When we were kids, my dad talked to my brother and me about being the best in the world at something. "Even tiddlywinks," he'd say, wide-eyed and rum-breathed. Greatness was greatness, no matter the medium. Wisely bypassing winks, as well as mathematics and logrolling, he steered us instead toward squash — still obscure in the Southeast. And we became the best — if only — squash players in our small elementary school, the last time either of us took the game close to seriously.
As athletic high-water marks go, sixth-grade-squash-champ-by-default was pretty low, just above gifted-spitter-of-watermelon-seeds, which I'd been crowned a few years prior.
Last week, watching the human pituitary glands hurling 16-pound metal balls at the XXX Olympics, I wondered what would have happened if Dad had placed a shot put or a discus in my delicate 6-year-old hands, rather than a racquet. Fame and glory, or tendinitis and stunted growth? Dreams fulfilled, or a broken toe?
Staring in disbelief from the 10th row at the Olympic stadium, I couldn't help but rationalize the fantastic what-ifs: not many people play squash, but far fewer attempt to throw dead weight from a marked circle wearing a spandex suit and a facial expression suggestive of an enema-in-progress.
How many shot putters have you known? Exactly. You could have been one. (Though probably not as good as Reese Hoffa from Athens, Ga., who just won bronze.) Few competitors equals shortest path to the Olympics.
A leading sunglasses maker sent me to London to see the games, and the athletes who sported their shades, through the brand's patented, polarized, practically weightless lenses. A press trip of a lifetime: They bought the tickets I couldn't afford and the hotel room where I barely slept, plus a number of creamy, meaty pies I'm still digesting.
My unofficial chaperones were two English journalists who took it upon themselves to impress the visiting Americans with life in London after dark. As such, we found ourselves prowling the center of the city, following a day of track and field, in search of a certain pub. The Olympics caused many locals to flee from the city for a fortnight. Little was open on a Sunday night except what turned out to be a gay bar where the other American ended up doing a Tom Waits-y version of Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer" backed by a 6-foot-5 drag queen on piano as one of the English chaperones downed a half-dozen shots and broke a picture frame. The other told me to never speak of this night again. (I'm writing, Jon, not speaking.)
"Ah, the Olympics," I thought. "Just as I imagined them to be."
So with a hangover and hazy memories of singing incompetent backup vocals to a Whitney Houston track, I headed into the women's beach volleyball semifinal between Brazil and the USA, held right beside Buckingham Palace. The match began in a crepuscular drizzle, the bikinied American team sliding through wet sand, as my stomach sloshed. I had a beer of some kind. I soon realized I was in the fanatical Brazilian section, where men shouted "Bra-zil! Bra-zil!" in banana hammocks and furry capes, sloshing beers of their own.
I know and care little about volleyball, but I found myself yelling like a madman deep into the third set, antagonizing the Brazilians right in front of me, cheering on April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, two statuesque Americans given volleyballs at a very young age. They pulled off the upset and I gloated jingoistically, totally unlike myself — "America! America! Yaaaahhhh!" — strutting back to the hotel in the shadow of Big Ben, soaked and elated. By volleyball, but also something else.
Afterward, there was a party at Puma Yard, a club space sponsored by the sportswear company that Usain Bolt represents. Inside was most of the Jamaican delegation. Also: a reggae band that looked and sounded possessed, a Bolt simulator that allowed you to run next to a beam of light moving much faster than you, and ganja. Someone mistook me for a tennis player from France.
I'm writing this on the plane home, listening to Whitney via the in-flight system, getting a little misty about the old U-S-of-A. I can't wait to land, find a heavy metal object, and go to Esther Peachy Lefevre Park to throw it. Laugh away, but some of those shot-putting dudes were old; it's not too late to become the best in the world at something really obscure. That's the moral of this story, if you're looking for one.
Last I checked, tiddlywinks is still available.