Commentary

Seizing the Olympic day

Originally Published: February 24, 2010
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Jim Caple spent Wednesday attempting to attend as many Olympic events as possible. This blog was updated as his travels continued. Check out where he landed. (All times are local.)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- My favorite time of the Olympics is when I make literal use of my universal credential and try to go everywhere, attending as many events in one day as possible in my own Amazing Race. I attended seven events in one day at Torino in 2006 and 10 in one day at Beijing in 2008 but it will be a challenge this time to see even six here.

The issue is transportation connections. The Olympic shuttle network for the media generally works well but it's a bit like the old Eastern Airlines thing where every flight had to go through Atlanta. Here, every shuttle route goes through the main media centers in Vancouver and Whistler. This presents a major issue because the routes do not always mesh. Miss a connection by five minutes and you can be waiting almost an hour for the next shuttle.

I walk out of our Whistler condo at 9 a.m. and catch the shuttle to begin my journey. By the end of day, I'll travel via so many methods of transportation that I'll miss only John Candy setting fire to my car. But what the hell. Compared to what the Olympians did to reach their events, rushing to catch a couple buses doesn't seem like much.

10 a.m., Whistler Creekside, women's giant slalom: Lindsey Vonn came into the Games as the Michael Phelps of the Olympics, from the multiple medal predictions and media hype to the swimsuit -- she wore a bikini in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue the week after posing on the cover. ("She can show these pictures to her kids so they can see that Mom was super hot and super fast," U.S. teammate Kaylin Richardson said.) Then Vonn famously bruised her shin a week before the Olympics, emotionally expressed doubt whether she could compete, used Austrian cheese to speed the healing process and came back to win bronze in the Super G and gold in the downhill to become the Curt Schilling of the Olympics.

[+] EnlargeLindsey Vonn
Ales Fevzer/Getty ImagesLindsey Vonn may have crashed, but our intrepid writer is still going strong.

Things haven't gone so well since then. She didn't medal in the super-combined and there is no medal in today's GS, either.

Vonn's time at the last split is the best of the day but her ski tips cross rounding one gate and she flies off the course and into the mesh restraining barrier just before the final section of the course. She lies there in a heap for several minutes before rescue workers arrive and tend to her. "The bottom was getting chewed up," Vonn says later. "I thought I had a good roll. But then I lost the outside ski … I was like a pretzel in the net."

She skies off the course on her own power but it looks as though she is going to need more cheese before her final race in Friday's slalom.

11:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m., Olympic Ski Park, men's 4x10km relay: It's a little odd to walk into a press tent the size of a hockey rink and find it filled with approximately 300 reporters and photographers, almost none of whom are American. The Nordic sports are very popular in Europe and in this case (as well as say, mandatory five-week vacations), the Europeans are right.

The 4x10km relay is the fourth cross-country race I've watched here and they have been by far the most exciting competitions of the Olympics. Unlike Alpine skiers who race against the clock and whose strategy consists of little more than getting down the hill as fast as possible, cross-country skiers race against each other. There are tactics, drafting, and in the relays in particular, vast amounts of time can be made up. And lost. In Tuesday's Nordic combined relay, the Americans went from 36 seconds up on the Austrians to 14 seconds down to half a second ahead to five seconds back at the finish. After a quarter-century covering sports, it normally takes the Stanford band running onto the field and the USC song girls running into the press box to get me excited but my heart has raced so much at this course, I may test Canada's socialized medicine system if the Americans medal.

They will not. The cross-country team came in with hopes of medaling for the first time in 34 years but has been largely disappointed. Kris Freeman, a Type 1 diabetic, had a sugar crash during the 30km pursuit and had to lie in the snow until a German coach gave him some Gatorade to drink. Things don't go much better for Torin Koos (how could he go into any other sport with such a name?) who turns a daunting half-minute deficit into a more than two-minute deficit while skiing the second leg of the relay and leaves the U.S. well out of it.

It could be worse though. Norway's Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset has an equally disappointing second leg that pretty much dooms his team's gold-medal chances, though he makes up for it with gold-medal honesty in the postrace interview room. "My name is Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset," he tells the media, "I skied the second leg and I f---ed up today."

He then went on to put particular blame on his having "seen too much porn in the last 14 days." No, seriously.

And I thought Johnny Weir was a good quote. By the way, according to his bio on the start list, Finland's Matti Heikkinen turned to cross-country at age 13 after playing baseball. Yes, baseball in Finland. I would love to ask him about this but it will have to wait until another day because I have a shuttle to catch.

