20 sports in 13 hours: Walter Mitty-ing it at the Olympics

Swimmers compete during the women's marathon swimming competition of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Swimmers compete during the women’s marathon swimming competition of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

August, 2016, Rio de Janeiro.   Midway through the Summer Olympics a “free day” loomed in the schedule of New York Times reporter Victor Mather. There was nothing specific he had to cover. He could hang fire, visit the sights, relax in the hotel. Instead, he decided — and who can blame a sportswriter who’d just spent a week in close proximity to some of the world’s greatest athletes at full boil to want to get in on the action — to create his own sport. One in which he himself was qualified, by virtue of an all-access press pass and sturdy shoes, to compete. Call this sport “competitive spectating.” The goal: try to see as many sports as possible before the sidewalks roll up.

It was as much a feat of logistics as endurance. If he hoped to get a glimpse of all 20 events going that day, he was going to need organizational help. Mather reached out to an efficiency expert from Carnegie Mellon, who used an algorithm to spit out a schedule for the reporter to follow.

At 9am a gun only Mather could hear sounded, and he was off. To call it a surge would not be to overstate things. Slowed by comically unpredictable transit, Mather hit venue after venue, lingering just long enough at each to claim to have seen … something – an Irish badminton player stripping off his shirt in victory, distant Speedo caps bobbing in the open-water at Copacabana. He had no more time to appreciate the performances than a birder in a 24-hour statewide species count has to savour the birdsong. He literally dashed between venues at the Rio Olympic Park, slammed by the heat. By the time he collapsed into his hotel bed at 1am, he’d bagged 13 scalps — er, sports.

Meanwhile, Times colleague Sarah Lyall, whom Mather had convinced to take up the same challenge, was doing it differently. She found his gung-ho approach inane. Dialing up some yin to Mather’s yang, she positioned herself less as an adventure-race contestant than a kind of deriviste. What if she just put herself in the current and drifted: no schedule, no map, no goal? (Of course having no real plan creates its own problems, she found, in the form of missed bus connections, botched eating opportunities, and the disappointment of arriving after events were finished – things that could have been avoided with five minutes’ worth of homework.)

Instead of racking up attendance points, Lyall scored the experience of the day in real time.

  • Five points for sniffing out a story op after spotting two Brazilian medalists at a bus stop.
  • Five demerit points for blundering into the men’s room at the handball venue.
  • Ten-point doping violation for popping an Advil on the way to the basketball.

In the end she managed to see only five sports – and minimal bits of them at that. So she lost. Or did she?

Clearly, both reporters had a ball. Both turned in refreshingly non-authoritative stories to America’s newspaper of record. Each made a silk purse out of a down day.

That’s how to cover the Olympics, folks: and it’s a lesson we’d all do well to remember in our own lives: you’re allowed to take a mulligan day and just be a goof.

Especially if you find a way to get paid for it.

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