In the Spirit of the Games: An Olympic Story

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It all started in the summer of 2004. I was a very green journalist working as a reporter at the Kyiv Post in Ukraine.

Lost in the excitement of being in the country of my forefathers, I barely remembered it was an Olympic summer.

Just 1,300 miles to the southwest, the country I was born in was competing against the world in the birthplace of the ancient games.

After weeks of reporting on unprecedented thunderstorms that laid waste to Ukraine’s harvest-white, breadbasket wheat fields, the editor asked if I wanted to go downstairs to the Drunken Lemon, a bar at the base of the barricaded building the newspaper shared with the Israeli embassy.

Feeling good about my initial attempts at reporting in a foreign country, I agreed. We read over the final stories and slotted the rest for the next day, and four of us ventured down to the trashy bar on the first level of the building.

I had drinks with my coworkers in the Drunken Lemon on several occasions, but I had never taken to the place as a familiar, after-work bar.

On that night, it would become my home away from home for the next two weeks.

I’d write my heart out, submit them to the editor and run off to the Drunken Lemon with copy editors, photographers, reporters and editors alike. Most of them had U.S. connections, but many of them were Ukrainians, and I was slowly being absorbed back into the bloodstream of the country my forefathers fled for religious freedom.

I stared at the small television monitors in the bar for days. We watched people swimming and throwing and running. Never once did we see a profile designed to make you cry. I barely noticed the American flags on swimming caps, because the coverage, European, was decidedly more universal than normal U.S.-centric coverage.

It was fun to sit around in a multinational group of people that I had come to adore and sip on good Ukrainian vodka and cheer on our collective athletes.

We snacked on pommes frites, and I would pour water in my glass when my coworkers were not looking, since I knew I could not drink as much vodka as they could.

But then I didn’t have to fly off to remote palatial domas to interview the four oligarchs who then ruled the country. I didn’t have to fear incurring the wrath of Russia, which then, as now, decided the fate of Ukraine.

I was an intern, a green reporter assigned the simple business stories nobody wanted to do.

But I learned more in that summer than I could’ve imagined.

I learned about journalism and having the balls to show up at parliament and ask really hard questions. I learned that you don’t ask a U.S. Senator about gaffs in a book he wrote that might derail his presidential hopes.

I learned that in journalism, your brothers and sisters of the pen are your family. They love you with hard lessons meant to protect you, even when you can’t see it.

I learned that I like to make my own assumptions about the games we call the Olympics. I learned that I loved to dialogue about sports and politics and world affairs instead of listening to NBC provide emotional profiles of the athletes, American, performing.

The 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece spoiled me for the ordinary.

The companionship of my first journalistic coworkers, all-night Olympic-watching sessions that would see me stumbling home at 7 a.m., putting the paper to bed at 2 a.m. and traipsing down to the Drunken Lemon to discuss the beginnings of the Orange Revolution. Something I was privy to without even knowing it at the time.

Most of all, I discovered the career that would frame my life for the next 8 years. The career that would take me from Kyiv, Ukraine to the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. To The Oregonian, to the Missoulian Newspaper, to KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage, Alaska to WBEZ, Chicago Public Media in Chicago.

And now as I watch the 2012 London Games, I’m struck, once-again, by the U.S.-centric coverage, the emotional storytelling, the awful social media integration and yet the power of the games still gives me goosebumps.

The failure and the achievement inspires me. The ability to rise from the ashes, and the ability to remain humble on the podium reminds me of the international spirit of these games.

I love the Olympic Games, but I love them in moments. There are moments I hate too, but the moments I love far outnumber the moments I hate.


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