(It’s an Olympic year. Having covered the Games 11 times, I can assure that, for visitors to Rio de Janeiro this summer, adventure and an education await.)
We were in a taxi in Seoul, Korea, in the early fall of 1988, Newsday colleague Steve Jacobson and I, chasing some Olympic happening or other. The cabbie, intent on making the most of having so many furriners in his presence during that rare global assembly in his city, brandished a small notepad. He said he was collecting words from his passengers’ native vocabularies as a way to improve his language skills, and asked for a contribution.
“Kibitz,” Jake offered.
And that’s what we did, during the brief ride.
It is among the joys of covering Olympic Games to connect, even in some small way, with people and cultures one is not otherwise likely to encounter as a sports journalist. In the Olympic enterprise of fun and games—a world so familiar—the parallel universe of mysterious customs, bizarre happenings and quirky systems affords a broadening experience.
Seoul was one of the more educational of my 11 Olympic stops. Koreans put surnames first, so I became Mr. John for three weeks. (My business cards were in English as well as the Korean alphabet, which is phonetic, so my name came out, approximately, like John Jin-son. Fifteen years after Seoul, when the governor of Gangwon province was in New York beginning that region’s pitch to host a future Winter Olympics, Mr. Kim Jin Sun studied that business card, gave a brief bow and noted with a sly smile, “We are brothers. Jin Sun.” Sure. Brothers from another mother.)
His surname “Kim,” by the way, is strikingly common in Korea—along with “Park” and “Lee”—a fact that was dramatically demonstrated on my first trip to Seoul, leading up to the ’88 Games, with fellow U.S. journalists.
Then, a different Mr. Kim had just finished squiring three of us around the city to meet various Olympic honchos when he excused himself, as we emerged from a cab, bowed and melted into a typically huge mid-day crowd of mostly men wearing mostly grey business suits. My editor at the time, Dick Sandler, suddenly realized that Mr. Kim had left his umbrella in the cab, fetched it and called out, “Mr. Kim, you’ve forgotten….”
Scores of Mr. Kims turned toward Sandler’s voice—though, alas, not our Mr. Kim, who had disappeared. It also was on that Seoul visit that we attended a professional baseball game (no beer sales, but plenty of dried squid available at the concession stands) and witnessed a Kim-to-Kim-to-Kim double play.
(And here’s an aside about a similar revelation regarding family names common to other lands, also in an Olympic setting. As pre-eminent Boston Globe reporter John Powers tells it, he was housed during the 1976 Montreal Games at McGill University, which was the venue for the Olympic field hockey competition, and from his room he could hear the public address announcements of goal scorers. Whenever India was in action, Powers repeatedly heard, Goal by Singh. Goal by Singh. Goal by Singh. His natural newsman’s thought process was, “Who is this fellow Singh? I have to write about this guy.” And he would have, had he not hustled to the next Indian field hockey game to discover that nine of India’s 16 roster players shared the surname “Singh.”)
One reason, and a noble one, that French baron Pierre de Coubertin said he created the Modern Olympics at the end of the 19th Century was a belief that the world would not have peace “until prejudices are outlived,” and prejudices would not be outlived until everybody was exposed to the lifestyles and the mores of everybody else. It is an ideal rarely realized, but the vagabond nature of the Games does force some confrontations with one’s own ignorance.
We Americans, especially, are faced with our limitations when thrown into the Olympic soup. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Saudi Arabian newsman Syed Aref-Ali Shah reasonably noted that “in my country, you can go to any 5-year-old child and he can tell you where Los Angeles is. Here, people don’t even know where my country is.”
And even when we know where a country is, there can be an education awaiting, such as the one offered at the 1992 Barcelona Games on the autonomous region of Catalonia: That it rejects bullfighting—a sport for barbarians in Spain, that other country, I was told—and has its own language and its own flag. Before some competitions there, young men would station themselves outside the arenas and hand out beach-towel-sized bolts of cloth—yellow with four horizontal red stripes—so that all visitors could have their own personal Catalan flag, la Senyera. It is said that the four red stripes symbolize the 9th Century Count of Barcelona, Wilfred the Hairy, dragging his four bloodied fingers across his gilded shield in a dying patriotic gesture.
I still have my Catalan flag.
And, like that Seoul cabbie, I’ve been able to pick up bits of lingo on my Olympic rounds, though I acknowledge I merely have been, as they say in Australia, a “blow-in.” A stranger. But ready to kibitz.