Day 16

It all ends today with the men's marathon and the closing ceremonies. The 2004 Olympics are history.

I thought it would be fitting to close things out by wearing my 1998 Grandma's Marathon T-shirt to work, my little badge of honor for turning in a 4:12 that June morning ... which now seems like a lifetime ago.

Around here, everyone still has that Olympic spirit, but you can tell people are ready to go home. It's kind of like the Minnesota State Fair. Heading into the first weekend, everything looks great. By Labor Day, let's just say you're looking for something a bit different.

And yes, working here for a month was a bit like running a marathon. At first, I didn't know if I should do it, but I did. Halfway through, I thought I was going to crash and burn, but I didn't. I definitely hit a wall (Day 14, 10:17 p.m. -- when I had to lay on the floor and take a 20-minute nap), but I got through it. And now, crossing the finish line with a sense that I accomplished something. Of course, everything is relative.

I've never been in the U.S. military, but I have a new respect for the sacrifices our troops make for our country ... especially the time away from their families. I was only gone a month, and was never under fire. Can you imagine being gone for a year or more in hostile territory? It's hard to fathom, which really makes my marathon child's play.

Which brings us back to the beauty of the Olympics: athletes coming together to compete with honor, leaving politics and wars behind. In this marathon we call life, it's too bad we have to wait every two years to see it.

But I refuse to end these observances on a down note. There's really only one thing left to say -- onward, to Torino!

Two actually -- save me a foot long hot dog, with onions. The Minnesota State Fair is sounding pretty good right now.
Day 15

It's almost over.

Saturday is the final full day of competition at these Olympic games.

I've been here since Aug. 5, and I can't believe I've been away so long. I also can't believe I'm here in the first place. It was by dumb luck that I happened to be working at a Minnesota company which got the contract to run the Olympic Web site for NBC. And even though I write copy for the Minnesota Score, I consider myself a feature writer more than a sports writer. I like to tell stories.

The story I'll tell today centers around my late father, Sam. When I was a kid, he would always like to watch sports on TV on Saturdays. It was the start of his weekend after a busy week at the print shop, Color-Brite on Washington Ave. Anyway, he would always make us salami sandwiches and we'd watch football or bowling or basketball together. Or the Olympics, when it was on. It didn't really matter. It was Saturday ... and the sandwiches were good.

As I got older, and went into broadcasting, my Dad always figured I'd get a sportscasters job, since I loved sports so much. I always replied by saying that I was a "news guy," and that wouldn't happen.

He'd then shoot back, "Nah, you're going to go to the Olympics someday. I just know it." It was a little back and forth thing we said to each other for years, right up to when he passed away in 1996.

Now that I've completed this assignment, I can finally look to the stars and say, "Dad, you were right."

That's my Saturday.
Day 14

Visiting Greece for a month is a privilege, don't get me wrong, but I miss my stupid local sports teams. (Not to mention my loved ones, but first things first.)

One night I was watching the BBC coverage of U.S. sports (there's no ESPN in our hotel), and they showed only one lousy Twins highlight -- a Yankee homer that beat us.

I check the scores on the Internet and sometimes pull up the pitch-by-pitch updates, but there's nothing better than hearing the game. One night I asked my daughter to hold up the phone to Bert's sound on TV. It was kind of scratchy, but I could hear him circling someone.

Among other Americans here in Athens, the Twins are looked at as a scrappy, good team trapped in a lousy ballpark. As for the Vikings, well, let's just say they get no respect.

In fact, every time someone loses an Olympic event they were favored to win, the quip in our working area is "they're the Minnesota Vikings of beach volleyball" or "he's the Minnesota Vikings of modern pentathlon" or "she's the Minnesota Vikings of synchronized swimming."

I know that's really not funny, but you have to remember we're punch drunk idiots who haven't slept for a month. Juvenile humor is big right now.

What also stings is the six people I sit with represent the cities of Green Bay Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Indianapolis, Miami and Chicago . Except for Indy, there's a lot of Super Bowl bragging here.

And right now, it's getting worse. Now that the U.S. basketball team has been bounced, they're all piling on about how KG should have been on the team.

Get back to work!
Day 13

I finally made it to the big rock, featuring the Parthenon. Not a bad sight at all. The first thing I thought to myself when I saw it wasn't how small I feel in front of this marvel of the world, but what Sid Hartman might say if he laid eyes upon it.

"That thing is really outdated," he might warble (feel free to do your own Sid impersonation). "They need a new Parthenon. I think team Hellas will leave this city if they don't build 'em a new one. Those geniuses at the Presidential Palace better get their act together or people in this town are going to be sorry."

