Workmen paused as the sun climbed the sky on the morning before the 24th Summer Games. Odd, this was. There were all those feet and wheels and hooves about to stampede across the floor in the opening ceremonies, all those vaulters and foot racers and spear flingers thundering in a few days later, all that security outside the stadium to keep intruders away. Yet here was this balding, bespectacled man on the track, circling it again and again, looking more bent and bony each time around. What was he doing on the world's biggest stage at a moment like this? What was he running to—or running from?
Every four years for the last four decades the old man had sneaked his way, begged his way, hook-or-crooked his way into an Olympic stadium the day before the opening ceremonies and run 10,000 meters. Nobody could quite figure John Lucas out, not even his wife back in State College, Pa., but now that nearly three weeks have passed and the Sydney Games are done, I think I understand. He was doing both: he was running to and running from.
He was running from what would happen two days later at Sydney Airport, when 40 minutes after the Qatari weight-lifters had disembarked from their flight from Singapore, officials began wondering why several members of the team still hadn't reached the customs checkpoint. Agents walked down the long white corridor that leads to their counter and approached a bathroom from which two men in tracksuits, both bearing Qatari names and passports but speaking Bulgarian—one a team official and the other a superheavyweight named Jaber Salem—had just exited. They'd been part of Bulgaria's B team, purchased for $1 million last year by the oil-rich emirate and converted into Qataris to bring glory and gold medals to the shores of the Persian Gulf.
The agents opened the bathroom door and recoiled. Inside, they found heavyweight Said Asaad, two empty syringes and a floor covered with urine. Asaad would leave Sydney a few weeks later wearing a bronze medal.
Were the Qataris in that bathroom injecting a diuretic that would hastily flush out their steroid-tainted urine, in case an ambush drug test awaited them? Were they injecting clean urine into their bladders so they could trick the lab? Whatever the weightlifters were doing, customs officials could find no trace of drugs, and the Qataris were free to join the world's celebration of peace, humanity and sportsmanship, where 39 drug users would be expelled or forbidden to compete; where the entire American track and field team would fall under suspicion; where Marion Jones's quest for five medals would be sullied by revelations of her husband's positive tests for nandrolone; where the Bulgarian weightlifting team would be expelled after three members were stripped of medals for passing urine laced with a diuretic that could be used to lose weight and to mask the presence of steroids; where two other Qatari weightlifters would hastily withdraw, citing sudden cases of diarrhea. How could so many young men and women piss and crap all over such a beautiful thing?
"The vulgarity!" the old man would seethe. "The overwhelming vulgarity!"
Nearly Halfway through his ritual run, John Lucas began to suffer. His 74-year-old joints were stiffening, and the thick, rumpled rug that had been laid over the track kept tripping him. He was running on a right leg snapped so savagely by a football tackle when he was 16 that the doctor told him he would never run again. That's not true, the boy had said, but all he had for proof was the book by his bed, the one he had nearly memorized, about a 1,500-meter runner named Glenn Cunningham who had won an Olympic silver in 1936 after nearly dying from burns in a school-house fire as a Kansas farm boy. By the 10th time Lucas had read the tale, he had fallen head over heels in love with the Games.
Lucas ran again, all right, but only to 11th place in the 1952 U.S. Olympic Trials' 10,000 meters, so eight years of scraping and saving later, he'd slipped unnoticed onto the cinder track in Rome the day before the 1960 Summer Games to run the first leg of his odyssey, then trembled at the closing ceremonies when the stadium lights went out and 85,000 people of all continents and colors lit candles in the dark. He'd run his lonely race in Tokyo and Mexico City and Munich and Montreal and Moscow—that one around the outside of Lenin Stadium because Soviet officials were too miffed at the U.S. boycott to let him in. He'd run in Los Angeles and Seoul and Barcelona and Atlanta, and now that the flame has been extinguished here and the Sydney Games are done, I know what it was he was running to.
He was running to the spirit that possessed this city for 17 days, an aura that couldn't possibly have come across on a television set 9,000 miles away. Running to the unrelenting harmony and humor radiating from 47,000 volunteers who turned train directions into ditties, crowd control into dance routines, manure cleanup into synchronized skipping-and-scooping, who passed out candy, mimed passersby's walks, mimicked bird calls and made crammed train platforms feel like a perfectly wonderful place to hold the world's family reunion. Running to a time and place where people came out of their homes and shells, where crime dropped, complaining perished, where you kept shaking your head at this mind-blowingly massive task being pulled off so smoothly and smilingly, and thinking, Boy, mankind is amazing. A place where you kept gulping back emotions, blinking tears from your eyes as an Aboriginal woman outraced everyone in a colossus of a stadium thundering with the roars and hopes of a continent aching to heal a terrible scar. Gulping as a Cuban long jumper took gold on his final leap and dropped, sobbing, to the track. As a tiny Ethiopian, Haile Gebrselassie, ran down and held off—by a butterfly's eyelash—Kenya's Paul Tergat in the same 10,000 meters that the old man had huffed over. As nearly every Aussie you poured out of the stadium with each night asked if he could help you in any way.
"It's called exhilaration," the old man told me. "The exhilaration of participating in the largest peacetime gathering of the human race!"