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The Olympic Spirit

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“That sucks,” Dan said, his eyes big as he stared at the television screen.

“That totally sucks,” Casey agreed.

“I mean, it’s bad enough to fall on your ass in front of 2 billion people while trying to do a Quasimodo three and a quarter--”

“Kasamatsu one-and-a-half, Danny,” Casey said.

“Whichever.” Dan waved his hand at the screen where Paul Hamm’s disastrous vault was being replayed in slow motion. “My point is the kid not only fell on his ass, he bounced twice and landed on the judges. That can’t be good for his score.”

Casey sighed and slumped his shoulders. “It’s not a great strategy for winning a gold medal, no.”

Dan smirked as he placed his hands behind his head and spun around in his office chair. “Which means those 50 dollars you bet on the results of this meet are as good as mine, my friend. You shouldn’t have been so cocky after the US men’s team won the silver a few days back.”

“I had every reason to be this cocky,” Casey said. “The men’s team has never been stronger, and Paul Hamm is the number one male gymnast in the world. He was leading the pack going into this round, so don’t count him out just yet.”

Casey reached back for the potato chip bag sitting on his desk, his eyes still fixed on the television. He couldn’t hide his wince as the posted vault score—9.137—knocked Hamm from first place to twelfth in the individual all-around standings. He groaned and Dan’s triumphant laughter washed over him.

“Double or nothing,” Casey challenged, turning toward Dan and tossing him the chips. “And please snag me one of those sodas you’ve got hidden under your desk.”

Dan smiled and passed him a Coke. “I’d hate to take your money like that, Casey. We’ve got, what, three events to go in this competition?”

“Just p-bars and the high bar,” Casey corrected. “We missed his pommel horse routine when you insisted on changing the channel to see what was happening in women’s weightlifting.”

“I was looking for beach volleyball,” Dan said. He picked up the remote control sitting on his desk. “I still think it’s on one of these feeds we insisted Dana install for us. There’s got to be more to the Olympics right now than gymnastics, swimming, and weightlifting.”

He pointed the remote at the television and looked over at Casey. “I think it’s time for you to just stop the macho act, hand me the money I’ve won and let me continue to look for women’s beach volleyball. Hamm’s done. He’d need all of his nearest rivals to starting falling off of equipment, and some huge numbers on the next two rotations.”

Casey was doing the math in his head. “He’d need a couple of 9.8s, yeah.”

“And since this is the Olympics and not some movie of the week where the plucky young American overcomes adversity to win a medal,” Dan said, “the judges aren’t just going to throw those kind of scores out there.”

“Well, no,” Casey said, “but I still want to see the end of this.”

Dan put the remote down, placed his hands on his knees and looked over at his friend. “But why on earth would you want to double the bet?” he asked.

“Because I have faith in the Olympic spirit,” Casey said.

“The Olympic spirit?” Dan repeated.

“Yes,” Casey said.

“The spirit that has brought about a record number of positive doping test results?” Dan’s voice began to rise. “The spirit that has made us lead off the show the last few nights with sports like synchronized diving? The spirit that has forced me to listen to Jeremy talk for hours about competitive badminton?”

Casey shook his head and held up his hand. “No, I’m talking about the spirit that has led to new world records in swimming every day this week.” He started ticking points off on his fingers. “The spirit that has made the Iraqi soccer team a medal contender this year. The spirit that has brought us beach volleyball as an Olympic sport. The spirit that has taken some of the NBA’s whiniest talent, shipped them around the world and let them get taken to the cleaners by a team from Puerto Rico.” He grinned. “Which might not be great for our medal count total, but was damn satisfying to me personally.”

Dan smiled back. “And you think the Olympic spirit is going to come down, perhaps riding on a winged chariot as in the days of yore, and bestow the gift of perfect gymnastic ability onto Paul Hamm for the next two events?”

“Indeed I do,” Casey said.

Dan scratched his chin and then shook his head. “There is very little thrill in taking a hundred bucks of your money this easily. I think we should up the stakes just a bit.”

Casey leaned forward. “What did you have in mind?”

“If Paul Hamm manages, against all known laws of mathematics, statistics, and sports history, to win the gold medal in men’s all-around, I’ll let you do the interview with the US women’s beach volleyball team that I hadn’t told you I’d set up.” Dan listened for a moment as the commentators on TV lamented the death of Paul Hamm’s dreams in doleful tones and rolled his eyes. “Hell, I’ll kiss you on camera and dance down Broadway wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a pair of tap shoes—there’s just no way this kid is going home with the gold.”

“I’ll take that bet,” Casey said, “because I am supremely confident in my heterosexuality, and am way more interested in the beach volleyball team than in your other offers.” He smiled. “Even if the dating game has been getting a little stale of late.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, Case,” Dan replied. “Now what will I get, since after all, statistics are on my side?”

