For several anxious days, Tom Ecker of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wondered if his streak of consecutive trips to the Olympics was in jeopardy, let alone his visit to Salt Lake City this week to talk about the Games.

But then the floodwaters subsided and the road out of town was opened, exposing devastation the likes of which the 73-year-old Ecker, a longtime resident of Cedar Rapids, had never before seen.

"They're going to have to bulldoze a bunch of sections of downtown," he said. "A lot of businesses will never reopen. Time here will now be recorded as Before the Flood and After the Flood."

But time marches on, and seven weeks from today, knock on dry wood, Tom will be in Beijing for the start of the 2008 summer Olympics, the 26th of the modern era.

Counting China, Tom has been to 10 of them.

He became an Olympic aficionado at the age of 13 when he followed the exploits of decathlete Bob Mathias in the 1948 Olympics in London. Mathias inspired Ecker to become an accomplished track athlete in his own right. He was an eight-time state champion in high school and an all-conference runner at the University of Iowa, although he never quite made it to the Olympic level.

No matter. There's more than one way to get to the Games and Ecker is living proof of that. For the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City he was part of the coaching staff for the Swedish national track team. In 1972 in Munich he conducted his own tour group and in 1976 in Montreal he was hired by Track & Field News as a tour guide, an affiliation he has maintained to the present.

The only summer Games he has missed is Moscow in 1980.

"That was Jimmy Carter's boycott," he says. "Don't get me started on that."

But go ahead and get him started on anything else Olympic-related. Ecker has spent a lifetime filling his mind with Olympic facts, figures and lore, and since his retirement as a public school coach and educator, it is his vocation.

His Olympic knowledge has taken him around the world to give speeches and distribute copies of his book, "Olympic Facts and Fables." He has a standing invitation from Princess Cruise Lines to speak whenever and wherever he likes.

Tomorrow night, he will be at the West High School auditorium in Salt Lake City for a presentation scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. The Capitol Hill Kiwanis Club and West High Key Club are sponsors. The public is invited and proceeds from the event will go toward a scholarship fund.

In his speech, Ecker says he plans to mix in little-known information about Olympics past — such as the fact that Adolf Hitler actually admired Jesse Owens — and little-known information about Olympics present — such as the fact that the 2008 host, Beijing, has so much air pollution that it gets an average of one sunny day in seven.

Ecker saw that firsthand when he visited Beijing on a recent Olympic preview tour.

"They're going to have to somehow clear up the air by Aug. 8 or it's going to be a real problem," says the man from Iowa who has already endured his fill of natural disasters this summer. "But I think they can do it. And the Games will go on."


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.