Thursday, July 5, 2012

Fear and Loathing at the Olympic Trials


If Dr. HST were an athlete, he'd have been a distance runner.

This piece is based on some true events. However, it has been fictionalized. The “facts” in this piece have no bearing on any fact, living or dead. Read and draw conclusions at your own risk. Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

[Editor’s note:] I woke this morning and found a thick manila envelope jammed under my front door. Across it was scrawled: 

“Still alive. Here’s the report as you ordered. Pay me in Vegas.”  --Dr. RVT. 

I thought there must have been some confusion, but I opened the envelope to find some ragged and coffee-stained papers. I knew they had found their way to me for a reason. This is what they said.

* * *

I was ten kilometers from Eugene when the lactic acid began to take hold.  I was used to the stuff inside my body during track sessions, but this was something wholly other.  A nefarious doctor from the suspect and secretive Oregon Project had procured some tabs of an extraneous lactate drug, ostensibly used by athletes to help their muscles tolerate the onslaught of extra milli-moles attacking their body under oxygen debt, but as a rumored bonus the stuff could get you high as an Occupy Wall Street stoner.

The excitement of the Olympic Trials had gone to my head and I was dizzy with anticipation of the debauchery and decadence that lay await in Tracktown, USA.  This sleepy university town would soon be teeming for ten days with thinskin anorexic and manorexic runners, roided-up raging sprinters, and elephantine blobs who threw things flat, round, and spear-like.  It wasn't going to be pretty, and the Evil Empire of Spin, Nike, would have to clean up the mess after the drooling rabid fans left town.

I'd been sent on a scam of a journalistic assignment by the most powerful twins in the annals of Ivy League sporting history.  To protect their anonymity, I'll call them Wejo and Rojo.  The Winklevoss Wimps had nothing on these two.  C'mon . . .rowers get to sit down while they exercise.  The Brothers Johnson ordered me to send them readable reporting on such events as the hammer throw, the triple jump, the 200 meter dash, the pole vault, some hurdles and other events that got in the way of a track meet. A real Athletics event, as anyone with an SAT score higher than their 5k time knows, consists of 800m up to 10k and only deals with the gazelle-like specimens who breed like rabbits in the post-race bars.

Entering Eugene, I half expected there to be a Border Drug Control checkpoint to halt the traffic of PEDS gushing like a bleeding artery into town. Shady agents, control-freak coaches, and doctor Frankensteins were all queuing up to deliver their magic potions to athletes eager to make the coveted three Olympic spots. At the ubiquitous coffee shops, naive conspiracy theorists expounded upon the rumors of this or that Olympic aspirant using drugs to gain an unfair edge.  Those in the know laughed at such cloak and dagger pundits.  These java rubes were fools. If you opened your hungover eyes, you realized that those NOT DOING drugs would be summarily dismissed and sent home by the authorities for daring to play the game clean.  The Head of USATF would call these choirboys and nuns into his office and tell them to stop embarrassing the Dirtiest Sport on the Planet.

My employers had given me enough beer and running porn to keep me happy on their leash for a fortnight: stacks of Track and Field News, Athletics Weekly, and Jogger's World.  As I neared my hotel, I pulled my car over at a dumpster and hurled the entire lot into the bin. I needed more room for track groupies in my back seat.  As long as I wasn't caught with a live boy or a dead girl, this was going to be one helluva week.

The Brothers Johnson, my afore-mentioned bosses, ran a website for running junkies. Letsrun.com sounds like a platform for shiny, happy weekend warriors, but it was actually a haven for the seriously unwell. These addicts jammed the site's Message Boards with such pressing concerns as "Should I masturbate before a race?" and "Why won't Suzy Favor Hamilton give me the time of day?" It didn't take long before Web marketers and advertisers saw that they could exploit these hapless dreamers by shoveling performance-promising hyped products down their gaping throats. The Brojos made such a WallStreetesque killing that they could both sit back in their Texas lounge chairs and send errand boys like me into the fray of actual live events.

The 2012 Olympic Trials promised to pit the pissed-off pit bulls against one another in a blood bath of epic proportions.  Shoe companies were drooling over market share gains to be made if underpaid so-called professionals won while wearing their sweatshop products.  Agents hungered for newly-minted college grads who were stupid enough to believe they needed a manager to perform simple tasks like signing a prevaricating piece of contract paper or picking up a phone to call a meet director to enter Monaco.  Coaches with CEO egos spit blood through clenched teeth as they politely shook sharp claws with rival counterparts before returning to their charges to instruct them to rip the opponent's face off.

