Like these Games, marathon honors past

Athens Olympics -- 2004

August 30, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

ATHENS - No question where to watch the sun set on these Olympics. It was here, on the white marble slab benches of Panathinaiko Stadium, just as the bobbing gaggle of rail-thin runners made their way from Marathon.

The modern Olympics were born in this horseshoe stadium carved into a hill behind the Parliament building and the National Garden.

Track and field commenced in ancient Olympia for these Games. The marathon, with its ancient history, was the perfect finale.

Is there any other place besides Greece that could claim such an intimate, knowing relationship to these Games?

And then this, another bit of history etched here:

The lead runner in the men's marathon, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, was tackled and dragged into the crowd by a former Irish priest at about the 22-mile mark in a gut-wrenchingly surprise attack.

Maybe this is in keeping with the marathon's nature: a test and stretch of human ability.

The lore of the marathon tells about the runner who died from exhaustion upon reaching Athens. It intimates that Greek runner Spyros Louis, the winner in 1896, may or may not have taken a shortcut to claim victory 108 years ago.

It was a typical night for these Olympics: a flurry of activity and anxiety to break an otherwise easygoing, no-worry mood. Just when things seem quiet, drama breaks out.

This was the Olympics where Greek runners were forced out of the Games for missing a drug test and allegedly staging a motorcycle crash.

These are the Olympics where a Greek judo athlete fell from a balcony and later died and her boyfriend subsequently threw himself off the same balcony and now is in the hospital.

These are the Olympics where international gymnastics officials have tried to coerce a gymnast into giving back his gold medal.

Last night was no different. The night had been ambling along. A soft, red light settled on the horizon, where the last of the day's sun lit up the pollution particles in the air over Athens.

This was an Olympics about perseverance, fighting the odds and obstacles.

The Brazilian got back on the road and started to run again. The people in the stadium watched him on the big screen. They cheered. But de Lima could not maintain that lead. He faded, caught by a fresher runner, Italy's Stefano Baldini, and Meb Keflezighi of the United States, who took gold and silver, respectively.

This was at the two-hour mark, with the runners just about three kilometers from the finish.

Inside the stadium, they cheered for Baldini and Keflezighi, but the loudest cheers were for de Lima. Hearing his reception, his encouragement, he lit up, blew kisses and rounded the track, headed for bronze - and Olympic immortality: the marathon lead runner who got tackled by a madman in a tunic and persevered. The International Olympic Committee then announced it would award de Lima an additional, honorary medal for acts of exceptional sportsmanship at the Olympics.

It was pretty wild, pretty amazing, just like this place where the Olympics came back home.

As Baldini circled the track, Italian flag over his shoulders, Bruce Springsteen was unleashed on the loudspeakers, singing "Born to Run."

Time to take in the far-and-wide scene, one last time.

The Acropolis was right over one side of the stadium, on the next hill. Now nighttime, the Parthenon was lit up and glowing. The spirit of Socrates under the trees in the ancient agora wafted over this way.

Here we sat, on stone, in the cradle of democracy - and not to mention in a heck of a great place to eat kebabs in shady tavernas, to visit museums, to island-hop.

This place is rich. And hot. And filled with people vaguely indifferent to anything that is not an argument or a crisis. This was not a place where the Olympics took over Greece. It was a place where the Olympics were allowed to happen, part of the city, take part of them if you want and if not, you'll never miss them - not with everything else going on here.

If nothing else good comes of these $8.6 billion Olympics, for which the children of Greece will be paying for years, at least the Greeks will get one newspaper writer telling this story: Greece is probably a place everyone must go, at least once.

Put me on the Greek Tourism Board. This Mediterranean place is alluring enough to easily win you over. The weather and the culture were infused into every aspect of these Summer Games.

Typical example of the mood?

Hordes of Olympic volunteers, all of them in these brightly colored shirts and blue shorts, many of them Greek college students - all of them pleasantly in their own world, clogging narrow venue entries, chattering among themselves, oblivious to the crowds of journalists and ticket-holders trying to squeeze by them.

After three weeks here, getting a feel for the climate - weather and temperament - it seems completely natural the Greeks waited and waited to get the roads, trains and buildings finished - and just barely.

But they pulled it off, beginning to end.

The opening ceremony was grand, with the Cycladic statues floating in the air. Five thousand years is a long time to be at work, innovating art, science, culture, sport, democracy.

Being here is a reminder: The Greeks have probably earned the right to rest and relax, take things slow.

Inside the stadium, more runners entered the track. A cool breeze pushed up from the Aegean. It spelled a change about to come. Our bags are packed, we're ready to go, but not without drinking in the last few moments.

Yes, a bit of drinking went on here.

The rooftop garden at the Main Press Center, with small white lights and the cushioned benches and the rivers of cold Heineken, was a gift. Thank you, Dionysus.

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