Alas, their transcendence was fleeting. "The job is doing the best you can entirely apart from your personal feelings," says Johnson. "'When it's over, it's your right to resume those feelings."
Many in the stadium didn't know quite what to feel when the racing suddenly stopped. Some sat, wrung out, and gently rocked. "After that 4 X 400," said Jon Hendershott, a seasoned observer and the associate editor of Track & Field News, "I had a huge, awestruck adrenaline rush and then—boom—cold turkey. I felt cheated, left in space. I wanted it to go on and on. I lay wildly awake afterward, trying to remember it all, to store it all up."
The only day at an Olympic track comparable to this one was Oct. 18, 1968, when Lee Evans became the first man to break 44 seconds in the 400, with 43.86, some dozen minutes after Bob Beamon's prodigious record long jump of 29'2½". Those historic records would not be threatened for 20 years. But a violent thunderstorm washed out the rest of that day in Mexico City and left spectators feeling that they had witnessed only some kind of eerie suspension of the laws of physics. They departed in chilled, uncomfortable quiet, to be nagged down the decades by the faint suspicion that what they had seen was unreal.
But in Barcelona, events and character drew the crowd into communion with the athletes. By the end this crowd knew itself to be in part responsible for the performances. So when this day was over, the feeling was less disorienting, sweeter, harder to relinquish. This was real.
"It was the most profound common involvement of athletes with crowd I've ever felt," said Hendershott. "More than with Beamon, more than Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10. It was a priceless experience."
It is an experience as difficult to preserve in record books or in an essay as a sprig of fresh rosemary. We have extraordinary photographs. We have videotape. But even so aided, we cannot feel more than a trace of that supercharged connection, that rare unity that was the real elixir, the real answer. All we can do is rejoice at having felt it once, and remind each other, over many platters of paella, over many winters, that if it happened once, it could happen again.