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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor
The cycling schedule doesn’t have a whole lot of gaps here at the Olympics. Three days of road racing, six of track and two of mountain biking keeps you running from beginning to end. But there were two down days after the weekend road races, which afforded me a chance to take in some non-cycling events.
Tuesday night I managed to score a ticket to the swimming finals at the Aquatic Center in the main Olympic complex (Thank you USOC). I have to admit swimming has never much interested me. I can’t do it very well, and watching it isn’t exactly compelling drama. But at the Olympics all that changes, and even ping-pong (I mean table tennis) and running around with ribbons (I mean rhythmic gymnastics) become a big deal.
The highlight of this night’s action was the men’s 4×200-meter freestyle relay, also known as Australia vs. the U.S. (and Michael Phelps vs. Ian Thorpe). I’m told the Americans weren’t supposed to win this one, but the U.S. anchorman held off the Thorpedo at the finish, sending the American contingent gathered in the outdoor stadium into a tizzy. Bell ringing, flag waving whackos are definitely not the sole realm of cycling.
One of the more interesting parts of the night was watching the interplay of athletes and journalists following each event. Behind the stands is an area called the mixed zone. But “mixed” is definitely a misnomer. Basically there’s a corridor for the athletes to walk through as they head back to the locker room, and along this corridor are several dozen media types, who are kept at bay by a long metal fence. So when one of the swimmers — say Phelps — walks by, you have all these guys pleading with him to come over to do interviews. But most of the time the athletes do a few quick Q&As with the TV people (NBC’s Melissa Stark and her crew had the prime spot at the head of the mixed zone), and then keep on rolling.
The road race was set up in a similar fashion. And even worse the security folks shuffled all the media people into a cordoned off area just past the start/finish line, then locked the gate until the riders had left. I now know what it’s like to live at the zoo.
Wednesday morning during my one-train, three-bus excursion to the time trial venue, I found myself with an hour to kill at the Helliniko Olympic Complex. This is an area south of the city center near the Saronic Gulf where the baseball, softball, hockey (the outdoor kind) and fencing all take place.
It’s also the locale of the canoe and kayak center. From afar the course kind of looks like an amusement park ride, but get up close and you see that it’s some serious whitewater (got to be at least Class III). There was a good crowd here too, which was a surprise considering attendance — or lack thereof — has been one of the big stories in Athens.
I saw a TV interview with one of the British paddlers the night before, and he said it was a great facility except for the water. Normally these guys do their racing in fresh water, but with the Mediterranean nearby, the Greeks opted for salt water. “Usually when you get a splash in the face it’s refreshing,” he said. “But here it just hurts your eyes.”
Of course Wednesday’s big moment came later in the day, watching three Americans take medals in the time trial. I’m not one to get all patriotic and teary eyed, but this was definitely a big day for American cycling. Now the rest of the U.S. might actually get it through their heads that Lance Armstrong is not the only U.S. rider who can race a bicycle. I talked to Dede Barry this morning for a minute and she said her, Bobby Julich and Tyler Hamilton were all headed to the Today Show set at the main Olympic complex later Thursday afternoon to tape a segment with Katie Couric.
Well that’s it for now. Track racing gets rolling tomorrow. Check back later in the week for news from the velodrome.