Day breaks hot and heavy in the Berkshires in August. Danger hangs over me like felt curtain. I lie on my back, eyes wide open. I see nothing, but hear everything. The hiss of air through bicycle spokes. The pitter-patter of old lady feet on sidewalk.
The crunch of tires on my gravel driveway.
It was Gurney. Damn. I threw off the sheets and took the stairs three at a time. Tanabe and Ghosh were already sitting on the soft shabby couch. I joined them. We sat together, three residents of the yellow house on Latham Street.
The front door swung wide. In strode Gurney, he of the broad shoulders, band-iron arms, and clear blue eyes. A BB gun slung easily across his back. He turned to us. “You ready?”
I hesitated to respond. What could I say, after all? My entire life – 22 long years of manly sturm und drang – led directly to this moment. Was I ready? Hell no. But truly, are any of us ready when the white-hot sun bleaches away our pretense and scalds us to blindness? It did not matter. Today my chums and I would shake our fists at the sun and at each other. So I met Gurney’s gaze and offered up a solemn nod.
It was written then. There would be a People’s Olympiad. The Latham Olympiad.
Gurney returned my nod, nodding and smiling fiendishly and rubbing his palms together. He squeezed in on the couch amongst us. We shot the shit, chatted for a bit. Piled into Gurney’s Camry, rolled to Dunkin for fuel. Sausage, egg, and cheese in a biscuit – with its balance of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, a prerequisite for any respectable athletic performance.
The Dunkin sandwiches combined with the natural fragrance of Gurney’s Camry made for near-toxic levels of methane on the ride back to Latham. Nevertheless, morale was high, because each one of us believed victory, the goddess Nike incarnated in the form of a Maxim supermodel, would crown us at weekend’s end.
Tanabe was a superb athlete, probably the most dynamic of us four, though 35 pounds above his college wrestling weight. He believed he would win.
Gurney rested on his Anglo-Saxon laurels, he the heir of Hastings. He believed he would win.
Ghosh was a capricious fellow, a thoughtful, absent-minded English major one minute, a prolific, ungifted trash-talker the next. He was a longshot for the gold, although susceptible to occasional strokes of brilliance on the pick-up soccer pitch, and it was these sorts of moments on which his ego idled. He believed he would win.
I believed I would win because, I reasoned, that was the only way I could win. My fundamentals were sound, my hand-eye coordination keen, but my internal motor was unreliable, my outlook on life too Zen. If I truly craved victory – and I hoped that I did – I would have to measure my will not against itself but against my competitors. I dared not underestimate them. The battle would be fierce.
We pulled onto the gravel driveway and piled out. Time for business. We busted out the tape and scale and chose to each represent the country of our ancestors. It went something like this:
Tanabe — 5’4” / 168 / Japan.
Gurney — 5’9 / 175 / United Kingdom.
Ghosh — 5’6” / 130 / India.
Me — 6’ / 151 / Netherlands.
We suited up. We toasted to our camaraderie. We prostrated ourselves to the Supreme Being. We lit the flame.
The Latham Olympiad had begun.
Why did the ancient Greeks hold the Olympiad? Why every four years did competitors flock to Olympia from as far as Macedon, seeking victory? I suppose they aspired to test the limits of the human body, to blur the line between human and god and perhaps to become heroes in Olympic lore. But victory would do more than earn them adulation or even eternal glory. Victory would affirm their self-worth. It would affirm the inherent goodness of their body and their will.
Tanabe unsheathed his trusty blade and fashioned a javelin from a fallen tree branch in the backyard. It took an hour for us to get out the door. Ghosh was to blame. Eventually we made it down to the rugby pitch, the blades of grass arced in unison like sunflowers.
Four throws each. Tanabe seemed to have an intuitive understanding of trajectory, such that his throws traveled higher, farther, and even came to a satisfying end with the nose of the javelin embedded in the ground. He was a man among boys. I finished last. I was in fact battling a feisty case of the sniffles that day. But, no excuses, heart of a champion. I needed to rise above.
I peeled my shirt off and the wind descended into the valley between my pecs. I had put on a few pounds of muscle that summer working the hiking trails around town. It was true, I was the most jacked I had ever been.