The United States of Gunmerica and its low IQ obsession with thug-populated sports such as football and basketball rarely turns the ADD-Tube to track and field. Every four year Olympic cycle, the gullible mondo oval faithful hope for a miracle American fan base to suddenly materialize ex nihilo.  Water into wine.  In Europe a Diamond League meet at Brussels might sell fifty thousand tickets in nano-seconds six months out from the date.  The US Mondo Miracle would require that Jesus show up in his track spike sandals and turn Americans into Europeans.  You can short that bet.

But to walk around the hippy streets of Eugene, you wouldn't know that the rest of America couldn't give a shiite about track.  The skinny hipster or long-legged wench next to you on the street remembers their mile PR before they can recall their blood type.  Chances are they know YOUR last kilometer splits during your last 5k as well.  Even the cop who gave me a ticket for leaving my car in someone's yard, said,  "Eugene ain't called Tracktown for nuthin' son."

Then there are the heroes.  Or at least the ones that the corporate shoe companies try to create.  Take Galen Rupp.  We all know of the Legend of Steve Prefontaine.  If you don't, go back under your rock. Or his, but more on that later.  Nike and U of O have been desperate to find a replacement.  They think they have found one in Prince Galen Rupp.  But that's the problem: Prince Rupp.  This baby-faced Bubble Boy is more Ponce than Prince.  While Pre ran with passion and grit, Rupp depends on science and pseudo-parent control.  The former's head coach, Bill Bowerman, was inventive and witty; the latter's mentor, Alberto Salazar, competed in his day with the admirable guts of Pre but now measures the pollen levels at Hayward Field in order to determine if Galen should wear his Darth Vader black protective mask while he races.  Bowerman once said,  "The perfect track spike would be the human foot with a ten penny nail driven through it." In contrast, Salazar trots out maxims like "We need to monitor our athletes' thyroid hormone levels so we can keep up with the Africans."  The Eugene faithful brook none of this nonsense.  They want desire.

 The night of the steeplechase final, they found it.

Floppy-haired, tongue-wagging Evan Jager lit up the night.  Running only his fourth ever barrier race, this talent broke away like Pre and dared anyone to chase.  Both jumbo screens flashed his innocently excited face as he rocketed down the finish straight.  The joint went berserk.  Several sharp curves up the steep hill overlooking the campus, a spirit must have stirred underneath that memorabilia-strewn rock.  Oh crap, I'm sounding like some sentimental codger in a rocker at a roadside Oregon gas station, but, DAMN, we all felt a buzz that's been missing for a long time.

Instantly, Jager had a gazillion wannabe girlfriends.  This is called social media.  I called it sick kinkiness when a power player in timing systems showed me a text from his nubile daughter. "I'm in lust with Evan Jager. I don't care if they stink from running in wet shoes, he can wrap his feet around my face." The after-party hit the afterburners when Jager walked in and his manager bought everyone Jaegermeister shots in Evan's honor. I hate that sweet stuff and had bad memories from an evil experience in a Tennessee bar one New Year's Eve, but what the heck, the Booze was free.  After a few of those pups, I worried I was suffering from triple vision, but it really WAS three blonde leggos hanging onto Evan's arms.  Hell, he deserved some fun.  A woman made her way through the packed bodies, patting our torsos, judging guys by their body fat percentages.  She told me she was a professor at U of O.  No wonder Animal House was filmed here.

During the day, after fans fought headaches by draining down the coffee that flows from sink taps in the Pacific Northwest, they prowled the streets speaking in TrackGeek:
     "Are you sure Wheating has the A and not just the B?"
and
     "Wurth-Thomas was a DNS but at least she wasn't DFL like Webb."
or
     "Did you see the way Lucas cratered at 4800!"
To the average American, we are speaking Portugese.  The unlucky girl I had picked up last night when Jager had scooped up every other bar bimbo, didn't speak TrackGeek.

"What does DFL mean?"
"Dead Fuckin' Last."

