Where’s Wilson: The Olympic Series, Part 2

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Our travel expert, retired attorney, John Wilson will be a 9-time Olympian soon! Not as an athlete, per se, but definitely as an adventurer! He has been traveling to the Olympics since the 1976 Montreal Games. John will be fondly reminiscing about his Olympic past in an exclusive ICLEF 4-Part Series leading up the the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, from which our correspondent will regale us with what he learns from his Russian adventures. Please join us each week for a new installment. Click to read Part 1 or Part 3.

THE OLYMPIC SERIES, Part 2
By John Wilson

Salt Lake, 2002

The summer and winter Olympics used to be held on the same years. In 1992 the winter Olympics were in Albertville, France, but two years later, in 1994, Lillehammer, Norway held the winter Olympics. After the Sydney summer games, Salt Lake City had the winter games in 2002. Going was a given!

The next decision was whether to stay in Salt Lake City, where all the indoor events, skating, hockey and curling would be held, or up at Park City where the skiing events where going on. Even with all the development in Park City, it still has a great Old West cowboy town feel. The six guys I went with all skied. We stayed in Park City.

The Salt Lake organizers learned well from the Sydney model and had many locations and events for music, entertainment etc. outside of the Olympic events themselves. When we were not at Olympic events, we skied. Usually the “only game in town” for Park City is skiing, but for the Olympics, most people were not skiers. The slopes were wide open; no lift lines. Staying in the mountain venue was not always our choice. We stayed in Vancouver rather than Whistler and will stay in Sochi, rather than Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains. Fresh off almost not finding a place to stay in Sydney, we booked fairly early at the Canyons which is west of Park City proper. The Canyons resort is a ski-in ski-out resort.

An unexpected bonus of staying at the Canyons was that the Today Show was being televised from the resort. If you stayed at the Canyons, in the morning you would wander down to the Today set in the resort lobby in your PJ’s and hang out with Katie, Al and Matt. If you weren’t staying in the resort, you could wait outside in the cold and the dark and hope they came outside. Katie was great. Between takes, while she was moving from set to set, she would chat with people like us. We traded pins. She got yelled at by her technical staff because she hung out with the tourists so long she would be late on the set. After each show she would sign autographs until everyone who wanted one got it. Matt was nice when he was on air. Salt Lake was before Al lost weight. He was quite the butterball, huffing and puffing with his family in the snow and altitude. Losing the weight saved his life.

In Park City, we saw ski jumping and freestyle aerials (where they do all the flips and twists).  We chose not to go to the skiing events.  Think of standing by the fence at the Indy 500. The skier is there for a second and then gone. And it is much colder at the Olympics than at the  Indy 500. We did go down to Salt Lake to see hockey and Ogden, Utah for curling. Really, curling is fun! My Ogden Curling Cowboy Olympic pin is one of my favorite souvenirs. Figure skating tickets were not in the budget for Salt Lake.

The interesting people at the Olympics and the unique experiences continued to be a big part of the fun. We not only met the Jamaican Bobsled team; we sat in their bobsled. We drank beer with FBI agents, off duty, but working at the games. I can’t tell you what their assignments were. They would have had to kill me. The Today Show was fun. We had a taxi driver who had eighteen children. As he said, “Yeah, I’m one of them.” I had an Italian ski instructor who was around sixty years old. I was not a good skier and had not skied for twenty years. I was in a very low level group. I thought he must love skiing a lot to still be teaching beginners. When he and I were paired on a lift ride, I found out he was a brain surgeon on the Italian medical team for the Olympics. A friend had let him instruct for the day for fun.

ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Jamaican Bob Sled

The best skiing at the Canyons is high on the mountain. You take a gondola to the main lifts and take it back to the base on the way down at the end of the day. Coming down one day, Billy Kidd, 1964 Olympic Slalom silver medalist, cowboy hat and all, got on the six person gondola with us. He was doing promotional work. His gig was “Ski with Billy Kidd.” We had seen the promotional materials. “Meet and Ski with Billy Kidd at 2:00 at the Top of the Saddle Back Express lift.” He told us he would do one slow run with all the folks. He would go up again and ski at an advanced level leaving most behind. On the next run, he would go all out, lose all the skiers and go home. He was a great guy and told us some fun stories. At the end of the gondola ride, the apres-ski bar was about fifty feet away. My friend, Nick, asked Billy if he would like to have a beer with us. He agreed. The bar was full. We button-holed a waiter we who had served us several times during the week. He said it would be awhile before he got to us. He then turned to Billy and asked him what he wanted. Billy said, “My friends and I need three beers.”  Thank you, Billy!

Athens 2004

The Greeks were so proud to have the Olympics come home.  There was a lot of “noise” about security concerns and whether the venues would be ready. Not much new about that. As it turned out there were no security problems and the Greeks were ready, but just barely.

Our first event was badminton. Really fun. On our way to the event, we noted to the taxi driver how interesting an abstract design pedestrian bridge to the badminton venue was. He said it hadn’t been there the week before. The lady we rented an apartment from in the suburb of Glyfada got lost leaving Athens because the roads were all new.

