Olympic memories all about people, places, moments

First, a confession: I've been seeing a mistress off-and-on for the past 24 years.

The ”other lady“ has shared many a laugh, introduced me to friends, foods and drink, and taken me all over the world.

What might have been a brief fling in 1984 has grown into a long-term relationship.

Please don't tell my wife. Her competition is named Olympics.

Beijing will be my 10th Olympics and sixth Summer Games. Starting with Los Angeles in 1984, I've hit every Summer Olympics except one (Seoul, 1988).

Looking back, favorite memories center on people I've met and stories we've shared.

One of the first came in 1984, while following Lexington's Leslie Klein in the women's doubles and four-strong kayak events. A mix-up in the bus schedule left me stranded at Lake Casitas — about 80 miles from downtown L.A. — with writers from Norway, Australia and New Zealand.

Then came our heroine, whose name I can't recall. But she was a college student from Long Beach, a volunteer at the Olympic site, who kindly drove us back to Los Angeles.

Scheduled to cover another event that night, I was fretting about writing in the West Coast time zone while on an East Coast deadline. To which one of the ”Down Under“ writers responded: ”How'd you like to be me, mate? It's already tomorrow where I come from. I'm covering yesterday's news.“

At Los Angeles, I witnessed Carl Lewis winning golds in the 100, 200, long jump and 4-by-100 relay. Edwin Moses struck gold with his 105th consecutive victory in the 400-meter hurdles. And Bobby Knight (with C.M. Newton at his side) coached the men's U.S. basketball team, including a young Michael Jordan, to gold.

L.A. is where I saw my first ”Kentucky connection“ gold-medal finish. Patty Spurgin, a Murray State student, won the Olympics' first-ever women's air rifle event.

Then there was the Saturday when Louisville's Mary T. Meagher won the second of her two gold medals at Los Angeles, the 200-meter butterfly at Southern Cal. Just as her race was finishing, Ed Liddie, of what was then known as Cumberland College, was competing in the 132-pound division in men's judo.

So, after getting the scoop on Mary T., I hailed a cab and headed across town to Cal State Los Angeles — just in time to see Liddie receive his bronze medal. For someone who had never seen a judo match before, it took some time and help to figure out how Liddy medaled. Judo terminology is all in Japanese.

We could go on and on mentioning the many Kentucky connections to the Olympics.

We could also recall Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, the Dream Team, Michael Johnson, Ian Thorpe and on and on. Those stories have been told many times.

Instead, here we go with some not-so-well-known memories.

Top "foreign friends': Sonia and George

■ Sonia was 8 when the Olympics came to Barcelona in 1992.

Olympic media often receive, as part of their press materials, a ”welcome“ drawing created by a local student. I received Sonia's picture and got in touch.

She and her sister Patti love to ride horses.

Sonia and I have been writing each other ever since, even exchanging Christmas gifts. The slogan for the Barcelona Games was amigos para siempre — friends forever. That's still how Sonia, who is now in college, and I close our letters to each other.

■ A delightful jeweler in Athens, George and I keep in touch by e-mail. His shop in the Plaka is on the street that leads to the top of the Acropolis. Although looking for ”just“ a key bracelet in 2004, George offered deals too good to refuse. Several co-workers (and months later, family and friends) bought from George, who cut deals for those who said ”Mark sent me.“ So if you ever visit George Jewelry, you know who's name to drop.

Tales to tell

True story — Upon arriving at the Atlanta airport for the 1996 Games, I boarded a bus bound for downtown hotels. The bus driver, a volunteer, had just arrived by plane himself. I was the only one on the bus who had ever been to Atlanta and, thus, wound up giving directions. That's because there were no maps or written instructions available to the driver. And, no, it never got better where media transportation was concerned.

Odd story — A few nights before the Athens Olympics opened, while returning to the press center via light rail, the train stopped. Word came that ”the train is no more.“ When the clock struck 1 a.m., it was time to find another mode of transportation. Sharing a cab with a writer from Finland, conversation was limited to naming Finnish hockey players: ”Miikka Kiprusoff ... ah, yes.“ ”Ville Peltonen? ... Yes.“

Saddest story — The deadly Centennial Park bombing. I was on a metal footbridge, about a block away, when the blast went off. The hotel where I was staying was the closest to the bomb site, perhaps 150 yards away. The next day, ”my story“ from the Olympics was an interview with an associate professor of criminal justice who specialized in ”profiling“ who might do such a thing as plant a bomb.

