So it went that despite Michael Phelps's opening 47.51 split, France took the lead on the third leg and entrusted it to Bernard, 100 meters from gold. Going into the water behind him was Lezak, a 32-year-old competing in his third Olympics but destined to remain in Phelps's considerable shadow. With about 50 meters remaining, Bernard was a full body length ahead; even the announcers had conceded the race to the French. But Lezak found something inside himself and caught Bernard from behind, touching the wall just .08 of a second ahead of the Frenchman. He had just swum the fastest relay split in history to win a most unlikely gold medal, keep Phelps's quest for a record-setting eight golds at one Games alive and secure his own place in sports history. The joy on the faces of Lezak's U.S. teammates contrasted with the shock on the faces of the French. The Olympics were, yet again, the best reality show on television.
"It was a morality play," says SI.com producer Ted Keith, who had the best take on what we all saw that day. "In just 46.06 seconds Lezak taught the sports world a lesson about age versus youth, about not speaking too soon and about why we should always keep watching."
Sport as a microcosm of or a metaphor for life is most complicated during an Olympics, especially when the competition gets swallowed by nationalism. After winning the 400 meters at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal Australian, simply sat down on the sideline, and the surprised crowd—and the home TV audience of tens of millions—waited to see what she would do. Freeman's anger about the Australian government's treatment of Aborigines was well-known. Would she make a speech? Would she refuse the medal? Not sing the anthem?
What Freeman did was to get up and run the course again, this time holding aloft both Australia's flag and the Aboriginal flag, a great mixture of politics and sport and one of the most moving things Olympic fans had ever seen. I was thinking about the great U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium with heads bowed and fists raised at the Mexico City Games in 1968. Freeman made a lot of people happy. Smith and Carlos had made a lot of people mad. They were all on the same side, patriots in their own time in their own way.
"Every Olympics looks like it's all about nationalism, but there's always more to it," says SI.com senior editor Richard Deitsch, who has covered five Olympics. "And that 'more to it' trumps race, gender, economic class. Or maybe it pulls them all into something bigger." In Athens, in a taverna lost on a tiny street in the Plaka district, Deitsch watched the Greek basketball team take to the limit a U.S. squad that amounted to the 2004 NBA All-Stars. Standing five deep in front of an old, wall-mounted television screen, the Greeks were cheering with such force that Deitsch thought the ceiling might collapse. To his surprise, he began rooting internally for Greece. Suddenly he did not want the millionaires representing his own nation to win. "That's the only time I've felt that, a pull against my own country," he says. "I was troubled by it until I realized that's what the Olympics were really about."
WAR MUSIC: AN ACCOUNT OF BOOKS 16 TO 19 OF HOMER'S ILIAD
PATRIOTISM IS A DEEP VEIN in sports, and in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks we draped stadiums and turned our games into patriotic ritual. There were no major-college football games or pro sports the weekend after 9/11. It was as if the country was taking a breath to come back stronger. Everyone who lived through it knew that life could never go back to Sept. 10. Informed by that new reality, the 2001 World Series became one of the most memorable in history, featuring two extra-inning games and three late-inning comebacks and ending on a Game 7 walk-off hit in the form of a bases-loaded bloop single by the Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez.