The Olympics represent a cross roads where sport and politics meet. As much as we want to believe the two can be separate the sheer grandeur and enormity of the Games assures that will never be the case. This year’s games held in Beijing are certainly no exception as a nation fast ascending to the throne of economic giant seeks to demonstrate to the world it deserves its place among the world leaders. At the same time human rights groups and others find the stage created by the games the perfect opportunity to raise flags about injustices and inequities.
And yet, there are moments when it all is swept aside by the Olympic spirit, which brings nations and athletes from all over the world together to compete on a playing field instead of at war. My first experience attending the Olympics was in Atlanta in 1996. I took a wild chance and sent off for two passes for the track and field events. It remains one of my best ever experiences. I virtually lived at what became Turner Field and was then the Olympic Stadium for most of ten days. Early morning events such as decathlon heats would greet a nearly empty stadium which would slowly fill to capacity through the day. The midday break was usually time to get my run in under the scorching Atlanta sky, aided by the full fury of summer.
There are three great memories burned in my brain from that Olympics. The first was the gold shoes of Michael Johnson racing a half lap of the track in 19.32, not just breaking the 200 meter world record but smashing it to smithereens along with the world class field that chased him to the finish. It remains the greatest athletic achievement I have witnessed in person if not ever. The second was Bob Kennedy’s great effort in the 5000 meter run. Kennedy remains the only US runner to break 13:00 in the 5K. As always the US distance team was not expected to compete well against the rest of world. And yet as the runners began the penultimate lap, knowing he had little chance in a sprint finish, Kennedy surged to the front and tried to earn his spot on the medal stand. Despite the fact he eventually finished 6th, it was a heroic effort that had the crowd on its feet. The final great memory was the 10K battle between Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie and Kenyan Paul Tergat. Two of the greatest ambassadors for track and field the champions battled each other for every one of the 25 laps. As Gebrselassie shadowed Tergat around the track the entire stadium seemed filled with his Ethiopian countrymen flying the flag of Ethiopia and stomping and singing. It truly was spine tingly as The Great One won his first Olympic gold in a time of 27:07.34. Tergat did not yield until the final few steps and grabbed the silver in a time of 27:08.17 – less than a second back.
My second Olympic experience was in Sydney in 2000. One of the “five most beautiful cities” in the world, the highlight of this Olympics was the chance to travel to a beautiful place and the opportunity to cheer for a friend who was running the 5K and the 10K for Ireland. Breeda Dennehy-Willis, a resident of Tallahassee at the time, had her Olympic dreams burdened by getting ill at the games, but still managed to take the lead in one of her heat for awhile and give our small group from Tallahassee great reason to scream and yell. Gebrselassie and Tergat battled again in the 10K, but this time it was even closer. Tergat seemed to have the win, before Gebrselassie stretched to grab yet another gold medal with a 27:18.20 to 27:18.29 win.
And so now it is wheels up as we head to our third Olympic experience, once again in a far away place. Here is hoping it is the sports memories and not the politics that come home with us.