Enter Marion, exit Michael

The final night of track and field saw the coronation of the greatest female athlete in the world -- and the golden departure of history's greatest 400-meter runner.

Topics: Olympics,

There’s a strange sensation you get at the Olympics, a feeling of being inside a myth. Everything you see is entering history even as it’s happening. It’s as if you’re watching an epic account of some fabled past, but the fabled past is right here, right now, roaring by you on the track. The tension of that runner, arm outstretched to receive the baton; that pole vaulter lifting his arms clear as he drops over the bar; the thundering feet of the pack of long-distance runners as they stride by in unison, perfect as migrating animals — all of these are captured forever, frozen like negatives, even as they take place. They join the great legacy of the Olympic deeds that came before them, and those that will come after: Jesse Owens flying down the track in Berlin, Kip Keino outdueling Jim Ryun in Mexico City, Shun Fujimoto, competing with a broken leg, grimacing in agony as he dismounts in Montreal, Michael Johnson charging down the homestretch in Atlanta. And you only need say one word to summon them up, so that forever “Sydney” will trigger an image of permanent joy in Australian hearts — Cathy Freeman flashing around the turn.

We remember these deeds because on a certain day, in a certain place, an athlete stepped forward and proved that they were the best in the world at something. You might live in a mansion or a mud hut, might come from the richest country in the world or the poorest. None of that matters. The colors of the cloth you run under can’t help you when the starter’s gun goes off. All that matters is doing one simple thing, something that everybody in the world can do, and doing it better than anyone else. At the Olympics, the democratic vistas stretch out as far as you can see, and if it is only the democracy of athletics, so be it. It’s enough.

Maybe the feeling of being in the presence of Olympic lore was greater at Olympic Stadium on Saturday night because it was the final night of the track and field competition. The Games are drawing to a close, with only Sunday’s men’s marathon and a few other events to be contested, and every deed is to be savored.

The center of attention, of course, was Marion Jones and her quest to establish herself as the greatest individual athlete at these Games. On Friday night I watched her quest for five gold medals die as she fouled four times in the long jump. As a long jumper, Jones is the athletic equivalent of a vial of nitroglycerin: You know she’s going to explode, the only question is whether she self-destructs or blows up the opposition.

She doesn’t know what she’s doing; she has terrible runway rhythm, poor leg technique in the air and a shaky grasp of how to land. But you can’t coach speed, and speed alone can win you a long jump. Jones could probably spot champion German jumper Heike Dreschler 20 meters in a 50-meter race — which must have made her failure all the more galling. On her last jump, standing in third place behind Dreschler and Italy’s Fiona May, she landed far down the sandpit, appearing to have easily outdistanced Dreschler’s 6.99, but her foot was way over the line, the red flag came up and she grimaced in anger. She’d have to settle for bronze and shoot for four gold, hoping to add 4×100 and 4×400 relay medals to the two she’d already won in the 100 and 200 meters.

Before the women’s 4×100 relay came the women’s 10,000, a painful visual demonstration of the limits of willpower. For much of the race Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe led, but it was agonizing just to watch her. Long before the last few laps, she was obviously in a personal hell, her face contorted and her arms swinging awkwardly as the Ethiopian favorites, Derartu Tulu and Gete Wami, cruised smoothly behind her. It was an impressive display of courage, but form told the story. At the bell lap, Tulu upshifted effortlessly and left Radcliffe to labor on, her agonies now completely futile.

Then it was time for the women’s 4×100. U.S. women had won this event the past four Olympics (although historically they haven’t owned it, losing in Tokyo, Munich and Montreal), but there was reason to believe that they could be vulnerable. They were running without the second-best sprinter in the world, injured Inger Miller, as well as Gail Devers, and their time in heats was considerably slower than both the Bahamas (which took silver in Atlanta) and ever-dangerous Jamaica. Of course, the heats were run without anchor Marion Jones, who could make up a big chunk of that.

As the runners settled into the blocks, behind me, a row of Bahamians were going nuts, yelling and waving their country’s cool black-yellow-and blue flag. The first leg was close, but the Bahamians handled the baton exchange much better than the Americans and took a lead into the second leg, then increased it after the U.S. had yet another poor exchange. When mighty Marion received the baton, even she couldn’t make up the huge deficit, although she stormed home to snatch bronze. After the race the Bahamians behind me ran into the aisles, screaming with joy and waving their flag. “There are only 250,000 of us!” one woman with marcelled hair laughed as the British couple next to me and the neighboring Aussies and I all beamed and applauded.

In fact, it was a great victory not only for dinky island countries but for marcelled hair, a look that’s obviously happening in the Bahamas, but that hasn’t been that big in the U.S. since the Harlem Renaissance: At the medal ceremony, the heads of two of the members of the team gleamed like black oil. As they received their medals, the women exuded a lovely, innocent happiness, giggling and crying, their eyes shining. They seemed like sisters in a happy family — a wonderfully playful, relaxed quality you see a lot after a relay win. For a relay is not only one of the most exciting events in all of sports — the Pony Express-like tension as the flying runners approach their teammates and the waiting runners begin to move, exquisitely balancing the need for a running start with the need for a safe exchange, bodies turned one-quarter and arms extended to feel the slap of the precious stick, then the jets kicking in — it always seems to bring out a tremendous sense of camaraderie. To take the victory lap with your teammates, flag wrapped around you, having achieved your goal as if one — now that’s an experience to envy.

