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Their moment is here at last. The Isle of Four Security Guards is set to compete in its first-ever Olympic Games. This is the story of how they got to the world’s biggest stage.
With the final firework burning to an ember, the stunning artistic program of the Rio Games’ opening ceremony comes to an end. A swelling music cue signals that the Parade of Nations is up next, and if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a thousand times: First come the Greeks aboard their massive Socrates float with a thought bubble displaying the words “I have seen the Parthenon” in flickering neon letters. Fighting to stay awake, they are visibly overcome with boredom at attending these Olympic Games year after year for eternity.
Next through the entrance tunnel is Afghanistan, marching in the shape of Paraguay, a stirring tribute to the world’s landlocked countries.
More of the usual suspects file in. Here are the Belgians bedecked in their inimitable black, yellow, and red. Here are the Chileans in their splendid mining helmets. Here is Bob Costas feverishly waving a baffling flag of his own invention. Here are the Germans bedecked in their inimitable black, yellow, and red.
I look around me. Everyone in the crowd is clapping, but no one seems that impressed. They’ve seen it before. They’re jaded. As a golfer might say to another golfer regarding golf, this is par for the course.
But something incredible is about to happen here in Maracanã Stadium. A stir comes from near the entrance tunnel. We all crane our necks to get a better look. There is a flash of jangling keys. The glimmer of a flashlight…
Then all at once, they appear: four security guards, clad in their full national regalia, hoisting a black flag with “SECURITY” written in powerful white letters, the gallant Union Jack gracing its top corner. The guards are beaming with pride. At last, they have arrived on the world stage. At last, the primetime moment for this small island nation is here. At last, the Isle of Four Security Guards will compete in their first-ever Olympic Games.
While this stirring image can be captured in the millisecond of a camera flash, for the men and women of the Isle of Four Security Guards, their Olympic moment has been years in the making.
It’s early July when I make the meandering 18,000-mile boat journey over the Atlantic Ocean to the Isle of Four Security Guards so that I can witness firsthand the inaugural Isle of Four Security Guards Olympic trials.
I arrive to find the nation in the full grip of Olympic fever. Security huts all around the island are festooned with novelty Olympic rings. The front-page headline of the local newspaper blares, “OLYMPICS HAPPEN IN THE FUTURE FOR THE ISLE OF FOUR SECURITY GUARDS! GOOD!” On social media, anticipation for the games is consuming the entire country:
At the beach where the trials are set to take place, the mood is jubilant. The security guards patrol the waterfront whistling tunelessly and jangling their keychains to create the traditional national music of the isle.
The competitors stretch and warm up, and the trials begin. It soon becomes clear that the people of the Isle of Four Security Guards are absolutely spectacular athletes. A female security guard named Milanca Rangaglave dominates a variety of events, from swimming to judo. A male security guard named Janiculus Dalillon establishes his running prowess, taking the track heats with ease.
But as the athletes are lining up for the triathlon, the festivities are suddenly interrupted. A naked man has burst from the dense trees in the center of the island and is sprinting across the beach directly to where the trials are happening. When he gets there, the drunken streaker proceeds to run around in circles. “I’m on the field!” he says again and again to no one in particular.
“Streaker!” calls one of the security guards.
“Security!” shouts another security guard.
“Guards, remove the streaker from the premises!” a third security guard says into her walkie-talkie.
The guards move in well-honed coordination to surround the streaker, who never stands a chance. The four guards close in on him, restrain him, and drag him through the waves into the sea.
“Yeah!” the streaker shouts as he disappears forever beneath the surface of the water.
The streaking incident seems to be forgotten, and the people of the Isle of Four Security Guards finish the Olympic trials as originally planned. When it’s over, Igradel bon Albareci, chair of the Isle of Four Security Guards Olympic Committee, tabulates the results and reads off the names of the qualifying athletes. Janiculus Dalillon has qualified. Milanca Rangaglave has qualified. Igradel herself has qualified for the Olympics, where she will take up the mantle of captain.
Glabonet Ferpolt stands at the back of the crowd listening for his name in the list of the qualifiers. It never comes. On the Isle of Four Security Guards this day, victory and defeat exist just a flashlight’s width apart.
