Grand, joyous finale

At the closing of the Olympics, the spirit of human striving -- impervious to time and its losses -- burns strong on athletes' faces.

Topics: Olympics,

I thought about trying to get into the closing ceremony last night, but the tickets were something like 500 euros ($600), and even though one probably could have picked up a ticket from a scalper at the venue for less, I passed. I went to the closing ceremony in Sydney, Australia, and although it was a warm and sentimental farewell and it was great to see all the athletes we’d been watching for the past 16 days milling around together on the field, watching the Aussie Pop Stars’ Greatest Hits Revue was not worth dropping half a grand on, and I had a feeling the same thing would hold true for the Greek Pop Stars’ Greatest Hits Revue. So instead I went over to the apartment of one of the new friends I’ve made here and watched the show on TV with a group of Brits and Greeks. It turns out that closing ceremonies are even less compelling on the tube than they are in person. It was, however, amusing to listen to the jeers and catcalls the Greeks directed at certain pop stars they inexplicably had it in for.

Or maybe not inexplicably. How do you say “Engelbert Humperdinck” in Greek?

The real end of the Games was not the closing ceremony but the men’s marathon, which finished under an exquisite mauve twilight sky at the majestic Panathinaiko Stadium. The vast oval stadium, much narrower than modern stadiums and very steep, was built in 1896 on the site of an ancient stadium, right in the heart of Athens. It felt festive and benedictory, walking with tens of thousands of Athenians through the National Garden, a rare oasis of green in this teeming brown- and white- and terra-cotta-colored city, to watch the traditional final event of the Olympics. For those Greeks who hadn’t made it out to any events yet, this was the perfect opportunity to see the grand finale, and tickets were only 10 euros.

As we walked around the stadium, big screens showed that the leader, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, was leading by about half a minute. Suddenly there was a commotion on the screen; someone appeared to have run out, grabbed Lima and pushed him into the crowd. The whole stadium buzzed. When Lima reappeared a few seconds later, the place erupted in applause. But soon thereafter he was caught and passed, first by Italy’s Stefano Baldini, then by Mebrahtom Keflezighi of the United States. There was much talk about whether the bizarre incident had cost Lima the lead.

Minutes later, the screen showed Baldini approaching the stadium. An anticipatory rumble came from the crowd. And there he was, a tiny figure in white, running into the huge stadium. The roars and cheers cascaded down as he made his way around the track, near the end of the race that commemorates the mythical run of Pheidippides, who after the great Athenian victory over the Persians supposedly ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens in full armor, said “Nenikikamen” (“We won”) and dropped dead on the spot. Another version of the story names the runner as one Eukles, who said “Have joy as we have” before dying.

Every Olympics is haunted and elevated by history, by the deeds of all the Olympians who have come before. And these Athenian Games, held in the land that first glorified athletics, that first gave them pride of place in festivals that expressed the Greeks’ concept of what humankind could be, were gloriously haunted not just by athletic history but by history itself. Ghosts of ancient red and black figures on vases: That sprinter in lane eight carried a baton wielded by a nameless athlete who died 2,500 years ago. And as Baldini crossed the finish line and the roars of the crowd poured down, it was hard not to imagine the ghost of the legendary Pheidippides running with him.

“Have joy as we have”: The words express the Olympic spirit far better than “We won.” The ancient Greek concept of agon, or noble rivalry, can only be understood in combination with the twin notions of Tyche (the goddess fortune) and Kairos (opportunity, depicted as winged). For the Greeks, to seize one’s opportunity, to grapple not just with an equal opponent but with Fortune, was to affirm what it means to be human. Victory is the goal, but the struggle is the essence.

Retiring American soccer player Mia Hamm, who was chosen to carry the flag Sunday, echoed this when she said, “It’s not about the medal; it’s about the journey.”

So did the greatest modern Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy, in his poem “Ithaka,” which takes as its point of departure the Greek hero who is the archetype of human striving.