Meanwhile, the usual ridiculous excess of drama, joy and heartbreak, all unannounced, was taking place all over the huge stadium. You’d look up from a moving medal ceremony to see, far away across the green field, a tiny figure of a high jumper knocking off the bar as she tried to clear. Look through the binoculars at the event board, and you’d see the story: three frowning face icons, meaning failure. End of the Olympics for one person. The woman, larger now, made real by the magnification, lies on her back for a long moment on the bag, thinking about the end of a dream, then jumps up and waves farewell to the crowd. Take the binoculars away, and the tiny figure vanishes forever.

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Now move them over here: A big blond Norwegian javelin thrower has just sent the spear flying far down the field and is beaming with good-natured farm-girl happiness. It’s like choosing which reality you want to make come alive, the binoculars allowing you to create your own movie, own your own images. There’s a fascinating phenomenology of binoculars compared to television: Both show the same reality, both are artificial, but the fact that you control what you’re seeing with binoculars gives the experience a different feeling — more contingent, more existential, less grandiose. There is no producer deciding what’s important. You’re more aware of the space that surrounds everything. And somehow this gives events a greater poignancy and sharpness — and makes them yours. My vision may have been permanently worsened by constantly refocusing over the past two weeks, but I have my own Olympics stored in my head.

The American women might have eaten it in the 100, but then it was time for force majeur. Men’s 4×100, women’s 4×400, men’s 4×400. These are ours, baby. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of sports are watching Olympic races with my dad, who was a pretty fair sprinter and taught me to love track. And there is nothing more deep-dish satisfying, nothing that inspires more innocent national pride, than watching black U.S. men and women — and they’re always black, and everybody knows it, so shut up — kick ass in the 100, 200 and 400. Is it possible to feel race pride when you’re not the same color? It’s like watching a really good French jazz quintet, and then bringing on Miles, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock. I’m sorry, guys, you did a nice job but you can go and tune up now, because the game is over.

And that’s just what came down last night. Men’s 4×100? Fuggedaboutit. Rocketman Jon Drummond blasted off, fliers Bernard Williams and Brian Lewis buried the opposition even further and smokin’ Maurice Greene threw dirt all over the grave. 37.61 was the time, and it was hot — the second-fastest Olympic 4×100 ever, trailing only the U.S. team’s record 37.40 set in Barcelona.

From this point on in the proceedings, I pretty much lost it. I don’t know exactly what incoherent ejaculations were torn from my throat, but I do remember emitting a truly evil cackle of pure, gloating glee when Greene headed home, aiming right at me, the most fist-clenching, Jimi Hendrix-guitar-playing, money-in-the-bank-feeling, electrifying thing I ever saw. I fear it may have been a scary, animal-like sound, because several people in my vicinity left soon after the race.

Then came the women’s 1,500, which featured the single most amazing kick I’ve ever seen. Romania’s great Gabriela Szabo, who was trying to become the first runner to win both the 5,000 and the 1,500 since the legendary Paavo Nurmi, had to hurdle a fallen runner and was ridiculously far behind when she came into the home stretch. But turning on her deadly kick, she simply roared down the track to nip bronze a tick ahead of the most surprised and unlucky athlete in the entire Games, Ethiopian Kutre Dulecha, who had already reserved a spot on the mantel for her medal and was planning her speech when this sprinter who had somehow snuck into the race on the homestretch shot by her at the line. Afterward, I ran into Szabo as she was leaving the athlete’s area. (I was only there because I had snuck in to watch the medal ceremonies from closer up.) She appears to be about the size of a 14-year-old. “Fantastic kick,” I told her. “Fantastic week,” she replied. I got her autograph.

There followed a surreal period in which I tried to get my mind around the fact that Henry Kissinger — Henry Kissinger? — awarded the medals in the 4×100 men’s relay. Henry seemed to be having a good time; maybe his famous power-aphrodisiac quotient went up being around all those hunky guys. Lock up your women, Sydney, Henry’s back in town!

The women’s 4×400 was more of the same as the men’s 4×100 — the U.S. racing against the clock, everybody else racing for silver and bronze. If there was any doubt that Marion Jones is the best female athlete on the planet, she blew it away with her third leg. The woman is a sprinter, not a 400 runner, but she slammed it as hard and fast around the oval as a born quarter-miler, her amazing, flowing power giving the U.S. a lead it couldn’t lose. Considering she already has a national championship for basketball under her belt, and now owns five Olympic medals, she may want to take up something new — NFL wide receiver, perhaps, or striker for Manchester United.

And finally, it was Michael Johnson’s farewell race. The greatest 400-meter runner in history — one of the greatest runners in history — was going to anchor the 4×400 relay, end the track and field events at the stadium and bring his Olympic career to a close. It was the last time an Olympic crowd would get to thrill to the sight of that magnificently upright, almost backward-leaning stride, coming around the curve as implacably as death or taxes.

There he came, taking the last baton far ahead of the field and doing what he does better than anyone in the world ever has, not letting up, motoring down the homestretch through a sea of exploding flashbulbs. We shouted, we screamed, wanting him to win but wanting somehow to prolong those 44 seconds that would never happen again. I took a picture of him crossing the line, far below me, so that I too would have a piece of the True Cross. And then there was the joyous mob of runners, the flags, the photographers, the posing and Michael Johnson headed off around the track.

But he didn’t run, he walked, walked slowly along the stands, shaking as many hands as he could. Everybody wanted to touch him, congratulate him, be near him. He walked for a long time, reaching into the sea of hands and arms, smiling, savoring the moment. And when the champion finally turned away, they were still reaching out of the stands and calling his name, wanting the benediction of greatness.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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