The Games of the XXVII Olympiad have been declared closed and the flame will now move on to Athens, Greece. And while those who had to suffer through NBC broadcasts and US news coverage may consider the games to be somehow tarnished and devoid of heroes, Sydney Sider’s agree completely with Juan Antonio Samaranch (yeah, I know he ain’t no saint) that these were the “best games ever.” If you know your Olympic history, you know those words should not be taken literally, but rather they mean the Spaniard who heads the International Olympic Committee has given the Games an A+ and the host city high marks for running them well. Having had the good fortune to watch almost every track and field event from a commercial free stadium we must confess to getting bit by the Aussie enthusiasm for the games and agree that these Olympics were something special. Perhaps because the world is upside down here or maybe because we are closer to the athletes, the glass in Sydney is at least half full and the stories of wonder far out number the negative ones.
The first big plus was the Australians themselves. This was their moment in the sun and they were determined to make the most of it. Thousands of volunteers in the Olympic venue, on the train routes and just about anywhere else you needed one provided great help – always with a smile and a cheerful attitude. They truly were the key to making this Olympics a great experience. The organization for these games was awesome and while we sometimes had to walk a long way, they got us to our seats and hotels with unfailingly good humor and great efficiency. Everything seemed to run on time. If the Australians had a fault, it was that they became totally consumed by making these games a wonderful experience, including demonstrating an undying loyalty to their own athletes. They cheered for them with the sort of blind passion that we might have seen 25 years ago in our country. They possessed a great ability not only to cheer for the gold medal winners, but also to understand and accept when their athletes came up short.
The dark pall on these games was the number of athletes busted for drugs, no doubt. But track and field has had a very serious drug problem for a long time and if this is a start toward a real effort to clean the sport up, then it is well worth it. And even if it did not begin with such a noble goal, well just maybe all of the publicity about it will be the necessary catalyst. I also felt pretty ashamed as Maurice Greene and the 4 x 100 team pranced around the stadium after winning the gold doing muscle man poses. But for each of these negatives there were many more positive, great moments. And Maurice did at least apologize.
Rarely have I ever seen an event unify a country like the Olympics did Australia. The impact of Cathy Freeman (400), Jumping Jai Taurima (long jump), Tatiana Grigorieva (pole vault), Steve Moneghetti (marathon) and many other athletes on the Australian physic was marvelous. The one athlete who simply could not fail was Freeman, but she delivered in grand style. I have never seen an athlete under more pressure. All she had to do after lighting the Olympic flame was win a gold medal and reconcile a national divide between Aboriginal and European Australians. The passion in the stadium the night she delivered was simply indescribable, as was the joy in hundreds or maybe thousands of towns and villages all around the country. Jumpin’ Jai was also quite the story. He won the silver medal while smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and putting away his share of pizza and beer. His big sacrifices for the Olympics were giving up surfing and skateboarding. But the longhaired jumper had the crowd revved to a fever pitch as he battled Cuban Ivan Pedroso for the gold medal. On his fifth jump Jai raised his arms above his head until the entire stadium rocked, then leapt to first place with a jump of 27-10 ¼. Pedroso only had one jump left. Ivan calmly took off down the runway, sprang off the board without a foul and flew through the air with beautiful grace. His arms and legs stretched forward as if they were going to grab something on the other side of the stadium before he fell to the ground 28-0 ¾ away from the board, far enough to take over the lead. Jumpin’ Jai had one chance left and the entire stadium rocked as they watched the shaggy headed surfer take to the sky only to come down short of the gold medal distance. And through it all, we had commentators Roy Slaven and HG Nelson on the tube late every night bringing us recaps and interviews that seemed to bring together the best of Saturday Night Live and Car Talk. Their irreverent humor and on the spot analysis left me rolling on the floor in laughter many times. They became cult figures led by their mascot Fatso the Big Arsed the Wombat who snuck into the Olympic diving competition and put out the Olympic flame by sitting on it.
The Australians were by no means the only heroes in the games. In many ways the women led the show. Naoko Takahashi drove no Lamborghini’s and never trashed talked about anyone. But what a marathon she ran. On one of the toughest Olympic courses ever, she led all the medal winners under the old Olympic record (2:24:52 by Joan Samuelson) to capture Japan’s first gold medal in the marathon. Japan reveres its marathoners and her place is secure forever. She has trained long and hard for this moment and her grit and beautiful smile symbolized the real Olympic spirit more than any other athlete we watched. Gabriele Szabo (Romania) and Derartu Tulu (Ethiopia) led at least six women under the old Olympic records in the 5000 and 10000 meter races. Both of them had to blitz the last 400 to win gold.
To me though the class of the games though was Marion Jones. She was a great ambassador for her country and won the hearts and respect of all Australians. She dominated two events, the 100 and 200, as few athletes ever have, winning the 100 by .37 of a second and the 200 by .43 seconds. But that was not what impressed me the most. To me the way she handled herself when she did not win gold – when she got a bronze in both the long jump and the 4 x 100 – made her the outstanding athlete of the meet. You heard no excuses, no ravings. She did not sulk; she hugged her teammates. Next to Cathy Freeman she probably faced more pressure than any other athlete, especially after husband CJ tested positive for banned substances, but she never lost her smile and she found a way to have fun at the games. I know she set the bar high by trying to win five gold medals, but I never found her boastful or obnoxious about it. (I don’t think she ever said she would win five, just that she wanted to and would try to do so.) She knew the long jump was a long shot and the relays were at least partly out of her control. Her goal certainly got her on the cover of more magazines than any track and field athlete I know of, except maybe for Carl Lewis. I believe she is track’s best ambassador right now. My biggest disappointment had to be watching Suzy Hamilton crash to the ground on the last lap of the 1500. She ran a tremendous race up to that point, but as she began to lose control of the race, her legs seemed to lock up and she went down like a rock. She got up and finished, but then was carried off the track in a wheel chair.
Yet another great effort belonged to Noah Ngeny who bested favored Hicham El Guerrouj in the 1500 with a lean at the tape. And talk about class, the world record holder showed plenty of it when he got beat. El Guerrouj has pointed for this race since he was tripped in the final of the Atlanta Olympics and lost his chance for a medal there. Since then he has been unbeatable and has set world records in both the 1500 and the mile. He had beaten Ngeny five or six times in a row, although in one of those races they both broke the existing world record. But those things don’t matter on Olympic Day. The final (the third race each of them had run) began with a slow pace and finished with an all out sprint. It was Ngeny, the Kenyan, who broke the Olympic record by running 3:32.07 and nudging El Guerrouj by .25 seconds. El Guerrouj was all class in defeat!
I know of no purer athletic competition, than what we saw between Haile Gebreselassie and Paul Tergat in the 10,000 – great competitors leaving everything on the track. And how about Maria Mutola winning Mozambique’s first gold medal after so many tough losses? Or an Ethiopian child, Gezahagne Abera, growing up to do what his hero, Abebe Bikila, did by winning the Olympic gold for his country? Bikila won the 1960 Olympics in Rome in bare feet.
So I hope NBC’s coverage does not force you to drink out of a half empty glass or dwell on the negatives (it is the American way). Please be careful about condemning the sport of track and field and the Olympics too soon. Yes there is a lot that needs to be fixed, but I’m joining the Aussie’s and drinking out of a glass that is half full while I celebrate the heroes that still make the sport special. But then, I did not have to watch NBC.