Covering the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 certainly remains the highlight of my journalistic career. Not everybody gets to cover the most prestigious, ultimate and biggest sporting extravaganza in the planet.
I was pleasantly surprised when the then Malay Mail sports editor, Rajan Etickan, handed me the letter from the Olympic Council of Malaysia of the quota given to Mailsport, circa 2003.
"You've been nominated to go to Athens."
Rajan picked me ahead of Tony Mariadass and Mustapha Kamaruddin, two of my seniors at the desk. His reasoning was simple - Tony had gone to the previous edition in Sydney, while Mus was not keen on covering a multi-sports event. I, on the other hand, had the Manchester Commonwealth Games 2002 and four SEA Games under my belt.
"The best man to go is the man who covers athletics," added Rajan.
Athens...the birthplace of the modern Games. The Olympic Games returning to its roots. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That was my good fortune. My rezeki.
That was a year before the Athens Games in August 2004. Preparation had to be done a year ahead. Application of accreditation tags and accommodation must be confirmed well in advance.
The rest of the crew were big names of the New Straits Times group, Lazarus Rokk (New Straits Times sports editor), Badrulhisham Othman (Berita Harian sports editor), Azahar Mohd Taib (Harian Metro senior writer) and Tham Foo Kan (senior photographer). Khalid Redza who had been to several Olympics, went to Athens on his own.
So as the youngest of the beefy lot, I was tasked to do the honours of searching for the right accommodation. Our thanks to Ibrahim of the editorial management office who dealt with the agent via e-mails that I forwarded to him.
This picture was taken at the apartment we rented throughout the Games. It belonged to the Morous. Front row (from left) Khalid Redza, adidas model, Tham Foo Kan. (Back) from left to right, Azahar, Badrul or Buddy and cigar-smoking Rokk who must have been thinking he was the best looking dude of the crew. The Jalur Gemilang was left behind as a token of appreciation to the Morous. The headgears, hmm...are they real Greek headgears?
Thanks to TV presenter Zainal Abidin Rawop who wanted to interview Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt, I was given the chance to get up, close and personal with the two. Bolt was a raw 17-year old then!
The routine after each sweat-inducing day was to makan-makan lah...at the Indian Village owned by a Pakistani. From left my better known namesake Rizal Abdullah of the Star, Jamaican fan, Buddy, Azahar, Hamdan Saaid of Bernama (now he's with Berita Harian) and D. Raj of the Star.
Rumours of the Malay Mail were about to be sold were already the talking point in the corridors of NST at that time, so I knew I could be the last MM representative to cover the Olympics. So against this backdrop, I jumped at the opportunity of "going to Beijing". To Darren, Dunstan and Deeno, the chieftain and amigos from adidas, I'm dropping a BIG hint here!
My fellow Johannian and I...this picture reminds me of a funny incident. I penned the following thoughts on my column which appeared in the Malay Mail every alternate day.
I GOT my bearings wrong the other day. Eager to provide a little coverage for the first Malaysian to break intoa sweat in this ongoing Olympiad, I hailed a cab near the Main Press Centre (MPC) in Kiffisias Avenue.
Destination? The Panathinaiko Stadium which staged the first modern Olympic Games 108 years ago. The target?
Futsal-playing archer of Thai descent, Mon Redee Sut Txi. The driver dropped me off at the main entrance of the storied stadium,where Acropolis was well within view and within reach, by foot of course.
The stadium was a natural bowl, consisting of two parallel rectangular hillsides facing each other. What caught my eye was the massive tiers of white marble blocks. This is awesome, I thought. Its vertical staircases and horizontal walkways divide the stadium into many sections and numerous tiers. The flat marble serve as seats, rising at a 45-degree angle.
But as soon as I entered the stadium after the security check-point,there was no sign of any archer in the vicinity. All I could see was a few technical crew. Then I noticed a familiar figure. I could spot his shining pate under the blazing Athens sun miles away.
The New Straits Times sports editor Lazarus Rokk must have lost his sense of direction as well. It dawned upon us that we were at the wrong venue. He had left the apartment much earlier, burdened with the fact 9am in Athens means 2pm inKL. The consolation though, was stepping onto the marbled Kallimarmaro,the stadium's nickname, which means beautiful marble.
As we made our way out of the stadium, using a cave-like tunnel which leads from the outside, high on the hill behind the stadium, it felt as if we were taking a journey into the past. We were, I believe, taking the same route that served as the entry for those Panathenian athletes.
We were treading on a well-trodden path, walking with the spirits of ancient athletes. A thumping sound brought us back to the present. A lady volunteer had dropped a large piece of canvas. She was making her way up the tunnel to the staircase.
Being the gentlemen that we are, having shared the same alma mater, Rokk and I offered to help. Like a Hellenic athlete desperate to demonstrate his athletic ability, we carried it all the way upstairs, with gusto and without complain.
In return for that touch of bravery and back-breaking attempt at carrying something that weighed almost 10kg, we got an Efharisto (thank you in Greek), I guess much to Rokk's disappointment. Gasping for breath, we were told by other volunteers the ranking competition which determined the seedings for Mon Redee was at Dekelia AirForce Base, almost one hour from where we were standing.
Oh well, she can wait for we had just been to our own version of the Olympics!!!