Or something like that. And no, I don't feel dumb for that thought coming into my head. We do need a new ballpark.

But they can leave Athen's big rock alone.
Day 12

Let's just say it was beginners luck.

I walked into Olympic stadium, hoping to see a bit of the decathlon before heading into work. Armed with my teeny digital Olympus camera, I thought I'd try to get a snapshot of U.S. medal contender Bryan Clay, who was about to attempt a pole vault.

It came out perfectly. A little blurry when you blow it up, so it's not Associated Press perfect, but you have to admit it's pretty good stuff for a rookie.

As my old broadcasting colleague Leonard Lee used to say, "I'd rather be lucky than good."

I'll say.
Day 11

I don't speak Greek, it's all Greek to me. But I can tell you it's beautiful to the ear.

Even when Athenians are yelling at each other, (which seems to be pretty often) it has a strange, yet mellow melody all its own.

I was walking the streets near the hotel, wandering throughout a multi-block farmers market. I made sure to block out everything but the sounds of the vendors voices.

They all want to unload their stuff, so they yell out what they have, just like at the ballpark. At first, it was a bit disconcerting, but after about seven blocks of barking, I wanted to join in.

When I was a little kid, my sisters always called me "the watermelon man." I guess it had something to do with me being husky, wearing that green and red shirt with black flecks and constantly eating watermelon.

Here I could fulfill that destiny, screaming out "Karpouzi!" all day long to get rid of my crop.
Day 10

I hear there are a few celebrities here watching the games. I can't say that I'm really in their zone, but sometimes they wander into mine.

The first encounter was with the host of "Access Hollywood," Billy Bush. He came to office to say hello, and was nice enough to take pictures with us. He even let me give him bunny ears, which showed me that he was pretty cool.

One overnight, Tom Brokaw was walking outside our office and I nearly bowled him over in a dash to the john. That would have been nice. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Brokaw can't do the Nightly News because some idiot from Minnesota smashed into him in the hallway."

I've seen Bob Costas in the hallway a few times, but I'm too chicken to start a conversation with him. I don't want him to think I'm a geek. Well, I am a geek, just don't tell anyone. I have the feeling he'd go for the bunny ears, though.

There's still time....
Day 9

I'm a happily married man, but I have to report that I've fallen in love with a girl name Crystl.

As in Crystl Bustos. Or as we affectionately call her in our office space: BUSTOS!

Ms. Bustos is the Justin Morneau of the USA softball squad, a big hitter who gets up there and just does one thing really, really well: she crushes the ball.

You know the great feeling you get when an outfielder is helplessly watching a Twins homer leave the yard? I have that same felling when a tiny center fielder from say, Chinese Taipei, sadly watches one of those yellow softballs land beyond her reach, a victim of Bustos.

You can have Jennie, Misty, Carly or either Courtney. Give me Bustos any day.

Day 8

I went to my first ever Olympic event today.

Well, I take that back. Actually, last Sunday I ran into the women's cycling race on the streets near the Parthenon, but it didn't really count because it was a total accident. I was down there sightseeing, and didn't realize a race was going on. (Hey, I'm just the video highlights guy.)

So I decided to check out 10-meter platform diving, featuring Sara Hildebrand and Laura Wilkinson. My press pass got me into the venue (which is about the size of Mankato), and I watched the third and fourth round of the women's semi-finals.

Then it hit me. Between dives, there was cheering, the score and the announcement of the next participant, but there were no foghorns, organs, fake applause signs or any of that stuff. In short, they allowed me to enjoy the meet on my own terms. Just knowing that these women had to have perfect dives -- or else -- was enough to get me into the game. The hard part was not cheering. The unwritten rule if you're a "working journalist" is to not hoot and holler, even if you're a million miles away from your home team. I've always thought that was a stupid rule, but I played along. Instead, when I saw them dance through the air and hit the water with nary a splash, I said more than once to myself, "My God."

The Olympics. Reverence. Pure sport. Beauty in motion ... even without the kiss cam.
Day 7

With all the talk about no smoking in bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities, our brave and bold lawmakers should probably stay out of Greece. Why? Because they'd be laughed out of the country. It seems everyone smokes here at all hours of the day in every building. There's no such thing as political correctness, which is a breath of fresh air.

Anyway, I walked over to a hole-in-the wall gyro shop today. The NBC food is fantastic (free food always tastes better), but I just needed some authenic grub. Inside this crowded shop: three guys behind the counter, two cooks and one cashier, all related. One cook, an older gentlemen who is the owner, happened to be smoking while preparing my dinner. That wasn't too appetizing, as the ash was about to fall off of this particular Pall Mall. Besides that, the guy's T-shirt was soaked in sweat. Hey, he's a working man, what can I say?

