Just like Little League, everyone gets a medal at the Olympics.
OK, not exactly true. But it's a strange little quirk of the games that at the end, members of the media get a “participation medal,” which is basically a shiny silver paperweight, and a certificate of participation printed on heavy stock. None of this is personalized, nor does the medal come with a lanyard to hang around your neck. It's just a silly and unexpected souvenir, IOC money well spent.
I have a few hours left in Rio – less than I expected after the State Department sent out an email alert telling Americans to get to the airport six hours before their flights – but after three weeks here, I would have to say I feel like I earned a medal. It's going to be good to get home.
It's been busy, and trying at times, but it's been fun. However ill-equipped Rio may have been to host these games, the people – Cariocas, as Rio residents are called – have been fantastic. But as I wrote in my wrap-up column, as the athletes here could tell you, sometimes your best doesn’t get you a medal.
I ate twice at an ancient place called Braseiro, a storefront restaurant which has about 20 counter seats, a harried and bustling waitstaff and a giant open oven where they roast spring chickens and grill big chunks of meat. (I sat within feet of the oven one night.) Sitting there after a very long day, surrounded by locals, it was possible to forget the Olympics were even going on. It was just a Friday night on a side street in Copacabana, and I was just another Carioca out for dinner.
You savor those moments because you spend a lot of time frazzled, tired, hungry, waiting, hustling to make deadline, writing on a bus or sitting in a folding chair in the middle of a bustling mixed zone, pushing to do better. It's a grind, but it's worth the effort. The Olympics is a story-teller's dream. There's competition here among writers as well. It's the Olympics of sports writing.
Everyone's trying to write the crap out of everything, in part because there's natural competition among writers, but more because we owe it to these athletes to tell their stories as well as we can. This isn't a Duke-North Carolina game that there's two or three of every year, big as those are. Some of these athletes get one shot at this every four years. There's no pro field-hockey or modern pentathlon league, no $500,000 bonuses for wrestlers for winning any other tournament. This is it. This is their one chance to be noticed, to be recognized for their dedication and commitment. We owe their stories the same gravity.
There isn't the same obligation with the stories away from the Games, but there are so many I'll never get around to telling in these morning diaries: the bizarre proliferation of French bulldogs in Copacabana, the view from the base of the Cristo Redentor statue, the bizarre feeling of sitting in the Main Press Center and writing about the UNC scandal, looking at loose gemstones from the vault of the famous Brazilian jeweler H. Stern, my tiny but tidy and more than adequate hotel room, our cheerful and crafty driver Wagner, the generous hospitality of beleaguered Cariocas who have seen their city besmirched, and the everyday beauty of a inherently flawed but amazingly vibrant city.
Then there's the people you meet, not just the locals but the Algerian journalist who insisted I come visit him in Algiers. One of the Triangle TV freelancers I interviewed for that story lives four blocks from me. I had to fly 4,700 miles to meet a neighbor. I've reconnected with Canadian writers I knew from my hockey days, former N&O coworkers (Gene Cherry, Steve Politi, Barry Svrluga) and other former colleagues, which gave me a rare chance to talk about Colorado College hockey.
You work among the best sports writers in the world here and see them in action, including the McClatchy brethren I met for the first time who awed me with their work as well. I'm not sure what my 16-year-old self would say if I told him I spent an evening drinking caipirinhas with Dave Barry (who will be at the Durham Armory on September 7, on tour for his new book). I met Kansas City's Vahe Gregorian for the first time only to find out we'd both gone to Penn, several years apart, and knew so many of the same people. I was fortunate to work alongside some real pros and great people.
I'll remember all of that for as long as I remember the games themselves, for their was plenty to remember about both. I saw Usain Bolt run and Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky swim and Simone Biles almost fall off the balance beam. I'll never forget the grace and poise Ronnie Ash showed after tripping at the last hurdle with a medal within reach, or Simonas Bilis' pride after making the final in the 50 free and his equanimity after he finished last a night later, acknowledging he had been overcome by the moment.
And there are regrets. I wish I'd been there to see Ryan Held swim, and his tears, but I was still navigating the media ticket system for high-demand events. I wish I'd taken a rhetorical swing at Ryan Lochte and tried to tackle more national, global stories instead of trying to stay locally focused at times. (It's a more complicated equation than it sounds, considering men's basketball was my primary reason for being here.) I wish I'd tacked on some time at the end to see more of Rio. I wish I'd made it to some of the hospitality houses countries set up (I'd pass by the Swiss house all the time and it was always a party, no matter what time of day, as I sat forlornly in the back of an Uber). I wish I'd gone to some of the daily IOC briefings (which included the official statement that “chemistry is not an exact science,” by far the highlight of the games, which brought back memories of Gary Bettman claiming supply and demand does not apply to professional sports and that ticket prices would go down after the 2004-05 lockout.) I wish I'd seen Ibtihaj Muhammad, although my schedule made it impossible.
I chalk almost all of that to inexperience, to my first Olympics. It's frustrating to sit here knowing I could have done so much better. As much as I tried to prepare, as many people as I talked to and as much research as I did, experience is mean but efficient. There were still lessons to be learned. I don't know whether I'll ever get the chance to apply them – 2020 is eons away in the newspaper business, let alone the real life from which I've been so detached for more than three weeks – but I hope I do.
The Olympics truly are a unique, intimidating, energizing, soul-sapping, gratifying experience. There's nothing else like it in journalism. Or life.
Luke DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock