High on travellers' tales and Games fever

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2004, 12:00am

It is doubtful that any of the 20,000-strong world press corps flying in for the Olympics would have had more colourful companions than my travel-mates Fernandes and Gloria, who kept me entertained from Hong Kong to Rome, the first leg of my flight to Athens last Thursday night.

One was a retired schoolteacher from Goa, who is splurging his life savings in realising a long-held dream of visiting the Vatican. The other was a Filipino songstress with a penchant for Celine Dion tunes and a dream of making it big on the Roman stage.

The righteous pilgrim was on my right while giddy Gloria was on my left. We made an unlikely trio. Flying 13 hours with one ear listening to what almost seemed like a non-stop discourse on religion interspersed with tales about the delights of Goa, while Dion hummed in the other ear how wonderful it was to be alive, was perhaps a perfect recipe for a monstrous migraine.

But hey, I was also on a high. The fact that I was on my way to cover the Olympics in the very place that gave birth to the Games more than two millennia ago was enough to keep my spirits up. And as I have already made my covenant with God, and as music is also a passion (barring songs from Celine Dion), the conversation flowed furiously between us like water under Steve Redgrave's oar.

The famous British rower won't be among the 10,000 athletes taking part in the 28th Olympiad which begins on Friday. Redgrave, who in some quarters has been touted as the Olympian of the century, has retired after winning gold medals in five successive Olympics. Carl Lewis may have won more golds - nine - in his Olympic career or swimmer Mark Spitz might have won most golds in one Games - seven in Munich 1972. But for sheer longevity no one could match mighty Steve.

Does he deserve to be labelled the Olympian of the century? Five Olympic Games - from 1984 to 2000 - covers a span of two decades. To win gold in whatever discipline over such an extended period takes some doing. Others might say Lewis, who also won his gold medals in track and field over a few Olympics, is a worthy rival. The debate can go on and on. Everyone will have his or her own favourite.

But what is unarguable is that none of these famous athletes would ever have flown cabin class like us three pretenders. Ah! one could only look on in envy, whenever the curtain snapped open to offer a glimpse of those pampered classes up front luxuriating in laid-back splendour. Fame certainly can have its rewards.

By the end of this month, there will be a new clutch of athletes on the road to fame. One strong contender is American teenage swim sensation Michael Phelps. Not that the 18-year-old from Baltimore is a wet-behind-the-ears backwater type. He has fortune already, having earned millions of dollars from endorsements, but he wants the fame too and to do this he wants to go one better than Spitz and is gunning for eight golds in the open-air pool in Athens.

In his attempt to achieve this record feat, Phelps will need to be the master of different strokes - butterfly, backstroke, freestyle and breaststroke. He will cover distances from 100 to 400 metres and also take part in three relay events. He could swim in 20 races in eight days, a couple of races one after the other. Phelps biggest hurdle most probably will be to shift mental gears. Just imagine mixing the fly with the breaststroke.

His bid to become the greatest swimmer of all time could well become the biggest story of the 2004 Olympics. NBC is pinning its hopes on Phelps boosting ratings by playing a starring role. He has already fired the imagination of the world's media, who are arriving in droves hunting for the next big Olympic star.

However, for Fernandes and Gloria, the Olympics were a mere distraction. They had far more important things to consider. We dozed intermittently, but inevitably the conversation always came back to God and music. Life certainly has bigger attractions than the Olympics.