Field Goal Challenge
I used to go to the nearby football field with my pop and brother to boot field goals.
In one of my fantasies about the past, I hit the squats the summer before sophomore year of high school and win the starting kicking job on the football team. We are not the best team, but in this particular game we are down two points to our rival in the waning seconds, with the ball in field goal territory. Coach takes our last timeout with three seconds left. The sky is pitch black, save for the full moon. The stadium rises to its feet. Droves of females scream at the top of their lungs. Coach pats me on the butt, I trot out under the lights, line up and nail a 43-yarder as time expires.
Three kicks each per round, each round the spot moves a few yards back. To no one’s surprise, Tanabe went shank city in the first round. Ghosh often fancied himself a regular Aguero but he soon joined Tanabe in shank city. And there I was, every kick splitting the uprights as sure as every summer the monsoon breathes life into the parched peaks of the Western Ghats. And though my success in the event was predetermined, and though the event was only a formality to weed out the reprobates, I welled with schaudenfreude when Gurney emitted a tormented cry as his last attempt thudded into the left upright and fell limp to the grass below.
Three heats each, from midfield to the try line, then a final 100-meter showdown between the top two contestants. I averaged 5.71, followed by Ghosh at 5.98. Ghosh vs. Me, it would be. Meanwhile, Tanabe’s times wallowed in the 6.6 range. We were curious and looked back at the tape. Each heat he got off to a respectable start, but always appeared to reach top speed around twenty meters in, as if at that instant a parachute deployed from an invisible backpack.
Ghosh talked mess on the car ride up to the track. Claimed I’d been jumping the gun in the prelims. The truth was, I’d learned the key to a fast start by watching my favorite Olympian of all-time, the great Texan sprinter Michael Johnson. In the first ten meters he would keep his head down and take quick choppy strides to generate food speed, so that before long his gold shoes would be one circular blur.
High school cross-country girl runners took their warm-up laps as we sauntered towards the starting line, and the sexual tension was through the roof. Spurred by their presence, Ghosh got off to a brilliant start and edged me in 13.1 seconds. His triumph validated his mess-talk, the dorkiness of his victory jig a function of his euphoria.
Two beers, four laps. The Day One Showcase Event! We made the mistake of buying PBR, which not only tastes fouler than Keystone but also weighs heavier in the stomach. How to fit in the beers among the laps? Gurney chose to crush a beer at the very start. Chucked the can and came around the first turn like Prefontaine. Having not run a proper mile since 8th grade, I was unsure how to pace myself, so I erred on the side of leisure and ended up cruising in second gear the whole race. A post-race look at the tape would reveal that I had dumped out the majority of my first beer onto the infield grass. Gurney would lap me and win easily in 7:30 — a dominating performance.
Full can and half a lap to go. The hot rubber burned holes in my soles. Ghosh ran a few steps ahead. I glanced across the track. Tanabe slowed as he reached the finish line. He cracked a PBR and took one delicate sip.
Suddenly Ghosh burst to life, flying past a peloton of XC girls and into the turn like a rogue caboose. Had he finished both his beers? Despite the unsavory result of the 100-meter final, I found myself hoping that he had. Tanabe struck a contrapposto pose and nursed his PBR like a glass of scotch. With Ghosh thundering down the backstretch, he finally looked over his shoulder and started to chug. Go, Ghosh, Go!
Ghosh, across the finish line ahead of Tanabe! He raised his arms and assumed the prone position on the infield, rubbing his face in the grass, savoring every blade. Tanabe opted for the supine position, moaning with hands on forehead. Devastated. This gave me solace. What was worse – my honest indolence, or Tanabe’s complacency?
Tired. We sojourned to Tony’s, the local Mexican spot. Like the Dunkin sandwich, the burrito covers all corners of the nutritional spectrum, but unlike the Dunkin sandwich, the burrito has a great deal of compassion, like a mother’s embrace. It is an end in and of itself, something you can always turn to when all seems wrong in the world.
Day One Standings
Though Gurney generally strives to the ideal of the Chill Bro, he occasionally lapses into moments of incredible intensity, as he demonstrated in the Beer Mile. Indeed, in college he played rugby, a sport of bloodlust. It conditions its participants to override their physiological impulses, and trains their inner animal like it would any tangible muscle.