“As you set out for Ithaka / hope your road is a long one, / full of adventure, full of discovery.

“… Hope your road is a long one. / May there be many summer mornings when, / With what pleasure, what joy, / You enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time.

“… Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. / Without her you wouldn’t have set out. / She has nothing left to give you now. / And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. / Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / You’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”

In that spirit, here are some of the discoveries, the new harbors, that the Olympic journey offered over the past two weeks.

Brazil’s great volleyball player, Gilberto Godoy Filho– “Giba” — with his Fu Manchu mustache and pirate captain’s spirit, leaping with blazing eyes over a table and running high into the stands to embrace and kiss a friend after Brazil defeated Italy to win the gold.

High-jump champion Yelena Slesarenko gleefully, disbelievingly skipping up onto the top rung of the medal podium, her face lit up from within, like a little girl who wakes up early on Christmas morning and remembers what day it is.

The unknown Swiss mountain bike racer sobbing uncontrollably by the side of the road, heedless of passing spectators, his face buried in his hands, being comforted by a woman.

The four Americans in the 400-meter relay as they successively came around the turn 15 yards away, flashing images of power and grace and utter purposefulness, their faces seen in the binoculars stripped of everything inessential, as beautiful and blank as Cycladic statues.

Yelena Isinbayeva, her mouth open in ecstasy as she dropped down over the pole vault bar, having gambled everything and won everything.

The frenzied face of Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang as he half-flew, half-stumbled across the line in the 110 meters, tying the world record and announcing a new era in world athletics.

The great from-the-gut roar of national pride that echoed through Olympic Stadium as Greek triple jumper Hrysopiyi Devetzi landed in the pit and leaped up, clenching her fists, with the longest jump of her career. And the three marvelously different types of joy visible on the medal platform later, with Russian winner Tatyana Lebedeva as tender as a lover, Devetzi ebullient and energized, Cameroonian Francoise Mbango Etone as gracious as a goddess. Any Paris with half a brain would give the golden apple to all of them.

Ezekiel Kemboi, leading his two Kenyan countrymen in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, half-turning and making a “Come on” gesture to them as they came out of the water jump, making sure that his brothers in black, red and green would join him on the victory stand.

Spain’s pole-vaulter Dana Cervantes, in one of those countless unnoticed moments of Olympic courage, trying to jump with an injured back, grimacing in pain, failing on her final attempt and then weeping bitterly, forgotten in a corner as other competitors, still alive, moved blithely around her.

Morocco’s Hicham El-Guerrouj, the world-record holder in the 1,500 meters, falling to the track and kissing it after holding off Kenya’s Bernard Lagat to finally win the Olympic gold he had been denied twice.

American guard Dawn Staley, vaunting like Muhammad Ali, drinking in the moment and talking the talk after her fiery play had inspired a torpid U.S. team to rally for the gold medal in basketball against Australia.

The tears that unexpectedly welled up in my eyes as the American women’s soccer team took the field against Brazil and I suddenly found myself watching not grown women, some of them with their own children, but transparent ghosts through which I watched my own 7-year-old daughter and her friends, awkward in their little shorts, chasing the ball that Hamm and Fawcett and Chastain and Lilly and Foudy had kicked far ahead for them to chase, and catch, and kick ahead again.

These are some of the moments that the Olympic odyssey is about. The joy of victory and the pain of defeat will never be forgotten, but something else endures, as a consolation to victor and vanquished alike: the memory of striving, of human endeavor. That memory does not change; it is impervious to time and its losses.

John Keats, dying of tuberculosis at age 26, sought comfort in an ancient Greek urn. “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; / Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss / Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

For me, and for all of the athletes at these magnificent Athens Games, whether they came in first or last, and all of the rest of humanity who watched their deeds, the beauty of the human spirit shown in the Olympics is its truth: That is all we know on Earth, and all we need to know.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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