Charleston’s Accomplished Olympian — why we love Gary Smith

James Bond and David Beckam have gone back to their high-speed lifestyles. The Queen has returned to practicing her smile – a little too late, I’m afraid. Mitt Romney has fled London to insult others elsewhere, and all that’s left is the games, the athletes, the sweat and nerves and dreams, the clocks ticking down their milliseconds, the judges deducting fractions off what looks to us — us normal people with haggard hamstrings and wiggly arms — impossible perfection.


The Olympic games in all their drama and hype reel me in. I’m on the edge of the sofa as Ryan Lochte stretches for the wall. I’m a nervous wreck as those teenaged powerhouses of muscle, makeup, poise and shrink-wrapped ponytails parade out in their sequined superhero Lycra to prance on the balance beam.  Even the soppy ads pluck my heartstrings with every Morgan Freeman voice-over reminding me of sacrifice, discipline, guts, and glory.


Unfortunately, Bob Costas and crew typically give only the obvious storyline; the expected narrative. Kid trains hard, runs fast, falls short or smiles victoriously on the podium then cashes in on big buck endorsements. Fortunately, there are sports writers who go for the gold, who write prose like a well-trained athlete, with precision and gusto, with intuitive rhythm and breathtaking pace. And in Charleston, we’ve got the best of the best right here among us. Not according to me, but according to his literary peers in the New York Times and elsewhere who called Gary Smith “America’s best sportswriter” and “the best magazine writer in America.”

Gary is a multiple National Magazine Award-winning senior writer for Sports Illustrated, renown for his probing profiles and human-interest stories of athletes, teams, coaches and fans. A Gary Smith story is as distinctive as an Andre Agassi between-the-legs baseline return – a shot that zings past you and you have no idea where in the hell it came from. With perceptive details and a knowing voice, Gary plays his subjects like they are both teammate and opponent, drawing them close, delving into their deeper drives, revealing hidden strengths and tragic weaknesses. But don’t take my word for it; pick up a copy of Beyond The Game: The Collected Sports Writing of Gary Smith (Grove Press, 1986) or Sports Illustrated: Going Deep: 20 Classic Sports Stories (Sports Illustrated Books, 2008).


Gary is also a three-time Olympic veteran, having covered the Barcelona games in1992, Atlanta in1996, and Sydney in 2000. This year he’s watching London from home, and because he’s about as nice a guy as you can find, was kind enough to offer Literary Charleston some of his favorite memories and Olympian reflections.


Gary, what are some of your most memorable Olympic moments?

Two moments that stick to my ribs are:  Learning in the midst of a big dinner out with Sports Illustrated writers that a bomb had just exploded in Centennial Park in Atlanta in 1996, and most of us bolting to get TO the park while everyone else was scrambling away from it. And the moment when Muhammad Ali appeared up on the rim of the stadium during the Atlanta Opening Ceremony, the torch shaking so terribly in his hand due to his Parkinson’s disease that the whole stadium held its breath to see if he could light the cauldron.


 How do you find the Gary Smith-type story, beyond the Bob Costa hype? What clues you in to a nugget worth digging for?

My job at the Olympics was to write the “stage-setting” piece on the opening weekend, where I’d try to capture the feeling and energy of the city and the people and what they were serving up to the world. What helped immensely was that my family and I lived for a year in Spain leading up to the 1992 Barcelona Games and a year in Australia leading up to the 2000 Sydney Games. I’d write the closing piece in the third week of the Games that would attempt to convey whatever had emerged as the essence of that particular Olympiad. It was the middle week that was the challenge, since I was one of the few writers there without a particular sport to cover. One year I wrote about a lesbian handball player from Norway. Another year I wrote a profile of a building — the mammoth World Congress Center in Atlanta where a zillion events were being held. Mostly I ran around trying to swallow everything I could, talking to everybody I could, dancing wherever I could, never knowing where the telling detail might be found, barely sleeping and living on adrenaline and fumes.


What is it about athletics that makes for compelling narrative?

Sports makes compelling narrative because it just keeps thrusting its unscripted and absolutely spontaneous head up through every layer of hype that’s shoveled upon it. It’s a world full of dreamers laying everything on the line . . . so how can a writer miss?


What events will you try to catch? 

