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Sports Desk: True confessions of an Olympicphile

Friday, Aug. 5, was a big day. I had it marked down on my calendar for months, as if I might forget. LOL. No chance of that happening.

How could one overlook the greatest sports day of the year (or more accurately, four years), the official start of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?

As is our tradition, friends and I shared a small viewing party for the opening ceremony and watched as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad were ushered in. (I did watch some Olympic soccer games the day before the opening ceremony to get into the swing of things).

It happens every four years (two years, if you want to count the Winter Olympics). The people of the world take a brief timeout from the real world to celebrate the joy of sport with this festival called the Olympics, which at least momentarily takes our minds off wars, terrorism, famine, disease and disasters.

So, we watched the colorful spectacle unfold amid the pageantry in the cavernous Maracana Stadium. During the parade of nations, I noticed a few countries I had never heard of before. Do Comoros, Kiribati or Sao Tome and Principe ring a bell with anyone?

The contingents ranged from Tuvalu, whose sole competitor is track sprinter Etimoni Timuani, to the 554 athletes the United States brought. Altogether, athletes from a record 205 nations are competing in 42 sports disciplines in 306 events at 37 venues.

I was saddened that Pele — still in my mind the greatest soccer player ever and perhaps the most famous athlete of all time — was unable to attend Friday’s opening ceremony to light the Olympic torch, apparently for health reasons. He unquestionably deserved it.

Rather remarkably, this is the first Olympics to come to South America. Not only that, but consider this: The Rio Olympics are the first Summer Games to be held during the winter (in Brazil).

The first Olympics I recall watching were the 1972 Munich Games. Those were the Olympics in which 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, a West German police officer and five Palestinian terrorists were killed. They were also the Games in which American swimmer Mark Spitz set a world record by winning seven gold medals. I remember watching it as a child on our family’s small black-and-white TV.

The Olympics grabbed my attention four years later when they went to Montreal. Because of the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, we didn’t get to see those Games, but the 1984 Olympics arrived on American soil when Los Angeles hosted them for the second time (the Soviet Union did not participate this time; it was payback for the American boycott in 1980). That’s when I really caught Olympic fever, watching as our country got caught up in Olympic-mania.

It was, and remains, a joy to behold, not only the sports we know and love, but also the lesser-known sports that draw our curiosity. Where else does a typical American get to watch team handball (think soccer, only you are allowed to use your hands), water polo or sailing?

The Olympics have come a long way since the first recorded Olympics in 776 BC. Perhaps the biggest change is TV. I read that 92 percent of the revenue from the Rio Olympics will come from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship.

My only minor beef with NBC’s excellent coverage of the Rio Olympics is the amount of gymnastics and swimming that is thrown at us. I know, I know. It’s a ratings game. I just wish other sports got more air time, but it is true that we have options. We can watch other Olympic sports on a variety of channels, not to mention online streaming.

My Olympic challenge from now until the Rio Olympics close on Aug. 21 has nothing to do with winning medals, like the athletes. I’m just trying to take it all in and watch as much as I can. My video recording space is dwindling down and we aren’t even a week into it.

This will have to satisfy my Olympic jones for a while. In two years we will have the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Then the 2020 Summer Games will be in Tokyo. You can bet I will be watching.

Bob_CBob Liepa is the sports editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at [email protected].