12:30-1 p.m., Shuttle back to Whistler: I have precisely 30 minutes to get back to Whistler in order to catch the 1 p.m. bus to Vancouver. If I'm late, I'll have to wait until the 2 o'clock bus, which will completely mess up my schedule. Fortunately, I have gold medalist driver Amy Sievert at the wheel and she assures me we'll be in Whistler on time. I trust her. She got me from Whistler to Olympic Park in 27 minutes for the relay. Plus, she knows her business. She and another woman not only drove from her Dallas base to Whistler in 23 hours (road time), they brought the bus with them. "The bus you're sitting in." She'll not only drive back to Dallas after the Olympics end, she'll return for the Paralympics next month.

As we near Whistler, Sievert radios ahead to have them hold the Vancouver bus for me just in case. No need. She has me there, including security clearance time, with three minutes to spare.

2 p.m., Bus from Whistler to Vancouver: This ride completes my fifth round trip between Vancouver and Whistler during these Olympics and I have at least one more, perhaps two, remaining. The trip lasts two hours and change each way but not only do I not mind, I look forward to it. The stretch of roadway is so memory card-filling beautiful that on a sunny day it would be tempting to ride up and down all day long just to see it. The section from West Vancouver to the town of Squamish (about midway on the route) ranks among the most scenic in all the world, winding its way along a fjord-like waterway dotted by emerald-forested islands with snowy peaks rising in the distance. Writers who are so tired and generally cynical they would doze off during the birth of their child wake up to stare in wonder and point their cameras at the windows.

Trust me, sportswriters never have this expression of pure joy unless a team is offering an open bar in the press box.

Unfortunately, low clouds and drizzle obscure the scenery on this particular ride. Even so, the two Russian reporters ahead of me are videotaping the view. One bus driver told me that he saw a reporter recording the entire drive. No doubt the IOC has revoked his credential and dispatched him to Egypt for extreme rendition for a major rights violation.

3:45 p.m., Main Media Centre, Vancouver: This is my first chance to file and now I have to hustle off -- Johnny Weir is holding a news conference, and then there's curling, short-track speedskating, aerials and hockey before I can sleep.

4:20 p.m., UBC media center, Johnny Weir news conference: During the figure skating competition, two Quebec broadcasters suggested that Johnny was a little less than masculine by saying he should skate with the ladies and undergo a gender test. So Weir holds a news conference to respond. The presser was supposed to start at 4 p.m., but unfortunately for my schedule, he is about 20 minutes late because, he says, he was waiting for his agent to curl her hair.

"I grew out my beard a little bit just to show that I am indeed a man," Weir says. "I also want to say to them that I hope more children have the same opportunities as me and the same sort of parents I did, who taught me to be an individual, gave me freedom and taught me to believe in myself. I hope more young boys and girls grow up to have that bedrock of support from their families. And it's very clear to me that those two men talking on the show did not have that kind of upbringing."

Weir goes on to talk about how he wants to take an ugly, nasty incident and turn it into something pretty and positive so that others won't grow up to face the same sort of comments.

And then there are questions about Lady Gaga and whether Johnny enjoys vacuuming, at which point I decide it's time to hit the road for curling.

4:32 p.m., SkyTrain, Canada Line: Because there is no way the media shuttle will get me to the curling venue in time for the Sweden-Great Britain tiebreaker, I ask two people whether to take a cab or the SkyTrain. One says take a cab. The other says do not take a cab. It's a moot issue since it is rush hour, raining and there are no cabs to be had.

Fortunately, Vancouver has a superb light-rail system and the train comes as soon as I reach the station. I not only make it to curling with 15 minutes to spare, but during the SkyTrain ride I stand next to Kristi Miller, who is pushing her 12-day-old son, Mathias, in a stroller. In other words, Mathias was born the day of the opening ceremonies. Talk about passing the torch. This kid is destined to be an Olympian.

"That's what we keep saying," Miller said. "Something auspicious anyway."

4:50 p.m., Vancouver Olympic Centre: I rush into the curling venue just in time to see the final two ends of a tight game between Sweden and Great Britain, the reigning world champs. The Brits don't do well in winter sports -- go ahead, name a British winter Olympian other than Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards -- so curling is one of their best shots at adding a medal to Amy Williams' gold in skeleton. Unfortunately, Sweden knocks them out of the tournament with a 7-6 victory in extra ends.

"Well, it's disappointing. We came here thinking we could win a gold medal," Great Britain coach Dave Hay says in the mixed zone before continuing on in such a thick Scottish accent that I can't make out a word of it.

5:26 p.m., en route to Pacific Coliseum: Reaching the arena in time to catch short-track speedskating hinges on my finding a cab. And the Olympic gods are with me -- a cab pulls up just as I walk across the street.