My favorite Olympic sports are track and field, basketball and table tennis. To get into the table tennis hall, you have to stand in a vacuum-sealed ante room until it fills with spectators, wait until there’s a break in the action, and then be let in quickly so no air currents enter the hall that could alter the paths of the orange balls whizzing wildly across the half-dozen tables.


Dark Nights in Charleston and Beyond

As a writer and reader blogging on all things allegedly literary, it’s difficult to admit that sometimes, there are no words.

Words fail, even poetry fails—that wondrous alchemy of words, rhythm, imagery, and some other indescribable mystery ingredient—falls short of being able to shed some glimmer of comfort, hope, or beauty in the wake of recent dark nights.

I find no words to wrap around the atrocity of Batman’s darkest night ever last week in Aurora. And I am still speechless, choked up and heart-broken, when I see photos of adorable Marley Lion who was brutally murdered in Charleston’s own backyard last month. Not even the applauded go-to clamor for gun control suffices. Those words are necessary, but not enough. Not nearly enough.

But thankfully there is music, the blood brother and soul sister of poetry. Music somehow can take the empty words out of our mouths, the unspeakable emotions from our deepest being and infuse them with life, redemption, and a body-swaying rhythmic “yes.” I felt this at Marley’s funeral, when a church praise band (which normally makes me cringe) elevated and transformed the spirit of a heartbroken throng of mourners from anger and tears into something close to comfort. I felt it after September 11th, when I listened to an Arvo Pärt CD on endless repeat. And I felt it last week, when I would mute the bleak news reports from Colorado and instead listen to Charleston’s Delia Chariker say everything I needed to hear via the resonant chords of her Native American flute.

This Sunday music will again work its magic. The Marley Lion Music Festival will bringing together our community to remember, celebrate, laugh, cry, dance, heal, hope, and support Marley’s family, his classmates and friends, and enjoy what he loved—music. Come out to James Island County Park this Sunday, 7/29, from 4-8 p.m., and be the music amidst a dark and sometimes wrenching, wordless world.

Not an Option

I can not think of one aspect of life in Charleston, South Carolina that is not affected, enriched, enlivened or indebted to what we so cavalierly refer to as “the arts.”

Maybe if we called poetry and painting, music and dance, fiction and drama by their more proper name — plasma — we wouldn’t be having to fight Governor Nikki Haley to keep her from ANNIHILATING funding for such inconsequential prettiness.

Maybe if we stripped all the aesthetically lovely aspects off our fabulous buildings, if we shuttered the Gibbes Museum and silenced the church bells clanging out their silly tunes and just simply throw the goddamn towel in on the kids at the arts-infused Sanders Clyde Elementary School — let ’em go sell drugs and get shot and see if we care — then our sucky economy would miraculously rebound. Because it’s all about economic development — as if that happened in a colorless, shapeless, tuneless, creativity-less vacuum.

Who needs imagination? Who needs inspiration? Who needs hope and dreams and passion? Who needs to express heartache and loneliness, or to feel the depths of others’ joy and despair and know you are not alone? Who needs literature — that nonsense past-time?!  Hell, we just need lower taxes. Less government.

Let’s just ship Spoleto and the symphony off to Savannah, dredge and deepen their arts channels along with their port. They’ve got nice buildings, a coast, and SCAD. I mean, who needs “art” in South Carolina when Savannah is only two hours away. Boeing won’t mind. Those techie companies we’re trying to lure will understand. We’ve got priorities: off shore drilling, better jails, jobs. (Hmmm, should someone tell Ms. Haley that the arts and creative industries are a leading growth cluster in the state’s economic development plan, that creative enterprise in the state engenders a core impact of $9.2 billion and 78,682 jobs and a full impact of $13.3 billion and 107,614 jobs, according to a 2008 study by the USC Darla Moore School of Business, yes that Darla Moore, the one Haley canned.)

If Governor Haley gets her way and ALL pubic funding for SC arts (not a robust amount to start with, mind you) is dead and gone, it won’t be pretty picture. Write your representatives. Send them a poem, a song, a photo, a video, a film, a chapter from your novel, a limerick, a recipe, a dream, a wish, an expression of who you are and who we all can be —  as engaged citizens, enlightened humans, as a more resilient and compassionate community — if we SPEAK UP, fire up our imaginations and state ever-so clearly that art is not optional. It is integral. It is us.