James Bond and David Beckham have gone back to their high-speed lifestyles. The Queen has returned to practicing her smile—a little too late, I’m afraid. Mitt Romney has fled London to insult others elsewhere, and all that’s left is the Games, the athletes, the sweat and nerves and dreams, the clocks ticking down their milliseconds, the judges deducting fractions off what looks to us—normal people with haggard hamstrings and wiggly arms—like impossible perfection.
The Olympics in all their drama and hype reels me in. I’m on the edge of the sofa as Ryan Lochte stretches for the wall. I’m a nervous wreck as those teenaged powerhouses of muscle, makeup, poise, and shrink-wrapped ponytails parade out in their sequined superhero Lycra to prance on the balance beam. Even the sappy ads pluck my heartstrings with every Morgan Freeman voice-over reminding me of sacrifice, discipline, guts, and glory.
Unfortunately, Bob Costas and crew typically give only the obvious storyline: the expected narrative. Kid trains hard, runs fast, falls short or smiles victoriously on the podium then cashes in on big-buck endorsements. Fortunately, there are sports writers who go for the gold, who write prose like a well-trained athlete, with precision and gusto, with intuitive rhythm and breathtaking pace. And in Charleston, we’ve got the best of the best right here among us. Not according to me, but according to his literary peers in the New York Times and elsewhere who called Gary Smith “America’s best sports writer” and “the best magazine writer in America.”
Gary is an award-winning senior writer for Sports Illustrated, renowned for his probing profiles and human-interest stories of athletes, teams, coaches, and fans. A Gary Smith story is as distinctive as an Andre Agassi between-the-legs baseline return—a shot that zings past you and you have no idea where in the hell it came from. With perceptive details and a chummy, knowing voice, Gary plays his subjects like they are both teammate and opponent, drawing them close, delving into their deeper drives, revealing hidden strengths and tragic weaknesses. But don’t take my word for it; pick up a copy of Beyond The Game: The Collected Sports Writing of Gary Smith (Grove Press, 1986) or Sports Illustrated: Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories (Sports Illustrated Books, 2008).
Gary is also a three-time Olympic veteran, covering the Barcelona games in 1992, Atlanta in '96, and Sydney in 2000. This year he’s watching London from home, and because he’s about as nice a guy as you can find, was kind enough to offer "Word on the Street" some of his favorite memories and Olympian reflections.
Gary, what are some of your most memorable Olympic moments?
Two moments that stick to my ribs are: Learning in the midst of a big dinner out with Sports Illustrated writers that a bomb had just exploded in Centennial Park in Atlanta in 1996, and most of us bolting to get TO the park while everyone else was scrambling away from it. And the moment when Muhammad Ali appeared up on the rim of the stadium during the Atlanta Opening Ceremony, the torch shaking so terribly in his hand due to his Parkinson's disease that the whole stadium held its breath to see if he could light the cauldron.
How do you find the Gary Smith-type story, beyond the Bob Costa hype? What clues you in to a nugget worth digging for?
My job at the Olympics was to write the "stage-setting" piece on the opening weekend, where I'd try to capture the feeling and energy of the city and the people and what they were serving up to the world. What helped immensely was that my family and I lived for a year in Spain leading up to the 1992 Barcelona Games and a year in Australia leading up to the 2000 Sydney Games. I'd write the closing piece in the third week of the Games that would attempt to convey whatever had emerged as the essence of that particular Olympiad. It was the middle week that was the challenge, since I was one of the few writers there without a particular sport to cover. One year I wrote about a lesbian handball player from Norway. Another year I wrote a profile of a building—the mammoth World Congress Center in Atlanta where a zillion events were being held. Mostly I ran around trying to swallow everything I could, talking to everybody I could, dancing wherever I could, never knowing where the telling detail might be found, barely sleeping and living on adrenaline and fumes.
What is it about athletics that makes for compelling narrative?
Sports makes compelling narrative because it just keeps thrusting its unscripted and absolutely spontaneous head up through every layer of hype that's shoveled upon it. It's a world full of dreamers laying everything on the line... so how can a writer miss?
Finally, what events will you try to catch?
My favorite Olympic sports are track and field, basketball, and table tennis. To get into the table tennis hall, you have to stand in a vacuum-sealed anteroom until it fills with spectators, wait until there's a break in the action, and then be let in quickly so no air currents enter the hall that could alter the paths of the orange balls whizzing wildly across the half-dozen tables.