Athens 2004 - This is the seventh of nine Summer Olympic Games Keith Quinn has attended

12 July 2016

It only seems like yesterday that I travelled to Athens for the 2004 Summer Games. I touched down and stepped out into the seasonal warmth of a glorious 30˚C.

However, this is not going to be an Olympic report where I go on about the bloody weather (see for instance the problems with the heat in my earlier Barcelona summary) Athens offered beautiful weather right from the start and until the conclusion of our visit five weeks later. End of that story.

Perhaps my only other early memory was getting my digs which were to be my home for the next three weeks. The organisers gave me room C4004 at Media Olympic Village No.1 and on entering I immediately thought the ‘C’ stood for ‘cellblock 4004.’ My home was tiny - and I mean teeny! Yes, you could swing a cat but it would only be a small kitty. The bed to sleep in was made for a person of a certain SM size and not for my XXXL.

It was such a change from the massive size I had for a hotel room in Sydney last time. That Ozzie room was so huge I didn’t dare tell anyone in our team about it unless they took it off me!

The Athens rooms were actually part of a brand new miniature apartment complex. They would be offered for students to live in after the world’s media departed. They were positioned very handy to the nearby AthensUniversity. In that respect you could see that the kids living in the building would have everything they wanted. Sure the bed wasn’t king-sized but a table, a lamp, a small fridge, a wardrobe; an ironing board which folded down from the wall; a TV, a two metre wide balcony and a self-contained bathroom were all in place. Surely enough for a keen commentator for just three weeks.

Early drama came on the first day. I took a shower to freshen up. But the floor tiles in the bathroom were so pristine I slipped and in reaching out to save myself from tumbling and cracking my head I lost my balance and pulled down the whole shower curtain system.

I recovered and tried to reposition it to be as it was. But to no avail. So thereafter on every entry to the bathroom the curtain was there hanging down limply. Going in to that room became like walking on broken glass.  Entry was on tiptoes so as not to slip on the skiddy tiles. Tentatively I would then approach the shower, not daring to breathe in case it crashed again. This went on the whole three weeks I was in room C4004 (well, you try lathering up while not daring to touch a jury-rigged shower system! Or move your feet and therefore slip.) No wonder I have never forgotten!

So these things are sent to try you in a foreign land. But overall I came to really enjoy my little Athens cubby-hole. Down the hall or down the street one could get nice Greek meals and the beer was always cold. The TV worked in my room and the bed was just wide enough for me to comfortably flop down on at any hour and enjoy the 25 channels which were locked permanently on each venue of Olympic competition.

The only other matter of domesticity was the balsa wood cutlery which was to be used by hundreds of the world’s media. It was slightly bizarre but understandable in those days of early high security. Silly me, I bought a full set home to New Zealand to show disbelieving mates.

The Athens Games were great to be at. No doubt about it. It felt great to be in the actual city and country where their ancients, way back in 776BC, had first come up with the idea of a sporting competition with all sports and people from all nations.

On the first day after we flew in a gang of us clamoured up the rocky slopes to the Acropolis high over the city and marvelled that we were there. To think a civilisation and city was in place from three millenniums ago and had built the perfect constructions of the Acropolis and the Parthenon and others which are still standing. It was eye-widening to us all.

In good time and in this highly appropriate setting the Games were upon us and the action began. My first job was to work with John McBeth at the Opening ceremony. That was fun to do; the official opening ceremony was out of this world, a theatrical mixture of ancient and modern Greece. There were giant sculptures hovering over a stadium centrepiece which was a lake in essence. Lasers flashed about and there was much symbolism between the old and the new Olympic ethos.

I did my best with the commentary but I can tell you I handed over to John when the Olympic Hymn came on. It reminded me so much of our dear friend John Davies who had commentated with us at so many Games in the past and who had gone on to become the President of the New Zealand Olympic Committee. Between Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 John had quietly slipped from this life, cruelly struck down with cancer. His family had received special permission from the IOC to play the same Olympic hymn at his funeral in Auckland.

Our commentary also went to the opening ceremony broadcasts for TVNZ’s clients. Places like South Africa, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, Brunei, East Timor, Mauritius, Mongolia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia, Samoa, Fiji, Cook Islands, Samoa, Niue, Solomon Islands and Tonga all heard the dulcet tones of KQ and McB. (Plus we had a charming local lady with us by the name of Julia Kofitas, a former Greek basketball international. She sat between these two lumps from New Zealand to help us with local interpretations. Thanks Julia.)

From  that day my memories of the Games are a blur of the daily ritual of heading out from Room C4004 down through the city to either the TV studios or out to the actual venue to commentate events. My main job for the Athens games was from field events at the main stadium. A couple I recall in particular.

