Longing for the past to rise to meet the present, even if for only one day
Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 12:54PM
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
The sad part is, the Greeks did everything asked of them. The world demanded a safe and efficient 2004 Olympic games, demanded fresh new venues and the now-common cushion of comfort for broadcasters and media and athletes, and Athens delivered. On time. In perfect working order. The buses and computers have hummed along so perfectly that visitors will actually leave thinking Athens isn't a hub of chaos; on that basis alone, Athens has already outdone Atlanta in 1996 and Albertville in 1992 -- outdone the richer, supposedly more organized Americans and the richer, supposedly more experienced French.
As for atmosphere, the Greek organizing committee had the smarts to tap into its one unmatched asset and return the modern games to both Olympia and magical Panathinaiko Stadium. If, sitting in either place, you don't feel the past rising from the stones and earth around you, you simply don't care about sports, history, the Olympics, life.
Athens did what it set out to do. It brought everyone back to the beginning. It made us, for a day or two, stop and consider how much and how little we've progressed. It made us realize just how cool olive wreath headgear could look -- who knew? -- and for that alone the world should be thankful.
But then the wreath, the history, ancient Olympia were all part of the problem, weren't they? Because despite Athens' heroic, deadline-beating rush, despite all the best-laid plans, the "feel" of an Olympic Games -- that ephemeral though very real essence -- rises out of what happens once the torch is lit. And from the moment Greek sprinter Kostas Kenteris got yanked as the cauldron-lighter at the Opening Ceremonies because of the dopey dodger's "motorcycle accident," the Athens Olympics have been anything but clean. Of course, by invoking "clean," we invoke here the Olympic-record 18 athletes -- and counting -- who missed or flunked drug tests in Athens; we invoke the too-easy irony of Russian shot-putter Irina Korzhanenko winning the gold medal at hallowed Olympia and getting stripped of it in disgrace after testing positive for steroids.
But, really, that wasn't shocking, because by then the good news-bad news tone of the Games had been set. By then, five days in, as if decreed by gods no one believes in anymore, the Athens Games had been seized by the strangest rhythm. Yes, we would get our Michael Phelps, but we would get the thick cloud hanging over Marion Jones; we would get a little Greek weightlifter winning his nation's first medal and, a few nights later, tearfully having it taken from his hands; we would get Paul Hamm's mesmerizing comeback, but we would also get a penny-ante judging scandal to cheapen the moment for good. And here is where we invoke the word "clean" again, but this time in regards to the stories we tell.
Deep down, every NBC writer and talking head, every American covering the Athens Games, now has sympathy with the George Bush campaign, regardless of politics, regardless of whether they know it or not. Because when the Bush campaign invoked Iraq's return to the Olympics in a recent campaign commercial, we could've told them it wouldn't be easy. Members of the Iraqi soccer team had already been making noise about their distaste for what they called the American "occupation" of their country, disrupting any effort to write a simple warm-and-fuzzy tale about a nation reborn. When the Iraqi coach and players -- not to mention Olympic officials -- blasted the Bush campaign for the ad, all the messy complexities of the war in Iraq rose yet again to the surface. For an American audience, the story of the Iraqi soccer team was anything but clean.
Of course, after 1964, no Olympics got off easy. The '68 Games in Mexico City kicked off the regrettable era of politics and protest and worse: black gloves, ski masks on a Munich roof, boycotts by African nations, the U.S., the Soviet Union, the small communist powers in Seoul; then came the '90s and terror threats large and small. But all of that also enlarged the Olympics in a way it was never prepared for; the Olympics became a stage for power politics, for all the seemingly large questions about Life. Against that backdrop of fear, Dave Wottle, the Barcelona flame-archer, Dorothy Hamill, Mary Lou Retton, Nadia Comaneci, Derek Redmond, Sebastian Coe, the '72 U.S. basketball team, Leon Spinks, all the losers and winners who created the feel and put a face on their respective Olympic Games, blazed their way into memory. It was all big, and mattered so much.
In Athens, the fear remains, but the feel of the Games has somehow shrunk. These Olympics have lacked the moment that make one love the Olympics. Or maybe it's just that the faces that should embody the best part of these Games -- Phelps, the U.S. softball team, Hicham El Guerrouj grinning and Paula Radcliffe weeping -- keep getting thrown out of focus by the constant jostle of the latest bad news: the Danish sailor who accidentally killed a tourist with his car and kept competing, the Olympic guard who accidentally killed himself playing Russian roulette, the Greek judo champion who, after leaping from her balcony before the Games began, died in the hospital. Maybe it's the daily drug bust. Everyone comes to the Olympics like Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia; every four years, everyone comes looking for "something honorable." Instead, every great moment of these Games has been matched by something petty or stupid or emptily self-destructive, by tragedies in a minor key, by life spelled out with a lower-case L.
There was an earthquake near Athens on Tuesday, 4.5 on the Richter Scale, worrying but harmless and all too appropriate. It wasn't disaster. No one was hurt, but the aftershock vibrated for a few hours after. The next night, Greece finally got its gold medal in track, the medal Kenteris was supposed to win, when Fani Halkia ran away from the field in the 400-meter hurdles. Then came a beautiful moment: Halkia took off her shoes and ran around the track as thousands screamed the nation's name. Just then, you didn't want to think about the recent extraordinary leap in her personal best. You wanted it to last; you wanted this to be the face you'll remember. You wanted just one clean day.