Nike likes to finish first.  Matter of fact, they prefer to be the only horse in the race.  On the last day of the meet, running retail market share rival Brooks shoe company hired a plane to constantly circle the stadium pulling a bright blue banner urging us all to "Run Happy."  The former CEO of Nike who recently tossed a puppet that title and crowned himself Emperor of the World, was not pleased.  He jumped out of his executive chair in the Nike Hospitality Suite and went apoplectic.  Foaming at the mouth, he screamed, "Who the hell allowed Bitch Brooks to pull this stunt; we OWN these Trials!  Get that thing outta the sky.  I'll buy the fucking air space!  Get me the FAA on the phone."

Then it got ugly.  The Emperor sent his slavish minions down to order the Meet Security goons to threaten those poor souls sitting in the Brooks block seats.  A Brooks regional manager told me he was scared shitless. "Those meatheads were gonna bash our heads in," he whimpered.  Booted outta the venue, they fled back to the fraternity house they had rented for the week. If there had been one more day, the Dark Knight would have sent his tanks into the streets to steamroll anyone not wearing his brand on their feet.

Actually, there almost was one more day.  USATF, who could fuck up a piece of string, managed to make mayhem of their own rules and needed a run-off to determine the last qualifier in the Women's hundred meters.  At one point the befuddled officials announced they would decide which fast femme would go to London by TOSSING A COIN!  Imagine what that numbnuts idea would have done for Track and Field's reputation in America? "Honey, let's find the channel that's showing the Trials Coin Toss." USATF constantly shoots their own sport in the foot but this time they almost amputated it.

I needed to go home.  My hook-up homey had left me when I couldn't get her a date with Jager, and my friend Glen Fiditch threatened to disappear soon.  But before I left this town, I had unfinished business. 

I drove slowly up the hillside curves, cutting through moist Oregon green foliage to Pre's Rock.  I waited for the crowd of pilgrims to climb in their cars and drive away.  A sole figure remained.  An older guy.  I thought, what the heck, it's never gonna be this uncrowded, I'll go leave my memento now.  As I left my trinket, the old codger asked where I was from.  Telling him, I returned the question and he said, "right here." When he gave me his name, I could tell from his voice and movements he had suffered some kind of stroke.  I then queried him on something I was always curious about.  "Who cleans up all this stuff.  I mean who sorta takes care of this makeshift memorial?"

"I do," he replied.
Mr. Shirley, you made my Trials.   

29 comments:

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  2. I just read it again. Effing brilliant.

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  3. Hunter S Thompson and the entire beat generation could have learned something from this guy.

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  4. Dr. Van? You're inspiring!

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  5. To hell with Billsville, perhaps Vegas should be our next destination!

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  6. I suspect that this does more for T&F than NBC could imagine. And if not, it was fun. Well done.

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  7. Who is Mr. Shirley?

    George Gilder

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    1. Hi George,

      He is the caretaker at Pre's Rock.

      Cheers,
      Jeff

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  8. Awesome. Great fun to read. More, more!

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  9. That really is a brilliant piece of writing.

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  10. Does My. Shirley have a first name? What is his story? I am so intrigued now.

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  11. Wonderfully funny lol satire. And not, to my taste,mean-spirited, which is not always the case these days.

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  12. great write up. Thanks for sharing!

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  13. So the rumors of the airplane were true...or possibly true.

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    1. From the NYTimes on the airplane: http://london2012.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/at-olympic-trials-shoe-companies-compete-too

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  14. Great stuff...you obviously get it

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  15. Sorry - who is 'RVT' ?

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  16. the michael lewis of sports

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  17. Omg! Great report!

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  18. From someone who was there (almost) the whole time, absolutely brilliant.

    And the Nike logo in the long jump pit wasn't their idea. We just couldn't free hand the USATF emblem. Keep it simple, stupid!

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  19. great read, keep it coming

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  20. From the original Post
    "Brothers Johnson ordered me to send them readable reporting on such events as the hammer throw, the triple jump, the 200 meter dash, the pole vault, some hurdles and other events that got in the way of a track meet."

    I am surprised he didn't talk more about the "Evil Empire beneath the swoosh"
    He probably never got reporting from the Hammer, since the Hammer Throw competition was held at Nike's new center at Beaverton corporate HQ, closed to the public -- Nike employees and others BY INVITATION ONLY!

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  21. I must start running the steeple again.

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