Funny story — At Sydney, I tried without luck to learn how to throw a boomerang. Two Aussies took notice of my futility and offered to show how it's done. One threw the boomerang into a tree; the other just missed decapitating a nursing home patient. The first one then said: ”You know what they call a boomerang that doesn't come back? ... A stick.“

A world of experiences

Favorite foods from past Olympics e_SEmD Los Angeles: quesadillas; Barcelona: cava (sparking wine); Atlanta: Coke; Sydney: kangaroo; Athens: souvlaki.

Important phrases — Los Angeles: another beer, please; Barcelona: un mas cervesa por favor (another beer, please); Atlanta: another Coke, please; Sydney: another beer, mate; Athens: mia beera parakalo (another beer, please). Disclaimer: I don't really drink much beer, but it's a fun phrase to learn.

Best dinner break — Knowing just enough Spanish to be dangerous, a solo trip to a Barcelona restaurant proved interesting. ”Una lasagna y una sangria por favor“ — lasagna and a glass of sangria, I thought — turned out to be lasagna and a pitcher of sangria.

A few words on transportation Los Angeles: Yellow school buses worked just fine; Barcelona: Larger ”coach“ buses worked even better, supplemented by terrific train and subway systems; Atlanta: At least MARTA was an option; Sydney, Athens: See Barcelona.

A look at Media Villages — Los Angeles: Hotels, in my case a Holiday Inn; Barcelona: A brand new apartment complex in suburban Montegalá; Atlanta: Hotels, the Comfort Inn for me; Sydney: mobile homes; Athens: university dorm.

Moving moments — All opening ceremonies. Two other favorites, both from Barcelona: Great Britain's Derek Redmond, after pulling a hamstring during his semifinal heat of the 400-meter run, regains his feet, starts hobbling toward the finish line and soon gets a helping hand from his father down the final straightaway; Spain's Fermin Cacho rallies to win the men's 1,500-meter run and, as the crowd goes nuts during his victory lap, he is beckoned to the box of King Juan Carlos and Queen Dona Sofia.

More royalty — King Karl Gustav (Sweden) is a regular at the Olympics; in 2004, had my first (and only) royal one-on-one interview, with Prince Feisal Al-Hussein of Jordan. Also got close to ”The Greatest“ (Muhammed Ali) at a racetrack in Sydney, where horses run clockwise.

Amazing sites and sights

Most stunning Olympic sights (aside from opening ceremonies) — Los Angeles: Mary T. Meagher's 3-for-3 gold-medal quest in swimming; Barcelona: 10-meter diving atop Montjuic, overlooking the city skyline and Mediterranean Sea; Atlanta: Carl Lewis winning his fourth consecutive gold in the long jump; Sydney: 400-meter championship runs by Cathy Freeman and Michael Johnson; Athens: Panathinaiko Stadium (built 330 B.C.; replaced 144 A.D.; refurbished for 1896 and 2004 Olympics).

Most stunning non-Olympic sights — Los Angeles: Sailing out of Marina del Rey; Barcelona: La Rambla, a hustle-and-bustle street where you can see or buy anything; also, many works by Gaudi, including the famed church La Sagrada Familia; Atlanta: A media bus; Sydney: The package of Circular Quay, Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge; Athens: The Parthenon.

Favorite side trips — Los Angeles: Universal Studios; Barcelona: post-Games visit to Nice, Geneva and Paris; Sydney: Great Barrier Reef; Athens: Greek islands of Paros, Naxos and Santorini.

Worst finish to a trip — Athens: Unable to sleep in public places, sleeping pills are a must. After leaving Athens, while over Italy and still wide awake, made the mistake of taking a second sleeping pill. Woke up in a New York hospital.

What's next

Anticipation of what will unfold on a sleeping pill-free 16 days in Beijing.

What incredible feats will we see?

When and where will we encounter the compelling stories of the Games?

I'll keep you posted.

If I'm awake.