The first was a great day in the Olympic story. The mind could hardly take in the significance of the Olympics returning for events in Olympia some 2700 years after they were first held in that exact place. Olympia is 320 kilometres north of Athens and is these days mostly known for being the location where the rays of the sun light the Olympic flame every two years (don’t forget the winter Olympics!).

The men’s and women’s shot putting therefore were held in a highly appropriate setting. The sun baked the competitors and your commentators were nervous too. Nigel Avery, the 2000 Olympic representative in weightlifting and Commonwealth Games gold medallist also has a strong history in jumping and throwing events in track and field. So Nigel joined me and we made our debut as T and F commentators together. But we were not in Olympia. The distance to that place prevented us travelling so instead we broadcast from the Athens studio just by looking at the TV coverage of the event.

All morning we chatted away from our booth as the qualifying for both the men's and women's events took place. At the microphone we told stories about the competitors, including the highly promising 19-year old Valerie Adams. I think we honoured the location and we kept up with who had qualified and who had missed out. It was, I think I can say a promising beginning for a new commentary combination. 

But imagine the chagrin we both felt when we came out of the booth after two hours of solid commentary only to be told that, by some cock-up in the complicated maze of technical wires and digital signals, our commentary work had gone precisely - nowhere!

The commentary, which I now call "great" of course (because no one else can deny that), went from the studio, up into the ether and no station took us. The wrong "feed" of the signal was even sent to New Zealand. Instead the kiwis heard some South African colleagues at work, coming out of their broadcast box, which was just along the hall.

Now, while there may be any number of people who might say, "We didn't hear Quinn, so that's good" such a stumble should not have happened. The interesting thing is no one quite knows how it occurred or who stuffed up. It might have been this end, that end, or somewhere in the sky as the signal zoomed across the world.

"Oh well," said Nigel and I, muttering only mildly, "it was a good rehearsal." [Though I did say to the technical staff at the time who might have made the cock-up "Do not do it again or back home I will find out where you live!"]

Once track racing began in the main stadium there was a chance to meet, greet and get to know Derek Redmond, the Englishman who joined our team to be expert caller along with Brendan Telfer for the track races. Derek was a former World, European and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, all won in the 4 x 400 relays.

Over dinner, in great detail, he gave us the story of each of the races. Derek is perhaps best known for the very visual story which has come down the years where he is shown running at Barcelona for Great Britain in the 400 metres. Down the back straight he pulls a hamstring and makes as if to pull up and stop completely. Then, as the TV library footage so vividly reminds us, it is Derek’s father who jumps the fence and runs onto the track. Father and son embrace each other, which automatically disqualifies Redmond Junior, but he bravely hobbles on helped by his Dad. Honestly, though the incident happened 12 years earlier and it has been replayed often, it always brings a lump to the throat.

Derek must have told and retold the story of the race a zillion times since, especially as he was by 2004 a motivational speaker, but he did not mind telling it to us wide-eyed kiwis again. “My dad was up in the stands and he says he can’t remember thinking ‘I’ve got to go down and help my boy,’ he just said to my coach who was sitting there, ‘hold my camera’ and he then ran down the steps of the grandstand, jumped the fence onto the track and ran on to help me.”

It is a great story of a father’s love and concern for his son and also of the Olympic spirit. It is about a Dad who helped his limping lad around the curve then watched him shuffle the last few metres to at least say he finished in the race. The IOC often use the video clip to exemplify the “celebrate humanity” feeling that the Games can bring.

The first big day for feeling really proud about New Zealand’s contribution to the Athens Games came on Day 5. It was because, seemingly after an age of waiting New Zealand finally registered as a gold medal nation in 2004.

As expected, Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell (or the “Swindle sisters” as one colleague repeatedly called them by mistake) won their rowing final. They did it in style, though not before some anxious moments, as their German and Bulgarian opponents made late rushes at their early lead. I can tell you that in Athens all work was temporarily halted in our TVNZ studio as the dynamic duo rowed towards glory.

Later in the day today the Evers-Swindell’s came into the studio and were interviewed live on our coverage by Lavina Good. I watched from my track and field position and marvelled, as we all probably have done, at how alike the two really are. They not only speak identically, but look at each other, pause, and fit sentences and thought patterns together at exactly the same time. They also sat in exactly the same way in our studio and like good modest kiwi kids they looked downwards at lot in a completely self-effacing way. Long may they stay as interesting and unassuming. And long may we admire them as part of our Olympic story. On that day they were deserving and great Champions. We wondered how they might go in 2008.