And Ghosh. Ghosh!!! Ghosh. His finishing kick in the Beer Mile seemed not aroused by his inner animal, but rather inspired by some divine spirit. The result of the 100-meter final was a bit of a fluke, but now it seemed that it had been, simultaneously, not a fluke. Maybe Ghosh had constructed such a powerful visualization of how the race would transpire that he ran accordingly. To carry out his prophecy. To meet his destiny.
The ancient Olympiad was held from the 8th century BC until the 4th century AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine I condemned it a farcical pagan ritual. The modern Olympiad was resurrected in 1896 and has since become one of our civilization’s great spectacles, a platform for displays of sportsmanship, diplomacy, and athletic ability. There was one problem – the odds that one of my friends or I was skilled enough to qualify appeared slim, unless it be for the Paralympiad or the Special Olympiad.
The next morning, Tanabe and I went on a bacon/OJ run. As we ate on the couch, Gurney emerged from his slumber sporting a shiner above his right eye, apparently from an errant piñata swing the night before. Ghosh rested his temple on the bannister as he descended the stairs in his trademark briefs.
The biathlon was developed in 19th century Norway as an exercise for soldiers – they would ski across the Scandinavian taiga, stopping every few kilometers to shoot at designated targets. In our adaptation, we would run across the huge field behind the local high school with Gurney’s BB gun and take down three empty Four Lokos utilizing the three classic combat poses – standing, kneeling, prone. It took me twelve minutes to complete the course, a stressful experience such that I felt my ventricles unclench the moment I crossed the finish line.
It wasn’t all the running that did me in. It was the pressure of time. The crosshairs trembled in the scope, which aimed half a can to the right. I would pull the trigger and open my ears, praying for that cathartic ping, and either the ping came immediately and with it a deluge of dopamine to the head, or it never came but still I prayed that somewhere the latent echo ricocheted blindly, yearning to come home. With every miss, my confidence wavered, and by the transitive property so did my focus, until my brain left the scene entirely for its own self-preservation.
Tanabe clocked a time nearly ten times lower than mine. Didn’t miss a single shot. He clearly had a gift with the BB gun. He was a great cook too – if he wanted he could be a modern day Samwise Gamgee, living off the land with nothing but his pots, knife, rifle, and wits, hunting coneys.
Playground Obstacle Course
The final most daunting section was the traverse across the top bar of the swing set. Tanabe went first, and he shimmied across with style and ease. I went next, dangling halfway across, my triceps engulfed in flames, two little boys below my feet yelling for me to keep going. I lamented my lanky arms. Once, Tanabe mocked me as I labored to finish a set of push-ups. I retorted that he was only good at push-ups because of his T-rex arms, which was cruel but in essence true. He had no comeback but came to me later that night after a few beers, said I had shattered his confidence, and we then had a long talk about the plight of the short Asian man. It made me count my blessings, that I was white and tallish.
I did not finish the traverse across the top bar of the swing set. I dropped to the woodchips and jogged to the finish line. Tanabe’s shrill protests fell on deaf ears.
100-Meter Individual Medley
To the pool! We had planned to pair the IM with a diving competition, but the boards were out of service, leaned against the wall. Alas. My inner Louganis would never see the light of day.
Gurney’s butterfly was in rare form. He put up a 1:51.8. A fabulous time indeed, but Tanabe edged him with a 1:50.6. Ghosh posted an FDR-esque 4:52.0. He was practically catatonic by the time he finished. I managed a 2:32.7, a respectable time, but as I clung to the wall I sympathized with Ghosh. We all agreed on the walk back to Latham Street – this was the most brutal event by far. Though the heavily chlorinated water had saved us from ingesting too much stale urine, it had sapped us of our lifeforce. The Olympic-sized pool, fifty meters long, seemed to stretch into oblivion. But really it would have been better if the race was one length of a hundred-meter pool, with the far wall a final destination, a mecca, rather than a Saharan oasis that ultimately had to be left behind.