Because of security concerns, not many Americans went to Athens. As a result, we got some great tickets including some for events we had not seen before. We had closed track cycling, badminton, beach volleyball, mountain biking, indoor volleyball, team handball and athletics. Beach Volleyball is always a party, the more so in Athens when it was 96 degrees. They would periodically turn the water hoses on the fans to cool us down. Track and field was better than ever. With so few Americans attending, we got seats in the fourteenth row, right in front of the women’s pole vault which was contested for the first time in Athens. We like events that have multiple matches, races, etc. We had learned that these type of events tend to be more interesting than say a single basketball game. Badminton is huge in South East Asia. It has multiple close matches and fanatic fans.

ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Athens 2004 Olympics Pole Vault ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Athens 2004 Olympics Badminton fans

Many of the major venues were at the OAKA, Olympic Center of Athens. You would clear security and then be in a large mall area surrounded by the Athletics Stadium, the velodrome, the swimming  and other venues. Food, drink, entertainment and people watching were all part of the OAKA experience. The beer sponsor for Athens was Heineken. It had been Fosters in Australia. No self respecting Aussie would drink Fosters. When we ran into a group of Aussies in the OAKA who were obviously enjoying the Heineken, I asked them if they enjoyed Heineken so much why had the had they had Fosters at Sydney. Their reply, “Well mate, we saved it up for you tourists for years.”

ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Athens 2004 Olympic Park

Glyfada, where we stayed, is an upscale suburb of Athens on the Saronic Gulf. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown Athens by public transportation. The lady we rented a three bedroom condo from was an expatriate American, estranged from her Saudi husband and suggested that she might do a little work for the CIA on the side. We had rented from her through a friend, because she had convinced herself that there was no way she wanted to be in Athens for the Olympics. She was going to the island of Mykonos. By the time we arrived, she had gotten Olympic fever and asked if we would mind if she stayed in her own apartment for a few days. All worked out well as she got us oriented and made a few connections for us, including telling us about the Molly Malone Irish Pub in Glyfada.

A few days into the Olympics, after attending an event, we got back to Glyfada about midnight. We had not eaten dinner, which is not that unusual there, and decided to go to the Molly Malone Pub. Glyfada was the site of the Olympic Sailing venue. The Molly Malone was the unofficial hang out for all the English speaking (and a number of other) Olympic sailing teams. Apparently, sailors do not hold to some of the typical training regimens some other Olympic athletes do. In fairness to the sailors, some had already completed their events. Those celebrating included three British women who had not only won gold medals that day, but were wearing them, including when they danced on the bar. There were no strangers at Molly Malone’s that night.

ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Athens 2004 Olympic Medalist ICLEF's Where's Wilson Blog Athens 2004 Olympic Medal Winners Dancing

None of my friends wanted to go to Turin in 2006 for the next winter games so I did not go.

None of my friends wanted to go to Bejing in 2008 for the next summer games, so I went alone.

Beijing 2008

Why would I go to China alone? How do you go to China alone? Traveling alone is not my first choice. There are places I have wanted to visit and times I have wanted to go when friends and family couldn’t or wouldn’t join me. I will write a separate blog on independent travel. There are pro’s and con’s. There are some things you can do to enhance the chances of there being more pro’s than con’s. Even things that seem not so good at the time when you are traveling alone, can later turn out to have been pretty awesome or at worst a funny story.

China, Beijing, and the Olympics there intrigued me. Even though 2008 is not that long ago, I did not know many people who had traveled there. I knew little about the city, people and culture. It was going to be some work to put together, but that was part of the fun.  You have seen a thread running through my Olympic trips that focuses on meeting interesting people and having different experiences.  I thought Beijing had great potential for the same. It did not disappoint!

The most fascinating thing about getting to China was the visa process. I felt and still feel that if the Chinese could have put on the Olympics successfully without having had any spectators, that would have been their preference. They wanted to be on the world stage in a positive way. How about the Opening Ceremony! But they are used to having total control and that was not possible with all the foreign spectators. Unlike so many predecessor Olympics, there were no public festival locations for the Olympic fans. Instead of encouraging visitors to attend the Olympics, China made the requirements to get an entry visa more stringent. My favorite restriction, which I thought gave insight into how our cultures differ, was that I had to get a letter from my employer stating that I had permission to be off work to go to China. My multiple bosses at JPMorgan were fighting to write about all the reasons they would like to have me gone.

There were several reasons my friends did not join me in Beijing. Tickets were becoming harder to obtain. We had only gotten four tickets for each of three events. Two track and field and one beach volleyball. It was a long flight to a very different culture. It was a tough decision to go by myself. The flights worked out, because as with lodging, not many business or ordinary tourists were coming to Beijing during the Olympics. Two added pieces of info helped me decide to do it. First, a friend who had been to Beijing told me that the taxi’s were incredibly inexpensive. Getting around the city, even as a single, would be affordable. The drivers usually spoke no English. That problem was solved by having a card in Mandarin with the address where I was staying and getting one for wherever I was going.