“Why do you say that? Just because--” Casey began.

“The US has never received a gold medal in men’s individual all-around in the history of the Olympics?” Dan interrupted.

“Well, that,” Casey conceded.

“And only one 9.8 has been given out by the judges so far tonight?” Dan asked.

“Also a fair point,” Casey said.

“But on your side you have--” Dan started.

“Optimism, Danny. Optimism, and faith in the Olympic spirit.”

Dan smirked. “Uh-huh.” He twirled in his chair, looked at Casey and batted his eyelashes outrageously. “Really, what’ll I get?” he purred.

“What do you want?” Casey said, mimicking Dan’s tone, and then blushed all the way to his ears. “I didn’t mean that to sound as much like a pick-up line as it came out,” he said.

Danny looked unconcerned. “It’s a good thing then that you don’t get paid to choose words carefully for a living.” He glanced over at Casey. “Oh, wait, you do.” He ran a hand through his hair. “And I will take your comment however I choose.”

Casey rolled his eyes. “Fine. If the Olympic spirit deserts my young friend Paul Hamm--who, by the way, is heading into his two strongest events--I agree to cover all the soccer stories for the next six months.”

“Excellent. And you’ll also cartwheel down Fifth Avenue,” Dan said.

“And why exactly would I do that?” Casey asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Because you used to be a gymnast and it would amuse me. And since I’m going to win this bet, I want to be sure that I’m getting more out of it than just not having to mention the pointless sport that is soccer for six months,” Dan said with a smile.

“Danny….”

“You said you had the spirit of the Olympics on your side. And if you don’t, I’d really enjoy seeing a public spectacle. Not dealing with soccer is fleeting, but you turning cartwheels would live in my memory forever.” He grinned. “Especially if Natalie is there to catch it on tape.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Casey said, crossing his arms over his chest and glaring.

Dan pointed at the TV. “Your boy is back on the screen. I’d start praying to the Olympic spirit if I were you.”

A minute and a half later Casey was doing the world’s most awkward version of the Cabbage Patch in the middle of their shared office space.

“Did you see that? Did you see that?” he cried.

“The routine, or your rendition of what it looks like to drop something heavy on your foot?” Dan asked, staring with mild horror at his partner.

“The routine, Danny, the routine!” Casey began pacing the room. “He did a peach half, peach half, peach into a double back from his upper arms—it was amazing!”

“I contend that any sport that makes a grown man perform something called a peach is no sport.” Dan said from his chair.

Casey grinned. “Technically, it’s a swing known as a ‘peach basket’ that leads to the handstands and twisting you see and it is very, very manly, but that’s a discussion for another time.” He walked over to Dan’s desk, snagged the chip bag, and flung himself onto the office sofa. “Let’s talk about that dismount. Double pike, my friend. Flipping over twice in the piked position after flinging himself off of the parallel bars. That takes strength. Strength, agility, and a little bit of something I like to call the Olympic spirit of competition.”

Dan rolled his eyes. “I give him all kinds of credit—it probably takes tremendous will power to block out the memory of having done three maneuvers called peaches before the dismount,” he said.

“Just get your dancing shoes ready,” Casey said.

The score for Hamm’s routine, 9.837, was posted and the crowd in Athens went crazy. Casey joined them, leaping from the couch to dance around his desk. He pointed at his partner. “You’re dancing down Broadway. You’re dancing, and you’re letting me interview the volleyball team, and you’re doing all sorts of other things for me because you mocked the Olympic spirit, it heard you, and now you must pay.” He continued his dance, ignoring the stares that were coming from the bullpen outside their office door.

Dan pointed at the all-around standings as they flashed onto the television screen. “Hamm’s only in fourth place right now, Casey. He had a couple of lucky breaks with Yang Wei falling off that high bar and Dragulescu flubbing his routine, and, I’ll admit it, a fantastic routine of his own on the parallel bars. But there’s no way he’s going from tied-for-fourth to first place in one round.”

“You haven’t seen him on the high bar, have you?” Casey smirked, ending his dance and collapsing into his desk chair. “Hamm’s amazing on the high bar. He’s got a great extension and he can really stick his landings.”

Dan grinned. “You know, if you said that last sentence with a little more of a leer in your voice, you would have a contender for the world’s saddest sexual innuendo.”

“I’m ignoring you,” Casey said, pulling his chair closer to the TV. “Because there’s a good momentum going on, a good vibe, and I don’t want to disturb that by being forced to beat you about the head with the latest copy of Sports Illustrated.”

“And the vibe in this room would somehow affect Hamm’s performance even though he’s competing on a different continent?” Dan rolled his eyes, but scooted his chair well out of the range of Casey’s arm just in case.

“You believe screaming at your home TV will somehow stop the Lakers from scoring against the Knicks, so I don’t believe you to be all that qualified to mock the vibe,” Casey retorted.