Like all good Canadian immigrants -- 30 percent of Vancouver residents were born in another country -- the Indian driver is listening to the Canada-Russia hockey game. The ride takes less than 20 minutes, yet it is 4-1 when I get in the cab and 7-2 when I get out. Amazing. The driver turns up the volume with each goal, but he expresses much more excitement about a cricket player who scored a double century the previous night back in India. I express equal amazement, pretending that I have the slightest idea what he is talking about.

5:52 p.m., Pacific Coliseum, men's 500 short track: Thanks to the Olympic gods smiling down on me, I find a cab that gets me from curling to short track just before Apolo Ohno races in a heat for the 500 and qualifies to move on to the next round. Ohno has more medals than any previous American Winter Olympian, though I discount them because (1) he has only once crossed the finish line first, and (2) I hate short track. Still, Ohno has seven more Olympic medals than I'll ever have.

"I know Apolo cherishes the journey more than the destination, but while on the journey, why not snatch up a couple more gold medals while you're at it?" U.S. teammate Simon Cho says. "You know, he's done tremendously well so far during these Games. I definitely wouldn't count him out for a gold medal in the 500 and maybe even the relays, too. I respect that he's about 'cherishing the journey.' I've tried to emulate that style and incorporate it in my own philosophy of training."

It just would be nice if his journey included winning a medal that doesn't involve a disqualification or opponents crashing into each other or someone falling down.

6:30-10:15 p.m., en route to and from Cypress Mountain, women's aerials:

Talk about degree of difficulty. Cypress Mountain is just outside of town, but it is a long haul from short track. First, a 20-minute shuttle back to the main press center. From there, I walk a couple of blocks and am just in time to catch the shuttle up to Cypress. After that, it is a 35-minute ride on a bus that is blasting country music. Then comes an eight-minute trudge to another shuttle, and then a five-minute ride to the aerials venue.

So, I'm sorry, but when Australia's Lydia Lassila wins the gold to end a night of women soaring and flipping and twisting impossibly into the night sky, there is pretty much only one thought in my mind: the return trip down the mountain, which now must be made while fighting for transport with the thousands of fans flowing out of the stands. And it's worse than I dread.

It is Napoleon's retreat from Moscow combined with the last chopper out of Saigon. The line heading back to the shuttle buses is eight abreast and stretches as far as the eye can see, more than a quarter-mile ahead. I experience stop-and-go foot traffic for the first time. Good lord, I think, did they put Norway's porn-distracted Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset in charge of transport here? Can it get any more miserable than this?

And then it starts to rain.

10:30 p.m., Slovakia versus Sweden, hockey quarterfinal, Canada Hockey Place: I make it. After all the hustling between venues, the bus from Cypress drops us off downtown. I grab my gear and take an easy 20-minute walk to Canada Hockey Place, where I am in time for the Slovakia-Sweden quarterfinal game. Slovakia upsets the defending gold medalist 4-3, which will no doubt come as a disappointment to a certain Lars Bjorn back in Sweden.

Bjorn played on the Swedish team that won the bronze at the 1952 Olympics; his grandson, Douglas Murray of the San Jose Sharks, played on this year's Swedish team. Bjorn was hoping to come see his grandson play, but his wife's health isn't that great, and once he saw the price of the airfare to Vancouver, he bought a new TV to watch the Olympics from home instead. He didn't get to see his grandson medal, but he did get to see him wear his No. 3 on the bold blue-and-yellow Swedish jersey -- and in high-def, which ought to count for something.

After six competitions, one news conference and more than eight hours on shuttle buses, taxis, trains and foot, my day is done. But as always, the Olympic marathon is worth it. The beauty of the universal credential is you get to see so much, remember so much. I'll recall Murray walking off into the bowels of the arena, his dreams of adding an Olympic medal to the family lineage dashed. The cross-country skiers powering through heavy snow, falling in flakes as large as Canadian loonies. America's greatest woman skier trapped in the course netting like Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes."

And I'll recall Ashley Caldwell speaking with such exuberance at the aerials, she could have powered an entire Aerosmith concert tour. Caldwell finished 10th, but she has plenty of time -- and ambition -- to improve on that performance. She is 16 years old, yet already taking college credits online.

Asked what comes after these Olympics, Caldwell said, "Lots of training. Lots of workouts, World Cups, competing and then Sochi. I'm already on my next four-year cycle. Starting now. It kicked in when I landed that last jump. Well, maybe after the finish area. My coach always wants me to focus until the finish area. After that, it was Sochi time."

See you in Sochi, Ashley. Maybe Odd-Bjoern as well, though he might want to consider neighboring next to someone else. And Mathias? I expect to see you in, oh, about 2034.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com