Johnette Howard

SYDNEY, Australia—We’re not even at the halfway pole of the Sydney Summer Olympics and already it’s started: the Press Corps’ Quadrennial Parade of Zombies.

I don’t know why this happens at every Olympics. You’d think we’d learn by now how to pace ourselves over the 16-day Games. But after a week of 18-hour work days filled with computer transmission troubles, telephone malfunctions, rushing from venue to venue while you’re also trying to keep up with the other results that are falling on your head like bricks—after all of that, plus some spastic typing to meet deadline, then late nights of drinking because you’re too wired to go to bed after carpet-bombing your hometown with five daily stories, sooner or later most everyone here develops a rattling cough, glazed eyes, and an unshakable conviction that every editor who’s sitting back home is a unfeeling dolt who wouldn’t know a good story idea if it came gift-wrapped in a box marked “PULITZER.”

But I’m not talking about me, of course.

The antibiotics I scored here from a friend had me feeling better on Day 3.

I’d like to say that the heavy drinking the sportswriters are doing here is because Australia makes some of the very best wines and beers in the world. But it’s not. After 18 years in this business I can confidently say if you put a bunch of sportswriters in any city in the world we’d find a bar that serves till 4 a.m. within 24 hours of getting our passports stamped. And if it’s a real podunk town and there isn’t a bar open till 4 a.m., then some of the more ingenious scribes among us will scavenge for some rubber hose, a couple of pipes, and a hot plate, and they’ll make themselves a still instead. It’s a marvel more of us don’t have rickets. Or rap sheets.

(So, maybe I’m exaggerating—but only about the part that it takes 24 hours to find a late-night joint. Some guys I know are like human divining rods when it comes to liquor. You could blindfold them, spin them around three times, and send them off, and they’ll be sipping a very dry martini faster than you can say, “Hold the olive.”)

Having said that, I must also say we’re driven to drink—driven to drink, I tell ya.

Part of it is not wanting to go back to the media village, the pre-fab housing compound where a few thousand of us are stabled. Where I come from in the States we have a very quaint local expression for people who live in a place like this: We call ‘em white trash. Because the media villages always change from Olympics to Olympics, you never know what to expect. This year’s collection of low-slung bunkhouses looks amazingly like the Hogan’s Heroes set. Which probably explains the irrational urge I have to start tunneling my way out to the main road with that spoon I lifted from cafeteria.

Inside our rooms it doesn’t get much better. There’s a phone, a particleboard armoire to hang your clothes in, a particleboard desk with a plastic chair, one dull globe light, and the pièce de réesistance—a twin bed. Now, I love covering the Olympics almost as much as life itself. But do you know how demeaning it is to be 40 years old and sleeping in a twin bed? I cross my arms and lie there like Ramses III. All that’s missing is a pennant on the wall that says “State College” and my mom yelling up the stairs, “Johnette, hurry up or you’ll miss the school bus, honey!”

But it gets better. At the enormous Main Press Center, which consists of six barnlike structures near the Olympic Park, we get to work elbow to elbow with our colleagues from around the world—all of whom smoke three packs a day. The Olympic transport buses will get you where you want to go—if the carbon monoxide that’s sifting up through the floorboards doesn’t make you pass out and miss your stop. Thanks to the Olympic Info2000 computer system, which lists all the daily schedules and results, you can start off the day picking three or four events to cover out of the 50 you could attend, then check back later in the afternoon to see where you should’ve gone, goddammit.

Not that I’m complaining. The Olympic venues that Sydney built for the Games are outstanding, and a lot of the action has been thrilling. But my American accent is a sometime problem. On Thursday I arrived early at the Superdome for the women’s gymnastics all-around final and asked a helpful Aussie security guard for the media workroom. He sent me walking into an unmarked meeting room instead where 200 or so uniformed volunteers were getting last-minute instructions from their crew chief before starting their shift.

They looked at me.

I looked at them.

All I could think was, “This is no damn way to win a Pulitzer.”