Hot Dog Eating Contest
The Day Two Showcase Event, in which we would eat as many hot dogs as possible, but first a siesta. In bed I formulated a strategy. Our event was modeled after the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest held every July 4th on Coney Island, which usually came down to two contestants: the giant Joey Chestnut, and the bantamweight Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s method involved separating the bun and dunking it in a cup of water to reduce its volume. This, I determined, was my path to the crown.
At dusk we surrounded the picnic table, grilled hot dogs stacked to our eyeballs. We had a special guest, Tanabe’s chum Foote who wrestled heavyweight, his hair fashioned into a nimbus of neon green spikes, a nude female tattooed on his bicep. Foote, Chestnut. I, Kobayashi.
The timer started and Foote came out guns blazing, crushing 4 dogs in 2 minutes. The Kobayashi method was indeed effective, but the bun’s aroma steadily worsened, such that as I held the dripping soggy sop in front of my mouth waiting to swallow the one preceding it, four-day old wet poodle wafted into my nostrils, the taste and texture in perfect harmony. The Oscar Meyers, too, suffered, once bodacious and grilled to perfection, they now showed their true colors, pasty pink tubes of centrifuged preservatives and meat slurry. The key was to treat it not as eating but as exercise, focusing on the up-down of the molars, one set of 50, and then another. In the end, it turned out to be a faithful recreation of the Nathan’s Famous Contest. Foote, Chestnut, beat me. But I, Kobayashi, beat everybody else.
Day Two Standings
There would be only one event on Day Three: Me v. Ghosh for the bronze. A wrestling match. Wrestling, we figured, was appropriate, the favored sport of the ancient Greek gymnasiums.
But this day belonged to Tanabe, who took gold on the back of a stunning Day Two surge. In truth, the difference between him and Gurney was but a second and a half in the pool or three-quarters of a hot dog. But history would not remember these details, only that in the Latham Olympiad, there was one athlete who stood above the others, and he was Tanabe.
Tanabe often talks about this axiom of wrestling called kaizen, the self-discipline required to affect continuous positive change. Kaizen requires a value system in which hedonism is the cardinal sin. It requires one take a serious approach to each day, to see the world via tunnel vision. If Japan and the US ever go to war, says Tanabe, he borne of DC, he will go and enlist for the Japanese army.
Foote conducted the medal ceremony. He summoned us from the couch to claim our ribbons. Ghosh and I, then Gurney, then Tanabe. When Tanabe was solemn when he accepted his first place ribbon, and I knew that this wasn’t that he didn’t care. It was that he cared too much.
Why can we moderns – we young acolytes of the ancient ways – not hold our own Olympiad? That is the question that the yellow house on Latham Street dared to ask. We wished to break the quotidian cycle, to inject a sense of glory into our lives. We wished to be Olympians ourselves, and in the process pay homage to the noble classical spirit of the ancient Olympiad that the modern version had perhaps forgotten.
The Wrestle for Bronze
We would do battle in the nearby park, first to three takedowns. On the way I grilled Tanabe for fundamentals. Stay low, he said. Drive with the hips. Elbows in. Kaizen.
But when the bell rang, instinct took over. Ghosh was slippery, and worse, feisty. We were but two apes vying for alpha position. Who was more suave with the ladies did not matter – this here, somehow, was all that mattered.
Ghosh took a quick 2-0 lead, but in the third round I found myself lying on top of him deciding what to do next, the fog of exhaustion clouding the neural pathways in my frontal cortex. Ghosh suddenly grabbed my arm and bent it back at an unnatural angle, freeing him, and we somersaulted backwards and came to a rest with his hands pressing my shoulder blades against the cool grass. The buzzer had sounded. Fin. I felt not so much the agony of defeat but instead the sense of absolute finality, that I had come down to Earth.
I lie in bed now. The Latham Olympiad is over. Gurney left immediately after the wrestling match, took his BB gun and Camry back to Connecticut to paint his house with his pop. Now it is three again in the yellow house on Latham Street. I wonder if Ghosh and Tanabe are still awake, thinking back on the weekend. I am nostalgic already, for the good times that were had, and for what could have been. Nostalgic for the loss of any conception of time except for the present, where my chums stood at my side, where our Olympiad was indistinguishable from that of the ancient Greeks. Where I could see clearly the vision of who I wanted to be, the ideal estimation of myself, and that, for my all commendable qualities, I was not him.