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9 sports, 1 day, an Olympic feat

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[August 20, 2008]  BEIJING (AP) -- Nine sports. Five press buses. Six taxis. More than 75 miles. Eight trips through security, with X-rays and metal detectors and ever-upbeat security personnel whose relentless smiles were, by the end of the day, driving me insane.

An Olympian wallow, a 13-hour athletic overload.

A day in my life.

If you knew me, you'd find that strange, because sports and I have never gotten along particularly well. I don't understand much about sports; I don't care much about them and, probably unsurprisingly, I'm not very good at playing them.

Coming from a country where sports is the male lingua franca, where a man can sit down at a bar just about anywhere and strike up a conversation about the Red Sox or steroids or whatever is in the sports pages that week, I just can't speak the language. I've tried. Anyone listening knows I'm faking it.

Now here I am in Beijing, a city where suddenly everyone is a sports fan. It seemed like the perfect time to make another try at athletic understanding. My assignment: See as many sports as possible in a day.


On Monday, this was my schedule: Start with field hockey, end with soccer, and check out team handball, basketball, synchronized swimming, weightlifting, cycling, diving and table tennis in between.

A couple sports, admittedly, were drive-bys -- 'yep, that's soccer,' I thought after about five minutes in the stands. But for the most part I stayed until I grasped -- or had tried to grasp -- the appeal to the millions of people around the world watching the Olympics on TV.

It was a daylong lesson in athleticism, in how stereotypes are broken and how sometimes they are proven true, in finding real drama in places I never thought I'd stumble onto it.

Like weightlifting.

If there was a sport I expected would bore me stupid it was weightlifting. Where, I thought, is the skill in cartoonishly oversized people throwing themselves at barbells? Where is the subtlety in grunting lifters pushing the farthest reaches of brute strength?

At first, it was what I expected. The small weightlifting hall was full of competitors who looked like they got lost on their way to a convention of mob enforcers. There was a lot of grunting, a lot of faces twisted into impressive grimaces.

But as it turns out, there's great drama to weightlifting, a compact narrative of hope and strategy, with each competitor getting three attempts and trying to guess what his opponents will try to lift.

Watch the men one after another, and you also come to see the technique in what they do -- and the profound concentration that goes into it. Because if strength is an obvious part of weightlifting, there's also clearly enormous mental effort.

Just watch Moreno Boer in the moments before he makes his lift, a boyish Italian looking at the ceiling as if he was looking straight to heaven. Or Christian Lopez, an oft-smiling Guatemalan, closing his eyes and moving his lips as if he was praying.

For a few moments, the entire hall goes silent, lost in the lifter's concentration.

In spite of my initial assumptions, I was lost, too.

It was my real lesson of the day -- that I'm clearly no born-again sports fan, but there is plenty of drama in Beijing right now.

I also learned I was bad at predicting what I'd enjoy.

I thought I'd like field hockey and team handball, but instead they came across as low-rent versions of soccer and basketball. And pingpong? It might take impressive skills, and is clearly not the game I played in grade school, but I watched a gold medal match and found it dull.

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So what else did I enjoy? Track cycling. This isn't the Tour de France variety, with its stunning backdrops and herds of cyclists battling it out for the lead. That seems easy to like. What I fell for were the individual cycle-sprinters and teams racing in the velodrome, a steeply banked oval.

The rules can be ridiculously complicated (why, for heaven's sake, do sprinters begin their races moving as slowly as possible?) but it's an astonishing display of strength and grace -- all while moving at more than 35 miles per hour, and often while a cyclist is nearly horizontal and within inches of an opponent.

Sometimes, though, the surprise was that I hadn't been critical enough.

I went to synchronized swimming wondering if the little I'd seen on TV was misleading, and that this odd combination of swimming and gymnastics would turn out to be fascinating.

No such luck.

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Yes, it's complicated -- and that upside-down kicking thing must be incredibly difficult -- but it's impossible to ignore the general weirdness: the constant smiling; the hair pulled back so tightly the women look like they've just had facelifts; the accompanying music that often sounds like something played by German tank commanders when they were invading Poland.

And what is with each pair's eerily matching skin tones? Do they sunbathe in sync? Is it makeup? Do I just not want to know what goes into this particular sub-genre of Olympic grooming?

Leaving the swimming stadium, though, I walked through a media lounge where a cleaning woman was leaning on a long-handled dustpan. She was staring at a television screen, enraptured by the synchronized swimming going on just a few feet away.

It made me wonder: Did I miss the point once again?

[Associated Press; By TIM SULLIVAN

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.




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