Second, lodging information on the internet was becoming even more detailed. I had become aware of Tripadvisor.com. Getting a place to stay for a single at the Olympics at a reasonable cost was an issue. I came across a hostel that was one block north of Jingsham Park which is one block north of the Forbidden City. A great location. I had long ago figured out that the best Olympic lodging strategy for me was to stay close to good restaurants and night life locations and then travel to the events, rather than vice versa. The hostel, The Sitting on the City Walls House, had numerous very positive reviews including several that noted that the on site managers were helpful and fluent in English. Even though it was a hostel, I was able to book a private room with a bath. Better yet, I later  discovered that a cold quart of local beer was only fifty cents at the hostel. But, it was located in the hutongs.

Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys, many of which have been in existence since the fifteenth century. They are residential areas with homes that have plain exterior walls on the alley  and courtyards on the interior. Many hutongs, like mine, are so narrow that cars cannot traverse them.  I arrived in Beijing on a rainy night about 11:00 P.M. The taxi driver let me off at the main street at the entrance to the hutong. I had directions, but the drawing was sketchy (ha) and the wording was in Mandarin. I had obtained one other invaluable piece of advice from one of the internet reviews for Sitting on the City Walls House.  It was; “if you can’t find your way in the hutong, just ask any of the residents on the street where the hostel is. They don’t speak English, but they know the only reason a westerner with luggage would be there would be if they were looking for the hostel.”  I asked, they pointed and I found the hostel.

ICLEF's Wheres Wilson Blog Beijing Olympics Hutung

ICLEF Wheres Wilson Blog Beijing Olympics Hostel

Olympic Park and the design of the venues were as spectacular as they appeared on TV. Beijing itself is mammoth; over eleven million people. They have neighborhoods with modern building that make downtown Indy look small.

Kindles were pretty new at the time. I purchased one for the trip. I figured if I didn’t meet any people of interest, I could go to the events, do some sightseeing, buy some presents and read some books. I didn’t read any books. Because of its positive reputation for being English friendly, the hostel had mostly english speaking guests. Early on I met three young Aussies who conveniently had a friend who had not been able to come and use his tickets. I had three extra tickets to all my events.  Two of the Aussies were serious runners (the other was a serious drinker) and I had two track and field events. We became best friends, going not only to events, but dinner and nightlife.

ICLEF Wheres Wilson Blog Beijing Aussie Friends

We became very familiar with Heineken House. Now something of an institution at all the Olympics, it is affiliated with the Dutch Olympic Team. In addition to showing events on large screen TV’s that the Dutch participate in, it hosts celebrations for their winning athletes and a generally great party, especially late night. Plenty of Heineken. Back then all were invited. At more recent Olympics, all are invited but it is so popular that it has been hard to get in.

There are some Western oriented night spots in Beijing. Waiting in line to get in with the Aussie boys one night, two interesting things happened. First, we noticed the sign saying flip-flops were not allowed. Simultaneously, there was an ingenious local guy walking down the line selling shoes. You know how it can be fun to be carded going into a bar when you are forty or so?  The Olympic equivalent for me was when a couple of young folks behind us in line who were German Olympians asked me what Olympic event I had participated in. I guess that’s where sailing and shooting fit in.

Before the Aussies left, we all took a tour up north to do a ten kilometer walk on the Great Wall in one of its more scenic areas. I forgot the young guys were runners and tried to keep up with them. I would have died if some local Mongolian women on the wall who looked to be twice my age and half my height, had not only helped me up some of the inclines, but also fanned me with some traditional hand fans. I ended up walking the rest of the way with a Dutch rowing coach whose athletes had left her in their wake also.

After the Aussies left for home, I met some other people. I was sitting in the courtyard of the hostel watching the women’s marathon with a guy I hadn’t met. It was a hot day and I commented on how difficult the marathon looked. He agreed and said he had recently done something hard also. He and another guy had ridden bicycles from Croatia to Beijing for the Olympics. Really! I saw his pictures including one of him staying with a family in a yurt in the Gobi Desert.

My favorite new friend was a young self described geek who was an M.I.T. student. He had done an internship study in rural China and was on his way home. He did not like sports and was not enthusiastic about being in Beijing during the Olympics. He was lonesome for some American company and so we hung out together. He showed me some places in Beijing, I never would have found. I took him to a beach volleyball game. He loved it. He copied me on his e-mails to his friends telling about how much he enjoyed the event. He probably claimed  delerium when he got home and saw them in person.

Look in next week’s ICLEF e-mail Newsletter for continued coverage from our Olympics correspondent in Part 3 of Where’s Wilson: The Olympic Series.

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This is one of an ongoing series of travel discussions by John Wilson, retired lawyer and trust banker. John was motivated to start this series when he realized that his travel bio was more extensive and interesting than his legal credentials for doing ICLEF talks. He has traveled to forty-five states, over sixty countries and all continents except Antarctica.

If you have travel questions or tips of your own that you would like to suggest please contact ICLEF’s travel expert, John Wilson, by Clicking Here.

Photographs © 2014, John Wilson. Photographs may not be used without permission. 

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

 

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