Glabonet Ferpolt has failed to qualify for Team I4SG, but to my surprise, he doesn’t seem disappointed. He gives a shrug, which I recognize as the international sign for not caring about an outcome.
I catch up with him as he walks along the beach to ask him why he doesn’t care. Glabonet happily tells me that after 50 years, news of the Beatles’ fantastic musical achievements has made its way down the pecking order of obscure countries and reached the Isle of Four Security Guards at last. In 2016, the island is in the full grip of Beatlemania, and all Glabonet wants to do is listen to their songs over and over again.
“I love the Beatles,” Glabonet explains as I follow him along the beachfront, where hundreds of identical metal safes are embedded in the sand.
Several yards ahead of us, a streaker burrows out of the sand and begins running around in tight circles. Glabonet halfheartedly subdues her and escorts her into the ocean waves as she shouts with a streaker’s glee.
“I’m completely obsessed with the haircut musicians from Liverpool,” he goes on. “To be honest, I don’t care that much about work. I don’t care about removing the streakers from the premises. I don’t even care about guarding the hundreds of identical metal safes embedded in the sand. I’d prefer to sit in my hut, kick up my feet, and listen to the music of the Beatles all the time.”
After a few minutes, we reach Glabonet’s security hut. Inside, Glabonet flips on his analog radio, which is already tuned to the frequency of the isle’s only FM radio station, which is playing “Eleanor Rigby” on repeat in honor of Beatlemania.
Glabonet slumps into a swivel chair, kicks his feet onto the table, and zones into the music. I do the same. “Here comes the best part,” Glabonet says, also raising his finger in the international sign for “Here comes the best part.” He says this over and over again at random intervals throughout the song, and for three hours we sit like this, listening to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” over 100 times.
If Glabonet’s spirits have been dampened by narrowly missing qualifying for the Isle of Four Security Guards Olympic team, he need not be sad for long: In only eight short months, the isle will learn about Sgt. Pepper’s.
When I meet up with Janiculus Dalillon at his security hut on the opposite side of the circular island, he’s listening to the island’s only AM radio station, which is playing the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” on repeat for the entire day in honor of Beatlemania.
The newspaper on his desk is open to an alarmist story about the growing streaker problem on the island. At this point, Janiculus tells me, the streaker problem hardly qualifies as news. Sure, it’s been a bad couple of months for streakers. But it’s been a bad few years, too. “Hell, it’s been a bad few centuries for streakers on the Isle of Four Security Guards,” Janiculus says, throwing up his hands.
Janiculus tells me about life in the shadow of streaking. The way the streakers seem to be everywhere, behind every tree and rock. The shame of dozing off in your security hut and waking up to find a streaker right outside.
He talks about how it never goes away, the stomach-rending feeling you get when you turn over a rotting log and three streakers sprint out from under it into the open, running around in endless circles shouting until a security guard brings them down. The interminable cycle. Streaking and removing. Streaking and removing. He talks about running in the world championship last year and how it gave him a brief respite from the streakers.
“The streakers… I hate them. All of the streakers must be removed from the premises,” says Janiculus. “They will never know our world, our culture. They will never understand the importance of guarding hundreds of metal safes without ever asking what is inside them. They would never gather at the one-room history museum each night to play a round of strip euchre before bed.”
I stop Janiculus Dalillon here.
“I don’t understand,” I say. “How is playing strip euchre any different than streaking?”
He laughs in my face respectfully. “Fool! Strip euchre is the very opposite of streaking.” His countrymen murmur agreement. Janiculus goes on: “I will prove it. When the streakers go on the beach, what are they doing? They are standing up and running all over the place for no reason. There is no order to it. No rule. Do you see? That is why streakers must always be removed from the premises. They are doing it for no reason. In strip euchre, every item of clothing is removed according to a rule. This is the only way. Strip euchre like streaking? Never. To take off your clothes without playing strip euchre—that would be stooping to the level of the streakers.”