“Fine,” Dan muttered, slinking in his chair and watching as a series of gymnasts who weren’t Paul Hamm twisted and spun on the high bar. He winced as a few of them missed the bar during their release moves and flew off like human javelins to land on their coaches.

“This is one hell of a sport,” he commented to Casey.

“Closest you can get to actually flying,” Casey replied, staring off into the distance with a small smile on his face.

“Except for the whole part when gravity bites you in the ass, like that guy just remembered,” Dan said, pointing at the TV where a gymnast’s spectacular tumble off the high bar was being replayed.

Casey nodded. “Yep. Gymnastics loses some of its allure when it starts to hurt when you fall.” He turned his attention back to the television, clutching the bag of chips like a security blanket. “Now be quiet. It’s Hamm’s turn now.”

“He couldn’t have planned this any better for a come-from-behind victory, huh?” Dan said as he watched Hamm jump up to catch the high bar. “Last guy up, medal on the line. It’s like a ninth-inning rally.” He looked at Casey. “Are there rally caps for this kind of thing in gymnastics?”

“Quiet! See that momentum he’s building?” Casey said. “He’s getting ready for his release moves.”

They watched in silence as Hamm completed three consecutive release moves, flying over the bar to the cheers of the crowd. Dan’s jaw dropped.

“That was amazing!” he said. “What the hell are those things called?”

“That was a layout Tkatchev, straddle Tkatchev, layout Tkatchev combination,” Casey said.

“I’d swear before witnesses that you just sneezed three times,” Dan said.

“Many of the most complicated elements in gymnastics are named after the gymnasts who did them first,” Casey said. “The vault Hamm did earlier was performed first by Kasamatsu in 1972--the Tkatchev, the Khorkina, the Korbot were all made famous by the gymnasts who first attempted the trick in competition.”

“And who can forget the legacy of Mr. Peach Basket?” Dan replied.

“I’m just going to stop trying to make you appreciate this sport one of these days,” Casey said, rolling his eyes. He turned back to the television. “If Hamm lands this dismount, he’ll medal. It’ll make him the first American since 1984 to medal in men’s individual all-around--the first period to do it in a non-boycotted Olympics.”

“You’re still cartwheeling down Fifth Avenue if he doesn’t get gold, though,” Dan said.

On the television, Hamm flew through the air, twisted and spun, and landed on the soft blue mat as solidly as if he had been magnetically pulled there. In the office, Casey began a celebratory dance mixture of the Macarena and the Hustle. Dan stared at him in dismay.

“Did you see that landing?” Casey cried as he began a one-man conga line around his desk. “I’ll cartwheel with a song in my heart, Danny, because that kid is one hell of a gymnast. That’s an incredible comeback from a 9.1 performance two events ago!”

Dan dragged his eyes away from Casey’s wild gesticulations and back to the TV screen where the roar of the crowd in Athens to the judges’ score of Hamm’s routine was drowning out the sound of the sports commentators.

“A 9.837! A 9.837! That gives him the gold!” Casey’s dance grew more frenzied. “That’s the biggest come-from-behind victory in gymnastics history!”

“Please stop flailing around like a guy who just put his finger in an electric socket,” Dan said, covering his eyes with his hands. “People are starting to stare.”

Casey flopped back into his chair. “He’s won by .012. This is huge! Amazing! Fantastic! It’s many other words that denote incredible athletic achievement!” His grin turned wicked as he spun around in his chair and faced his partner. “And I’m not the one that needs to be dancing, now am I, Danny?”

“Oh, shit,” Dan said.

Casey dragged him from the building by the arm, stopping only to tell the crew what Dan had foolishly promised to do and waiting for Natalie to get a camera to save the moment for posterity. It wasn’t the most embarrassing thing Dan had ever done, but hours later as he prepared for the show to start he could still feel his ears turn red every time he made eye contact with someone.

“Nice boxers, by the way,” Natalie said as she walked past the desk on her way to the control room.

“I hate everything,” Dan muttered as he stared down at his script pages.

Casey snickered. The red light on Camera One blinked on and Dan forced a smile. Through his earpiece he could hear Dana and Natalie giggling.

“Good evening, from New York City, I’m Casey McCall alongside Dan Rydell. Those stories plus diving and dressage, swimming and sailing,” Casey said.

“Badminton, basketball, and boxing—oh my,” Dan continued.

“And we’ll show you the men’s gymnastics individual all-around final—a result so amazing that it had Dan here dancing in the streets, and we’ve got the tape to prove it.” Casey smirked at Dan before turning back to the camera. “You’re watching complete coverage of Athens 2004 here on Sports Night, where we are just filled with the Olympic spirit, so stick around.”

“And we’re out,” came the voice from the control room.

“I hate you all,” Dan cried as he smacked his head down onto the anchor desk.