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Karl Lindholm: Alex Wolff was our man in Rio

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Posted on September 7, 2016 |
By Karl Lindholm



For some of us sports fans, a trip to the Olympics, with access to the prime sites of competition, is the stuff of dreams, bucket list material.

I’ve been to the Olympics once — in nearby Lake Placid in 1980, the “Miracle on Ice” Olympics. I had a great time, saw many Middlebury friends, and witnessed a terrific evening of competition on the ice at the Olympic Center (alas, it was ice dancing, a preliminary round, not ice hockey).

Our townsman, Alex Wolff of Cornwall, has been to 10 Olympic games, between 1988 and last month in Rio de Janeiro: seven summer Games and three Winter Games. For Alex, it’s not all fun and games — well, not exactly: It’s his work, satisfying work to be sure, but work indeed.

Alex has written for Sports Illustrated for 36 years: He has “traveled to six continents to cover everything from the Tour de France and the World Series to the Olympics and the intersection of society and sports,” as his SI webpage indicates.

He is one of, if not the foremost writer on basketball in the world. His book “Big Game, Small World” is an anthropological take on the game around the world, rich in narrative detail. His recent book on President Obama and basketball, “The Audacity of Hoop,” is a lively examination, richly illustrated, of this President’s attachment to the game.

Alex knows that sports are a window to the world and an enterprise of the spirit. He writes about sports, and lives in sports, with depth, sensitivity, and originality.

He has demonstrated in his remarkable body of work that he understands too that our passion for sports can lead to excess, abuse, and greed.

Who better to write, then, about the Olympus of sporting events, this enormously complicated, worldwide, quadrennial celebration of sports?

Much has changed since Alex’s first Olympics, Seoul in 1988 (“I was such a blinkered newbie that I barely left the basketball arena for two weeks”). Back then, Sports Illustrated was above all else a weekly magazine. “You had time to have dinner with colleagues at the Olympics,” Alex recalled. “You could let your weekly piece gestate.”

No longer: “You have to feed the beast,” as Alex put it. “Everything in the notebook finds a way out.” Sports fans are not willing to wait five days for description and analysis of events. Our attention span is brief indeed. We want information now, nearly immediately, on-line.

Alex produced wonderful pieces for the magazine from Rio, but also wrote on-line articles for SI.com, nearly a dozen in all in the 2-3 weeks of the Games in Rio. Often, he said, it was “report, write, and file.” Not much gestating.

“I split time between basketball and the ‘Brazilian culture beat,’” Alex said, explaining his role in Rio: “I could enjoy the X’s and O’s of basketball, get into the weeds a bit of a particular sport, but then also take a more global perspective.”

Well before the Games began, he traveled to Brazil, writing the “one-year out story,” as well as the “preview” in the magazine just before the festivities got underway.

We had all read about the changes in Brazil from the boom time of its selection as Olympic host in 2009, and the dire challenges which it faced in the moment. In his preview (July 25), Alex wrote in the magazine about the “four equestrians of the Olympic apocalypse” in Brazil: “pestilence” (the Zika virus), “urban violence,” “political chaos,” and “insolvency.”

Yet Alex was won over by the efforts of the Brazilians, the cariocas, in the two and a half weeks of competition. He cited the “symbolic importance” of these Games, the first in South America, the first in the developing world.

The opening and closing ceremonies were not spectacles of technical brilliance. “It was a refreshing contrast,” he said. “The Brazilians didn’t spend nearly as much as in previous Olympics. It wasn’t about pyrotechnics — it was about music and dance ... and passion!”

Alex was particularly taken by Mario Andrada, the spokesman for the Brazilian Olympic Committee, and the “public face of the Games.” “He was so disarmingly honest,” Alex said. “He wouldn’t play the U.S. PR game — we are so used to being ‘spun.’ Andrada acknowledged, ‘We over-promised and we under-delivered.’”

Regarding his own experience of the Olympics, Alex told the anecdote of hanging out with the Nigerian media covering the Nigerian Olympic basketball team in Rio. The Nigerians were coached by Vermonter Will Voigt, also the coach from 2006-08 of the Vermont Frost Heaves, the Alex and Vanessa Wolff-owned team in the American Basketball Association (league champs both years!).

He enjoyed renewing his relationship with Nigerian journalist Pius Ayinor, whom he befriended when he and Vanessa were traveling the world researching “Big Game, Small World” in 1999.

“Seventeen years later! We took two entirely separate paths only to meet again in Rio. These are associations I would never have imagined.”

In his closing piece in Sports Illustrated (Aug. 29), Alex affirmed that the Brazilians had fulfilled the fundamental mission of the Olympics, according to its founder, Pierre de Coubertin, who maintained that the Games are not about “winning” but about “taking part.”

Alex wrote: “Rio took part. Cariocas fought well. Under trying circumstances, they tried their best.“

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