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For Some, Reaching Rio Requires An Olympian Effort

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Remember when air travel was an exciting, even sophisticated adventure? Airline television commercials featured majestic aircraft soaring into the skies while orchestras unfurled stirring classical pieces and you were invited to "fly the friendly skies." Perky, tailored stewardesses offered you cocktails and served you hot meals. "May I get you a pillow?" they'd ask with a smile. Heck, passengers even dressed up to take to the air. Flying was an uplifting, even soothing experience.

No more. Except for the one percent, commercial air travel is an erratic, numbing, and draining experience. All parties - airline personnel, tarmac workers, gate supervisors, and - of course - the weary travelers - are universally grumpy, teetering on the edge of meltdown as the entire experience is sprinkled with delays, cancellations, robotic service, untidy cabins, and that unruly whining 4 year old who always sits right behind you kicking your seat as you begin your three-leg journey to Milwaukee.

Let's face it: air travel today is the 21st century equivalent of taking the bus.

Three years ago, my wife Margaret and I began planning our Olympic trip, a journey that - for me anyway - would represent the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. Last December, the two of us excitedly put in place the final pieces of our carefully-crafted plan: connecting Delta Airlines flights from northeastern Ohio through Atlanta and on to Rio that would unite us with our Track & Field News Tour comrades for the "athletics" portion of the Games. Completing this final step brought us comfort in knowing that our air travel plans - always tricky - were in place to allow us to visit an exciting and new destination and to be a part, in a small way, of what is always a highly-attended, world-wide celebration of sport and humanity.

As the weeks went by and our trip approached, our excitement grew. Our annual pilgrimages to Hayward Field for the NCAA championships and the Olympic Trials supplemented by regular family room television viewings of Diamond League gatherings ensured we would become familiar with all of the major global players - domestic and foreign. Theses rituals only further whetted our appetite to witness the ultimate global showdown to determine who can run the fastest, throw the farthest, and jump the highest.

The Monday morning of our get-away week, I was brushing my teeth when National Public Radio announced an overnight "major world-wide systems failure" had brought Delta Airlines to its knees, grounding all flights, and stranding would-be passengers around the globe. I practically choked on my Pepsodent. "Now is not the time to panic," I told myself. "Now is the time to prepare to panic."

Animated, I rushed to roust up my bride - a saint who has become calloused by my over-reactive nature. Knowing I wouldn't relent until she did so, she dutifully went online to confirm that our flights - still 36 hours from boarding - remained intact. I breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled up my tie. "They'll straighten it all out in less than 36 hours," I rationalized to myself as I headed off to work.

It proved to be a 36 hour roller coaster. As we periodically checked our flight status online, our confidence grew as the Delta site showed our long-established travel plans remained undisturbed. However, our new-founded confidence was shaken when further news updates revealed that Delta site postings were unreliable as the airline's system woes in some instances included an inability to accurately update flight status. Time for a call. "I know, sir. We're sorry about that, sir. We truly understand," a Delta representative offered cheerfully over the phone. "We're doing all we can. At this juncture your flight continues to show it is on time. But I can't guarantee that. I recommend you continue to check back." Perfect.

Travel day arrived. We were nervous, but we were still hanging tough and looking good. All packed and ready to leave for the airport, we checked the Delta site one final time. Bad news at the doorstep, we couldn't take one more step. Our flight - heretofore unwavering - now, for the first time, showed a significant delay, so sizeable that it would be impossible for us to make the all-important international flight to the Games. Airline transfer is like a high-flying Ringling Brothers trapeze act. But for us, when we would be called to execute that perfect spin to grab that connecting flight, we now suddenly knew it just wasn't going to be there. We sure hoped we could find some safety netting below.

With the clock ticking away, we went to work on rebooting our plans for air travel. Strapped for time, we tried to calibrate how difficult it would be to quickly secure replacement airline tickets. "Hey, at least we're not trying to travel to a glorious tropical paradise which is currently hosting the revered quadrennial global sports gathering that draws visitors from all over the planet." My wife's return glare was withering. Working two phones, Margaret and I were able to cobble together a substitute blueprint. We would secure a multi-legged replacement flight plan from another airline that, while we would lose a day, would still get us to the Games before the commencement of the track & field competition. How much, you might inquire, might next day airline tickets to the Olympics cost? Don't ask. After throwing up a little in my mouth, I was comforted by remembering we had long ago secured travel insurance - easing the pain and leaving me with a little claims processing homework assignment when I get back home.

The following day our three-legged journey to the Games offered no insurmountable challenges. We had, of course, the regular lines, the disinterested airline personnel, three sets of take-offs and landings, and - of course - the whining youngster who inevitably sits behind us. But somehow we weren't as bothered as much: We were on our way to the Olympic Games
I was glad we had rejuvenated our imperiled Olympic trip, but the entire drama of resuscitation had left us both exhausted and in a funk. As I reflected on the two stress-filled days and the toll it had taken on us both, I realized the best remedy to lift us from the doldrums and restore our passion would be to have us seated in a packed and boisterous stadium, surrounded by our friends, and witnessing the world's greatest track & field athletes fiercely competing for Olympic medals on the world's biggest stage. "Hey," I thought to myself. "I think that's coming up next."

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Dunaway AwardAt the 2019 annual meeting of the Track and Field Writers of America, Dave was presented with the James Dunaway Memorial Award “for track & field journalism excellence.”

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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