The radio blares on. It’s “I’m So Tired,” over and over. I notice that whenever John Lennon sings the words “And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid git,” Janiculus suddenly joins in. I can hear a note of fury in his voice that I’m afraid to ask him to explain.
The Olympics are nearly here. While the Isle of Four Security Guards Olympic basketball team throws a basketball back and forth on the beach with no basketball hoops, I visit the one-room history museum in the center of the isle to learn about the nation’s history.
Two of the museum’s walls are bare. On the third wall is a framed replica of the nation’s constitution, a yellowed scrap of parchment that simply says, “Remove the streaker from the premises.”
But my eye is drawn to the fourth wall, upon which is mounted a framed etching of the critically acclaimed English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh proudly surveying the shores of the Isle of Four Security Guards.
One detail in particular stands out: Sir Walter Raleigh is nude.
I get the full story from the informational placard below. Sir Walter Raleigh landed on the Isle of Four Security Guards in 1617 during his second ill-fated mission to discover the lost city of El Dorado. Frustrated at his continued failure to find the golden empire, Raleigh decided to calm down by running around naked on an island that he noticed was only inhabited by four out-of-shape security guards.
Raleigh told his men that he would be back in a matter of minutes, but in fact he was able to streak across the island for hours before the four security guards were able to restrain the explorer and remove him. By that time, it was too late; the island habitat, which had never encountered streakers before, became completely infested with streakers.
Just as Raleigh’s fleeing boats passed out of earshot, he screamed that they belonged to Britain. The isle remained a British territory for centuries without its inhabitants ever coming into contact with another English person who they could tell that they wanted to secede until 2013, when Margaret Thatcher was marooned on their shore. Milanca Rangaglave told her, “We’re not in England anymore,” and Margaret Thatcher said, “Got it,” and then died on the beach.
I snap a photo of the exhibit with my cell phone camera. Immediately, I hear a rush of footsteps behind me. “No photography in the museum,” says Team I4SG’s captain, Igradel bon Albareci, back from basketball practice.
She lifts me easily through the museum entrance and slams me to the hard earth. Her elegant and pain-inducing technique is a beautiful testament to her ancient culture. I prepare to surrender my phone, but before I can hand it to Igradel, a drunken streaker pops up from behind a bush and begins running around next to us. Igradel is forced to leave me as she chases the streaker through the woods.
Milanca Rangaglave looks tired. She’s perched on the roof of the one-room museum armed with a bow and arrow, mowing down the streakers whenever they happen to burst out into the open. In her lap, the local paper is open to an inflammatory editorial asking whether the streakers that plague the island are the Yoko Ono of the Isle of Four Security Guards.
Each time Milanca downs a streaker, Glabonet Ferpolt comes out of a building across the street—the recently renamed George Harrison Art Museum—and hauls the streaker 50 yards across the beach into the sea.
I ask Milanca whether she is excited for the Rio Games, and she gives me a look that I recognize as the international sign for “Yes, but no matter what happens in Rio, there will always be the streakers. We will always have to contend with the streakers.”
I nod in the international sign for agreeing about the streakers.
“Streakers are the blight of our nation,” she tells me. “But this year, though, with the Olympics, I think they might just turn out to be our blessing.”
I narrow my eyes and cock my head sideways, the international sign for not completely understanding.
Milanca does a thumbs-up, a gesture I later learn is the local sign for not understanding what I am saying.
“I don’t get it,” I say after a long pause.
“Look,” says Milanca, pointing.
I look. By the shore, Janiculus Dalillon is chasing a streaker who has burrowed up from the sand and is sprinting at an almost unbelievable pace. But Janiculus is right behind the beach hooligan. In fact, he’s gaining on him. I turn to Milanca to remark on it, but she has disappeared downstairs into the one-room museum.
“I’m doing it! I’m nude on the run!” come the streaker’s faint shouts from the distance. “I’m on the run without clothes!” The gap between Janiculus and the streaker continues to close.
Milanca returns with a radar speed gun and trains it on the streaker. She shows me the display: 26.8 miles per hour. Then, she points it at Janiculus. The display changes. I can’t believe what it changes to.