Only this: best gyro I ever tasted.
Day 6

My idea of exercise back home is a couple of laps around Lake Como. So I was saddened to see the official hotel literature advising guests to avoid jogging. I guess the central Athens streets are too narrow, which makes sense. Plus the drivers are very aggressive, with motorcycles crazily buzzing everywhere.So that means exercise is a daily swim atop the President hotel. For this month only, that's where I pretend I'm Michael Phelps, even though I'm doing 5 laps in a really short pool and going incredibly slow.

One European genteleman constantly laps me. It's probably my imagination, but he seems to always give me a, "You soft, slow stupid American" look. That's why on Day 6, I decided I'd really put some effort into it and try to outswim him ... for just one length of the pool. He didn't know I was racing him, but in my mind, he's the Thorpedo and I'm Baltimore Mike. Well, let's just say that about halfway down the pool I ran out of gas ... and he had already made the turn before I touched the wall.

Damn tourists.

Well, track and field is coming up. I gotta go jogging.
Day 5

I was really rooting for Minnesota's Tom Malchow in the men's 200 butterfly final. But the incredible Mr. Phelps was too much. It's odd that Phelps, who is a swimming hero in every sense of the word, might be seen as a disappointment if he only wins five gold medals. Folks, that's GREAT! Phelps can quit now and be enshrined in the swimming hall of fame, (wherever that is ... wait, let me Google ... looks like it's in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.)

As for Malchow, after his 8th place finish, you can't help but think that he would love to have even the bronze, and cherish it for the rest of his days... always thinking (and thinking correctly) that he was a winner. Had Phelps ended up third, the world (especially the U.S. media) would have hung a loser label on him. It's not right. Having lofty expectations are OK, but sometimes they can interfere with the true joy of sport.
Day 4

The Minnesota State Fair is just around the corner, and I can't wait to get there. Greece is great, but the grease of the great get-together has a warm spot in my clogged heart.

As a kid, I was also a rubber-necking State Fair geek who would wait for the on-location local TV newscasts to come on so I could hopefully get in the picture. In Athens, that very opportunity also exists.

Outside the Olympic stadium, NBC's Today Show is live every day, with the crowd in the background. On Day 4, I made sure I stood right behind Katie and Matt when they were on the air. I was the guy in the light blue polo shirt and brown shorts, flashing a peace sign. Well, it looked like a peace sign. I was really trying to give Mr. Lauer bunny ears.
Day 3

As a frequent worshiper at St. Paul Cathedral, one day I wandered to the Greek Orthodox counterpart here in Athens. Like my church, the inside was stunning in its beauty. There were also those little wooden boxes for donations ... alms for the poor.

Of course, I was too cheap to break a 5 Euro bill ... figuring I would give later. But later, the Lord would give me a flick to the back of the head for being so frugal.

It was really windy that day, and I had a credit card, my hotel key and $25 neatly slipped into a plastic ID sleeve around my neck. Walking into the IBC, the wind whipped that sleeve upside down ... and I didn't know it ... and all that stuff slipped out.

We talk about Minnesota nice all the time, but good souls are everywhere, as someone turned in my credit card and room key to the lost and found. The $25 was gone forever. God ... chuckling at the knucklehead from St. Paul ... hopefully blew that money to someone who needed it.
Day 2

One of the multimedia editors in Athens is Bonnie Buck. In the U.S., she works in Chicago, but is a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan ...which rubs her co-workers the wrong way.

Born and raised in St. Louis, she'll never switch allegiances. Besides, Bonnie's father -whom I've never met - said some of the greatest words I'll ever hear.

Dad, if you haven't guessed, is the late great Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck, who also called the 1991 World Series. That great line? Say it with me now: "We'll see you tomorrow night!"
Day 1

I was waiting for a bus outside the behemoth International Broadcast Center, next to the Olympic Stadium. On top of my noggin, a red Twins cap, the white and navy "TC" a beacon of everything good in life.

As I approached the bus, a guy says, "Hey, nice Twins cap, you from Minnesota?" Well, the guy was former Olympian John Rothlisberger. He's here consulting with the USA men's squad. Small world, eh? Well, it gets smaller.

We get to chatting and it turns out we live about two blocks from each other in Falcon Heights. What are the chances you'll travel halfway around the globe and just by dumb luck bump into a neighbor?

Just slap on a Twins cap to find out.