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Watching perfection from an Athens hotel room

Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 6:17PM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 10:32PM
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2004 Olympic Games
Thanks for the memories
• Rick Reilly: Greece overcame paranoia
• Steve Rushin: The international language
• S.L. Price: Gods and monsters in Greece
• Richard Deitsch: Moved to tears by perfection
• E.M. Swift: Soccer ref learns the hard way
• Jack McCallum: Women's wrestling emotions
• Michael Farber: Seventeen days of Hellas
• Tim Layden: The best moments aren't televised
• Kelli Anderson: My sense of Athens
• Don Yaeger: Hamm touched by special honor
• Brian Cazeneuve: Gardner's golden moment
• Bill Frakes: Indelible images of the Games

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games. Richard Deitsch is an SI writer-reporter who coordinated SI.com's coverage from Athens. 

There is no atmosphere in a hotel room. No crowd. No emotion. Strange scratching from a ceiling, perhaps, or the hum of a struggling air conditioner. But nothing from the soul. And it was in this antiseptic place where I found perfection during the Games.

It takes me back to a story I once heard told by the late Heywood Hale Broun. The broadcaster was being interviewed for ESPN's SportsCentury and the subject was the perfect racehorse, Secretariat.

Broun recalled that Jack Nicklaus once asked him if he was at the 1973 Belmont Stakes, and after Broun said he had indeed been in New York that day, Nicklaus told him that when the big red horse thundered down the stretch, he found himself weeping alone in his living room.

"You've spent your entire life in a quest for perfection," Broun told Nicklaus as explanation. "And, briefly, you saw it."

I haven't spent my life in a quest for perfection. More like comfort. But I understand how Nicklaus felt, and so as I prepared for the most modern of comforts last Tuesday night, a beachside bacchanal at a nightclub by the sea, I sat transfixed by a Moroccan and a Kenyan dueling in the Athens night.

Perfection found Hicham El Guerrouj and Bernard Lagat in the last 100 meters of the 1,500 final. Lagat made his move. Back came El Guerrouj. And so it went, two runners exhanging fate until El Guerrouj soared ahead. He crossed the line first and knelt, kissed the track and sobbed, before he was embraced by Lagat, who seem more overjoyed for El Guerrouj than the Morrocan did for winning his elusive gold.

Four years ago, El Guerrouj was edged by another Kenyan, Noah Ngeny. This time he won by .12 seconds, in a time of 3:34.18.

It was one of those moments that make you believe in the myth of the Olympics -- a Moroccan and a Kenyan dueling in the Athens night, causing an American in a hotel room to weep.

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