Posted: Sunday August 29, 2004 1:24PM; Updated: Sunday August 29, 2004 1:25PM
We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the XXVIII Olympiad to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.
Apart from the parade of nations in the opening ceremonies, the lighting of the torch, the awarding of medals, each of the Games' 28 sports has its own subculture of tradition and ritual. One of my favorites is the wrestlers' equivalent of a final victory lap, the moment when a retiring grappler unties his shoes and leaves them in the middle of the mat to say that he is done.
Rulon Gardner performed his ceremony with great class and emotion last week. Gardner left his shoes and his tears on the mat after winning his final match to claim a bronze medal. He deserved that moment.
The alphabet soup of professional (read "fake") wrestling federations offered him $1.5 million to forsake the sweaty gyms of Greco-Roman wrestling for something more lucrative and less dignified. Gardner stayed put.
Who knows if he would have fared better in Athens without a series of off-mat mishaps over the past two years: the amputated toe after a snowmobiling excursion; the front flip off his motorcycle over a braking car, the wrist dislocation on the basketball court.
After Gardner's last match, Steve Fraser, the U.S. head coach, was talking about him to a handful of reporters. "You have no idea how much our sport owes him," Fraser said. "Greco-Roman wrestling? We had a face and an identity thanks to Rulon. We had something that made people proud. He gave everything to wrestling."
As Fraser, spoke, the video of Gardner's slow walk off the mat played on a screen and he had to excuse himself.
Ask Gardner what he plans to do now and he really doesn't know. "I might be involved in fitness for youth, politics, I'm not sure," he says. "When you put so much of your life into one thing, it's hard to move on to something else."
I won't forget the day last week when Gardner moved on grudgingly, leaving the last that was left of him on the mat.