Very human moments

August 29, 2004

LIKE MANY, we've spent way too much time on the sofa the last two weeks, watching the Summer Olympics on TV. It's bluntly ironic that the premier gathering of the world's best athletes could lead to even more sloth at home. But if the quadrennial global sports festival isn't the proverbial greatest show on Earth, we're not sure what is. Even through the parochial prism of American network television, there seemed no end to the riveting -- and very human -- moments.

Perhaps most notable was the rapidity with which the pre-Olympic buildup of concerns over security and Athens' last-minute drive to finish its facilities dissipated. With the Games ending today, it's simply a relief that Greece played host so far without a major hitch.

There were foul-ups, of course, chief among them the scoring screw-ups that confused the otherwise often brilliant gymnastics competition and triggered disruptive outbursts from fans. There were various disqualifications, including medals lost, as a result of positive drug tests. And there was politics, the most ham-handed being President Bush's effort to make campaign hay of the certainly stirring presence of athletes from Afghanistan and Iraq.

But most of all, as billed, there was a superb display of pure athletic prowess. A very short and admittedly idiosyncratic list from a decidedly American vantage point:

The finish of the men's 100-meter sprint, with a wall of five runners bursting past the tape under 10 seconds, less than a tenth of a second separating all five. A shock wave.

The U.S. women's softball team taking its gold medal in such dominant fashion, giving up only one run in nine games, that unfortunately the sport now risks losing its Olympic status. The true "dream team."

In his 17th race in seven days, Michael Phelps -- he simply can't go unmentioned, here or anywhere else -- taking the 100-meter butterfly over rival Ian Crocker by seemingly no more than a fingertip. How did he do that?

Most of the 10,000-plus Olympic competitors, however, went home without medals. But their shortfalls also often provided some of the most human and memorable moments, vivid reminders that sport at its highest levels involves as many mental challenges as a physical ones.

Consider the world-class women's volleyball players, who with their matches on the line couldn't seem to serve the ball over the net with surety, just like many high school players. Or the American favorite in the men's shot-put, who disqualified by stepping outside the throwing circle, on five of his six throws. This stuff is hard; they just usually make it look easy.

Every step of the way, it can take an emotional toll. There was U.S. diver Sara Hildebrand, continuing to cry and bury her head, refusing to accept her teammates' repeated assurances that her scores would be enough to put her in the next round of the 10-meter platform competition, albeit just barely. She ended up 10th.

It takes a toughness that we can only imagine. Want to pick an athlete to symbolize the Olympics? With all due respect to the phenomenal Mr. Phelps of Baltimore, we'd nominate Luvsanlkhundeg Otgonbayar, a Mongolian runner, on whom TV cameras graciously lingered a bit as she entered Panathinaiko Stadium for one lap that she stoically took in apparent pain to finish 66th and last in the women's marathon -- a race so grueling that it, literally, broke the world-record holder from Britain. Of course, the first to traverse the 26.2 miles from Marathon to Athens, the legendary Pheidippides two millennia ago, died upon his arrival.

There was both respect and disrespect for sport. The self-proclaimed diva of women's gymnastics, two-time gold medallist Svetlana Khorkina, pouted bitterly and glared lethally after she came up short this time. By contrast, when Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner, the surprise gold medallist in 2000, took only the bronze, he then movingly marked his planned retirement with great dignity, according to an old wrestling tradition of removing his shoes in the center of the ring and leaving them there.

What we've really been watching, by and large, are love stories: people so in love with their sport that they have punished themselves to no end to earn the right to contend for the best in the world.

Which brings us to Michael Phelps again. His historic accomplishments aside, the moment we most liked was watching him in the stands during the 400-meter medley relay, which he had bowed out of swimming. Flanked by other U.S. swimmers, he looked, well, like a 19-year-old kid -- one having the time of his life at a swim meet -- as he loudly cheered on his teammates. This after ascending to the heights of Olympic sports-marketingdom.

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