Out basketball hero John Amaechi blogs from Beijing Olympics.

Lip reading and the first broadcast.

AUGUST 9, 2008

I had to wake up at 6am this morning, which was not fun considering, I had been up until 3am, watching the opening ceremony and hanging out at ‘Destination’ again. I have to say that it got busy very late - I am officially too old for bars that close at 5am - especially if they don’t get busy until 2am. That’s just past my bed time.

My phone interview with ESPN in Los Angeles was painful, both dragging myself out of bed and making sure I cleared my throat enough to have my best I’ve-been-up-for-ages voice on. I managed to get through it, with my eyes closed the entire time - I hope I made some sense, but don’t remember anything that went on, except one of the two co-hosts telling me that the USA would win every game by 20 points…. I didn’t argue - I don’t agree - but I didn’t have the energy to fight.

My second alarm went off and I got dressed and ran down stairs to talk to CBS and their ‘CBS on Logo’ programme. There was a little confusion, the reporter being driven to the wrong hotel first, so I knew I would be in for a wait. The security was now so beefed up that there were two check points just to get out of the hotel….

Finally outside the security gate I stood and waited, while people came up to me asking to have their photograph taken with me, that’s grass roots diplomacy - sweaty Brits hugging sweaty Chinese, the image on data card in perpetuity. I cast my eyes along the road and saw the British swimming and diving team trying to get past security to do their interviews in the main press centre (MPC) that is attached to my hotel. I wished them luck, both in getting in, and in contest - and they were wonderfully humble, saying thanks even as they stood sweating, their accompanying UK press secretary trying to be patient as she could as they became late for their press conference.

More waiting, this time pacing, I thought I might as well make myself a moving target for the picture snappers! Then a bus pulled up only a few feet in front of me. I thought it was unusual, most busses park further away with athletes and officials alike taking the humid walk to the MPC for their press conferences. I looked into the window and was face to face with Kobe Bryant. Where are the paparazzi when you need them, his face, just for a moment, was precious “...what the F**K?!”

I had passed some of the coaches in the MPC the day before, catching only the trailing end of a statement of the coach who saw me “...isn’t that Amaechi? What the hell is he doing (here)….” I was a little irritated, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the way they would have reacted to another former NBA player they recognised passing shoulder to shoulder a world away? Even an average one?

My heart sank. I saw Kobe turn away and I actually felt uncomfortable, “...what are the chances?” I thought to myself. I cursed the man from CBS out loud, if he’d just been on time!

Don’t get me wrong, at the height of play, my skills on court didn’t hold a candle to any of the players on this reincarnation of the Dream Team, but as an individual, as a person in my own right, I held my own then, and I feel that I more than play my part now. But as I watched, one player turn to face his team mates then a bus length of curtains twitch, I was glad that I could only lip read some of the comments - the body language alone was… unpleasant. Who knew derision, amusement and contempt would meld so formidably and translate so clearly through glass and smog.

Now, I really was sweating, I turned to see if I could return to the comfort of the strangers on the British swim team, they had finally made it through security. I was on my own: metres from former peers, surrounded by strangers, completely alone.

My interviewer arrived and even with an Olympic press pass, security, having been beefed up after the “Free Tibet” protest, wouldn’t let him into my hotel to do the interview. I was irritated, the idea of doing an interview in 35°C (95°F) weather, sweating on camera is not going to improve my social life. The interview went well, we discussed my role in Beijing as a broadcaster and human rights advocate, then we talked about the GLBT athletes here - ten ‘out’ ones - plus numerous others not so out in the public eye at least. I felt a little under-prepared, I didn’t know any of them personally, and like many of my peers, I might only recognise the ones who have been paraded about on blogs in their speedos (thank you, OutSports!)

I said I will talk more about these athletes and I will do my research and make some comment on their circumstances - and importantly why there might only be a handful in such a large field of athletes. Perhaps a more nuanced question would be why there are so many here who, like me in the past are out to some or all of their team mates, family and friends, but not necessarily to the world. I have a feeling some of it is a media, sport preference/visibility and gender bias. Much like a tree in the woods, would anyone hear it if an air pistol competitor from Andorra came out? Sadly, I fear the sound he’d make (because it would surely be less noisy if it were a ‘she’) would be directly proportional to how handsome he was.

I broadcast my first game for the BBC today. The USA versus the Czech Republic, I am not going to do play by play here, I am sure you can look up the scores or in the UK, you can see the game on “red button” channels or on the BBC’s iPlayer. I am not even going to give the score, just in case you want to see it first. For those who will be listening to me commentate, bare with me - it’s not my regular gig - but I’ll get better. One of the realities of working with basketball for the BBC and a majority British audience, is that I have been told to explain every word and action in detail from “3 second call” to “picks & rolls.” After a few games, I am hoping I can stop the explanations, I know they are frustrating for the veteran fans.

The USA men’s team arrived in the second quarter to support their fellow country mates. The crowd became distracted, a huge queue of people being restrained behind human cordons photographs being taken left and right. In fairness to them, they did watch the women intently and only responded to the crowd, standing up one by one to rapturous applause, during time outs and the half time break.

My unpleasant experience from earlier did make it hard to tell my BBC audience what a great bunch of people they all were...but I did it anyway…after all, being, cold to me doesn’t make them bad people - I’m sure they just don’t appreciate my stance on China’s human rights, or disapprove of the weight I have put on since retirement.

Still as I looked at them, how 18,000 people reacted so positively towards them, many of whom spoke only a word or two of English. (I know, I know, some people question how many words of English basketball players can speak, but that’s another argument!)

I have to reiterate what I believe as the responsibility of athletes to educate themselves and become spokespeople for change. God knows, even if an athlete is considered less than articulate, being genuine goes a long way, and frankly, most of the USA men’s team can jumble together a sentiment as well as their President who will be watching them tomorrow. Better in some cases, and he has writers.

There is more to write on this topic too, but now I have the comments section working, I am going to see what you have to say and work from there.

Read John Amaechi's Beijing Olympic blog daily at

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