“27.6 miles per hour?” I spit. “The fastest Usain Bolt has ever run is—”
We continue in synchrony: “27.8 miles per hour.”
I am beginning to understand. Yes, the streakers are a blight, but perhaps they can be a blessing too. Perhaps they can push Janiculus Dalillon to be faster. Can they push the entire Isle of Four Security Guards Olympic team to be better?
When Janiculus dispatches the streaker into the sea, he does so with a viciousness I haven’t seen from any of the others.
I raise my eyebrows and make a “wow” shape with my lips, the international sign for “wow.”
There is a sudden commotion. Behind us, a streaker rockets out of the museum door with her hands raised, triumphantly shouting “Woooooo!” and “Aaaaaaaah!” In front, a second streaker steps out from behind an impossibly thin tree. He begins running in very tight circles and juking violently in all directions.
Janiculus and Igradel arrive, but the streakers are now pouring out of the woods. For the first time on the Isle of Four Security Guards, I am afraid for my life.
From there, everything happens in a beautiful blur. Milanca picks up a loose rock the approximate size and weight of a shot put and heaves it with pinpoint accuracy, taking down the streaker who seems to think she’s on TV from what looks to be a world-record 22.68 meters away. Igradel does a dazzling gymnastic maneuver that starts with a series of front flips and ends with her streaker in a wrestling headlock.
Meanwhile, Janiculus is sprinting after a third, unbelievably fast streaker who I didn’t see at first—was she moving too fast for the naked eye to perceive? I look on in astonishment as Janiculus pursues the streaker onto the beach. She’s a giant, larger and faster than any streaker I’ve ever seen in my life. Still, Janiculus is with her step for step, tearing across the sand. I don’t have Milanca’s speed gun on hand, but they must be moving faster than ever.
But as the duo reaches the water’s edge, the streaker wheels on Janiculus, who is caught badly off guard. The godlike streaker seizes him by the collar of his uniform, raises him to her head level, and draws him in, seeming to say something in his ear that I am too far away to catch. The streaker dangles him there like that for several seconds, their silhouettes dark against the setting sun. Then, just when it seems like she might be about to put him down, another well-placed shot from Milanca causes the streaker to stagger and drop Janiculus. Rushing in from the other side of the island, the high-jump specialist Glabonet Ferpolt leaps at the streaker’s head and manages to topple her back into the lapping waves. Janiculus recovers and charges, and together the three of them are able to subdue the giant and carry her away into the water.
When Janiculus returns from the shore, his face is ghostly. I ask him what the streaker said to him, but he does not speak. He walks past me in silence.
The Parade of Nations spins on, throngs of athletes meandering around the track like freshmen at a mid-year activities fair, hoisting enormous informational banners and placards, bellowing their national anthems at each other in a thousand languages.
Soon, Maracanã Stadium is a deep swamp of flesh and muscle, swollen with rich athletic broth. It strikes me that this broth seems to be circling some elusive drainpipe—the drainpipe, perhaps, inside which everlasting Olympic glory is clogged, waiting for these young men and women to invent, market, and distribute the drain-cleaning product powerful enough to dislodge it.
For now, the broth behavior remains to be seen. All that is certain is that it contains one new, very special ingredient: the Isle of Four Security Guards.
I never learn for sure just what the captured streaker said to Janiculus Dalillon on the beach that day. He refuses to talk about it. The best guess we have is what Milanca Rangaglave thinks she heard, faint and distorted, over her walkie-talkie:
“Why must you run around?” Janiculus asked in frustration while subduing the streaker, as he had done to thousands of streakers before her. The streaker raised her head and responded simply, “Janiculus, why must you run around?”
As the proud Isle of Four Security Guards delegation rounds the track at the Parade of Nations, there may be no good answer. There may be no reason for this. For any of this. These 10,000 athletes do not know each other. Most of them won’t see each other again for the rest of their lives, returning to Switzerland or China or the Isle of Four Security Guards. They come from worlds so different that it barely makes sense to try to talk about them. But all of that falls away now. They are not strangers anymore. Here in Rio, if only for a brief two weeks, they are adversaries.