24 hours later it was the same. We all keenly gathered around in the control room to watch women’s cycling from the velodrome. This time it was Sarah Ulmer who dashed around the track in world record time and the cheers went up again for New Zealand as she zoomed to a world record in the individual pursuit and secured our second gold medal.

Suddenly we were in a state of euphoria. Already a 100% improvement from Sydney four years ago – a doubling of the Sydney gold medal total, in fact. [Only Rob Waddell won in 2000 for New Zealand]

Sarah later came into our studio and smilingly described her win to the home TV audience as “wicked, “ a word I had heard from her many times before. Yes, a wicked win it certainly was.

The third and final gold medal won by Kiwis at Athens was again a ‘watching’ experience for me. At the Olympic Games strange things do happen sometime. The night before the men’s triathlon final I had I staggered up the hill at the Media Village to room C4004 at about 1.30 a.m. The hours at the Games are often long and tiring.

So next morning I woke up, again quite rested, but actually disappointed I hadn’t woken even earlier. That was because the Men’s Triathlon final was on and the kiwi trio of Nathan Richmond, Bevan Docherty and Hamish Carter were all good enough to win the thing. I had thought I might catch a bus out and watch the race.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, instead I reached for the trusty remote on my TV and on went the commentary and coverage of the race. And as there were no relaxing couches in my cell to sit on I, frankly, went back to bed. Yes, I lay on the narrow crib and savoured from a gloriously prone position one of the greatest days of New Zealand Olympic history.

Carter finished first and Docherty second. Such a great 1-2 finish for New Zealand had not been seen since two horses had done it in an Olympic 3-day event in Atlanta in 1996. (Blyth Tait and Sally Clark had been on them of course!)

This kind of thing, of watching the Olympics gold medals being won by New Zealanders while not actually being there, has happened to me a number of times before. I recall being a lad in Munich in 1972 and having worked a late shift the night before the famous Men’s rowing eight final I was late to bed. In the morning I was rostered to charge across town to the swimming pool to commentate events there.

There was no TV in the commentary position at the pool so instead I slipped into the broadcaster’s common room down the hall to see the rowing. It was filled with men and women of all nations and they hardly blinked an eye when the greatest day of New Zealand rowing took place. There was no cell phone in those days for me to pick up and make shouts of joy at my colleagues across the city, and no amount of shooshing down would quieten the loud-talking bloody ‘Norwegians’ (a generic term at the Olympics for all people who don’t speak our language) while “God Defend New Zealand” echoed out for the first time at any Games.

That meant of course I became a dreadful liar when I returned home to New Zealand. People asked me, “How’d you enjoy being there when the Eights in Munich won their race?” but for years I never had the heart to tell anyone the only shouting done by me about the race was later in the Press Bar (or at bloody Norwegians talking loudly in the common room.)

So when Hamish Carter came in brilliantly for first place in Athens in the triathlon followed by Bevan Docherty in second place, I admit I did my watching of the event lying in my favourite footy shorts and tee-shirt on a narrow couch in Cell C4004. (Mind you, when our guys did get the two medals, I did rise wobbly from the rickety bed and step out into the hallway. There, I gave a shrill blast of a two-fingered piercing whistle which I learned to do when I was a kid at Berhampore School in Wellington, but never am allowed to do when I am at the microphone anywhere.)

So the Athens Games ended with New Zealand having won three gold medals. Not a bad effort at all with the two silver medals added in too.

Once again though there was a distressing personal statistic. With Brendan Telfer calling the triathlon race he jumped ahead of me on the TVNZ Commentator’s Gold Medals table.  Brendan had not called a New Zealand Gold since he was a much younger man in Montreal in 1976. There he had been assigned to do the TV commentary of the New Zealand-Australia hockey final. So by Athens he had waited 28 years to do his second call.

So by 2008 I was now the one who had waited 32 years for something to happen again for me of glory-at-the-mike. Not since John Walker in the Montreal 1500 metres have I felt the feeling of shouting “Gold for a Kiwi!” at the Olympic Games.

[Actually the New Zealand TV commentator way out in front is Ian Woodley. In his time with TV and radio Ian proudly called nine New Zealand gold medals in rowing, hockey and canoeing over a spread of seven Games.  “P.J.” Montgomery has had three golden calls, all in yachting, also over seven Games.

Come to think of it I think I am now back in last place in the Kiwi commentating gold medal race. Even John McBeth called two Golds for Danyon Loader at Atlanta in 1996. [I can just hear the call now; “Yes, there’s Quinn! Look at him back there in last place! In his favourite footy shorts and tee-shirt, red-faced, huffing and puffing and complaining everyone else are going too fast!”]


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