one of those days. After a rejuvenating - but abbreviated - night's sleep following an opening day where I witnessed two stunning world-record performances, I awaken to a beautiful dawning day of cool, light air, blue sky, and sunny skies. I smile as I realize I would be enjoying the second of 10 consecutive days of fabulous action on the track and in the field. After a quick hotel breakfast, one of the more difficult tasks began: the 75 minute Metro journey to the Olympic Stadium. The trip is a daunting one, complete with a train change at the Central Station - Rio's equivalent of Penn Station - all the while being accompanied by thousands of equally clueless and weary Olympics fans - most of whom speak a language different than yours. The trains - refreshingly cleaner than the NYC subway and thankfully air-conditioned - are always stuffed, like Brazilian sausages, with passengers and usually feature roaming vendors attempting to sell you banana-flavored chips, popcorn, or even beer. "I love their entrepreneurial spirit," an accompanying friend proclaims.

When experiences such as these become overwhelming and fatiguing, you can regain perspective by remembering my helpful Olympic mantra: "You're at the Olympics, for God's sakes. No whining when you're on the yacht. Suck it up. Get over yourself. And allow yourself to enjoy this incredible global experience."

Once at the Stadium, we join others queueing up to go through security - a new and necessary byproduct of life in the 21st century. One's patience can be bolstered by remembering we are fortunate to have these security teams - complete with uniformed police on horseback, soldiers on the street clad in camouflage fatigues and sporting semi-automatic weapons, and bomb-sniffing dogs - there to ensure our safety. As we stand outside the stadium while the line moves slowly, we glance around and are reminded that the facility is in an economically-disadvantaged neighborhood. Not all of Rio is like Ipanema or Copacabana. Once inside the venue, we observe the outer halls filled with bustling fans buying concessions, beer [at a track meet!!], and shirts, hats, and pins to commemorate their attendance at this global gathering.

My friends and I - all members of a well-oiled Olympic tour - are pleased to find that our seats, which change with the sessions, are well-positioned today near the steeplechase water jump and the sprint start - sections of the facility that will be well-used during this morning session.

As we settle in, we are treated to the morning's first track event: the preliminary round of the women's 3000m steeplechase. While three Eastern Africans [Chebet, Ghribi, and Jepkemoi] look quite impressive, we are pleased that all three American athletes made it through to advance to the final: America's Emma Coburn [9:18.12] and rookie professional Courtney Frerichs [9:27.02] earning big Q's and Colleen Quigley [4th in her faster heat in 9:21.82] getting advanced on time. A tripping and pile-up in the second heat spoil the chances for three athletes - with one even losing her racing flat. But justice is served as official post-race deliberations result in all three being advanced to the final. Apprised of this development, we all nod knowingly, grateful for this act of Olympic equity.

Skillful head-swiveling is a must at the Games. And we are ready as we pivot back and forth among the heptathlon, the qualifying round of the women's triple jump, and the men's discus final while also keeping an eye on the track where the women's steeple races are followed by the first round of the women's 400m. In the one-lapper, all three American athletes get big Q's as Allyson Felix [an easy-peasy 51.24], Phyliss Francis [50.58 - fastest time of the morning] and Natasha Hastings [51.31] all advance to the semi-final round. Two Brazilian women compete in the women's 400m. And while they draw lusty cheers from the partisan crowd, neither Jailma De Lima nor Geisa Coutino is able to advance.

Those who follow the athletics closely know that the track & field's leadership is attempting to retool the sport's presentation format to attract a younger following and to allow athletics to compete favorably with the entertainment advances which have become routine with other more successful and popular sports such as basketball, football, and NASCAR. Upbeat popular music plays a big role at the stadium - both between events and even during the competition itself. Segments featuring the intoxicating Samba beat, and hipper, cover versions of classic standbys by iconic performers of yesteryear such as James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and the Baja Men [Remember them?] are much better received than the stretches of bland instrumentals which often seem like an uncanny blend of elevator music and game show themes.

While we are riveted on the three ring circus that is track & field, the stadium - perhaps only half-filled for Day One - is filling up nicely on this sunny Saturday. We suspect that the attendance was spiked by the Bolt factor as the world's greatest sprinter is scheduled to run the opening round of the 100 meters. At its peak, those in attendance fill probably 90 percent of this spacious athletics venue for a Saturday morning session that showcases only one final.

Ah, but that sole morning final - the men's discus - proves to be a dandy. Polish star Piotr Malachowski is cruising along toward the gold medal after a first round twirl of 67.55m gives him a substantial lead he rides through the first 5 rounds. My wife Margaret is not one of his fans. The Pole has a pre-attempt ritual he religiously follows in the ring which includes spitting on his implement and rubbing it in to enhance his grip. "Ew, that's so unsanitary," exclaims Margaret. No matter - it works for him. As has become the field event custom at these Games, the men's disc comes down to another mad, 6th round scramble for the podium. On the final throws, 6th place Martin Kupper unloads a mighty throw of 66.58m/218'5" to move into 2nd and knock Estonian Daniel Jasinski off the medal stand. But then it is Jasinski's turn. And the German follows with a spinning disc that travels 67.05m/219'11" to move into the silver medal position, shoving Germany's Christoph Harting off the podium. Ah, but then Harting - younger brother of the defending champion Robert who failed to make the final - uncorks a real bomb, as he spins the disc out 68.37m/224'3" to move from 4th into 1st, pushing Kupper - who moved into and out of medals in the space of about 10 minutes - into 4th. No longer leading, a startled Malachowski has the final throw - a strained effort of no improvement that results in gold for Harting, silver for the Pole, and bronze for Jasinski. Amazed, we all acknowledge that this dramatic field event battle will long be remembered.

The first 6 sections of the first round of the men's 100 meters are merely the warm-up acts for the event that inspired attendance for so many in the near capacity crowd. When Usain Bolt and the rest of his seventh section field emerge from the entrance tunnel and onto the track, the crowd erupts with a sustained and deafening roar. Make no mistake: this moment is what the gathered have waited for. Preening and waiving, the two-time defending Olympic 100 meter champion does not disappoint. Bolt - with a loping stride that looks relaxed compared to the frenetic turnover exhibited by his competitors - wins his section handily in an eased-up 10.07. In just over ten seconds of performance, the legendary sprinter gives the crowd what they came to see. The dash man with rock star status will be back on stage Sunday evening for what the crowd hopes will be a two-act demonstration of sprinting greatness. A single thought is entertained by many in attendance who marvel at the Jamaican's skilled performance and his charismatic presence: How will track & field ever be able to fill the void that will be created when Usain Bolt decides it is time to step away from the sport?

At the conclusion of the morning session, the festive crowd pours out of the stadium, onto the street, and head like a herd of cattle to the waiting trains back to the inner city. The 75 minute one-way commute can be a punishing experience of standing in packed cars and navigating like a nimble running back through bustling throngs in crowded stations. The impact is cumulative and is exacerbated by a brutal athletics schedule of two sessions daily that begin mid-morning and don't conclude until nearly mid-night - with the train trip to follow. Exhausted, I return to my hotel room knowing that a writing obligation rules out any possibility of a nap. As I pause to map out when I will have to leave again for the train ride back to the track & field venue, I am struck by a single realization: I can't wait to get back in that stadium again.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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