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I'm spending the Olympic Games here in my flat near the Eiffel Tower. And since, after 12 years, we still haven't got round to getting our television set hooked up to the satellite, I'll only find out in the old-fashioned way who wins what and how many world records are set: by reading
Le Monde and Le Figaro
It's not that I'm uninterested in sport; on the contrary, I love it, and so does my little boy (who's now six), though my wife is less keen. Maybe it's the journalist in me. Journalists tend to find themselves instinctively going in the opposite direction from everyone else. We suffer from a touch of whatever it was that Groucho Marx had: 'No matter what it is or who commenced it, I'm against it. Your proposition may be good, but let's have one thing understood — whatever it is, I'm against it.'
I've never reported on any Olympic Games, though there have been 12 of them during my long career. I can tell you an Olympics story, though. I was once in a smallish town in the Congo, sitting with some hacks around the bar of an unpleasantly hot hotel. It was the mid-1980s, and we were waiting for something unpleasant to happen.
As the temperature went up and the beers went down, we told each other about most of the things we had experienced. Some of us bored the rest with tales of the Commodore Hotel in Beirut in 1982, or the dangerous habits of the Mourabitoun guerillas (known as 'Looney Toons'). One man stayed quiet until the inevitable subject of sending our stories back to the news desk came up.
He was small and wiry, and beaten around the face: a boxer. I was one myself once, though I've never been either small or wiry. A news reporter, he had nevertheless persuaded his newspaper to send him to the boxing tournament at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, on the grounds that he was the only man on the staff who had boxed professionally.
'We were stuck out in the suburbs somewhere,' he told us. 'I forget the name, but it sounded really nasty and medical.' Later I checked his story out. The boxing took place at the Arena Mexico, in a district known as Colonia Doctores. Entirely
harmless in Spanish, of course.
Communications consisted of a single payphone, for 30 or more reporters from around the globe. You had to book a call a day in advance if you wanted the other end to pay for it. My friend had an idea. 'Our paper's switchboard is good,' he said. 'Why don't I put a call in to them, then I can get the switchboard to pass the next man on to his paper' [boxing was exclusively male in those more innocent days] 'and so on down the line.' Everyone agreed, and they drew lots for the order they would file in.
The next day they had their first gold medal to report, and they were hopping up and down with anxiety to get their copy over. My friend's call came through bang on time. 'Daily Whatever,' said a singsong voice at the other end. 'Boxing copy for sport, please, darling,' he said. 'It's a very bad line, caller. Who do you want?' Uneasily, the dozen or so correspondents in the queue pushed forward in the Mexican heat. 'Copy for sport,' he yelled. 'SPORT.' 'All right, dear, no need to shout. Putting you through.'
There was a click, then a voice said, 'Sports desk.' 'It's Tim Smith here,' said the reporter. 'In Mexico City. I need to file some copy.' 'Who? This line is awful.' 'Tim Smith.' 'No, sorry, Tim Smith is in Mexico City doing the boxing. Call back in a couple of weeks.' And the man at the other end promptly put down the phone on the only available line for 24 hours.
Here in Paris, there's one thing I definitely shan't miss about the Olympics: all those waving flags, those puffed-out chests, the tears coursing down the faces as the anthems are played. If the Olympians were just private individuals instead of being part of national groups, I'd be there right now, watching. But it's all about national, and sometimes ideological, status; and that is less attractive. Nowadays it's China versus America versus Russia. No one remembers that it's actually Europe which always wins. Because the various EU countries never add their medal totals together, you can't tell.
I got quite close to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, because I thought we should do some reporting on what kind of country China was becoming. But I made sure my return flight was booked for a couple of days before the opening ceremony. Still, I benefited from the special treatment the Chinese air force gave the weather, bombarding the
clouds and clearing the smog. It was
delightful: no litter, and everything was clean and newly painted.
I went round to see the artist who had designed the concept for that lovely bird's-nest stadium. Ai Weiwei was a big, shy, slightly scruffy bear of a man, highly articulate and thoughtful, as you might expect, and he was already starting to take an independent line. He took me round his studio, showing me his installations and paintings and drawings: lovely stuff. By the end, we were becoming good friends. When I left, he gave me a handful of the little ceramic seeds which he used in millions for his famous installation at the Tate Modern.
I've mislaid several of these seeds now, but I carry the rest with me wherever I go. They're here on the desk in Paris as I write this: not quite an Olympic memory, but almost.
John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor and can be seen around the globe on BBC World News, available in 200 countries and territories worldwide, and on selected British Airways flights.