Nothing can quite prepare you for the Olympics. Ordinary life just doesn't have this endless, unrelenting intensity. And so after the 20th nerve-wracking emotional climax of the day, the 100th of the week, you begin to shut down. You have to. It's only athletics, you tell yourself: only a bunch of people running, jumping and swimming. Get a grip. Stop turning a defeat in a softball game into a grand metaphor for the human condition. Strip away the sentimental-historical trappings -- the Greek stuff, the flame, the French, the solemn processions, the grandiose ceremonies, the music -- and what is this but a big world-invitational track meet held every four years?
That's what you tell yourself. You vow to be a cold-eyed observer. And then you walk back into the Olympic Park and watch a medal ceremony, and your lips start trembling again.
What is it about Olympic medal ceremonies that is so moving? I have seen dozens of them now over two Olympics, not to mention the hundreds I've seen on TV through the years, and I never get tired of them. Nor does anyone else. When the medal ceremonies are announced, the vast crowd in the Olympic Stadium falls silent.
I think the appeal of the medal ceremony goes beyond athletics. It answers a fundamental need we have to honor excellence -- a need that goes largely unmet in our public lives. As a society, we don't award prizes -- all we have are superficial glitterfests like the Academy Awards, or specialized awards like the Pulitzer Prize. The closest thing are medals for military valor and the Nobel Prize, but they don't have the universal appeal of an Olympic medal.
An Olympic medal honors the victors in a contest. This is important. By honoring the victors, we pay tribute to everything that victory means -- triumph over one's opponent, over the world, over oneself. To win in a contest against mighty opponents is to have fully realized one's potential -- and that deed honors all of humanity. That's why in honoring victory, we also honor the losers: without their great efforts, the victory would mean nothing. Achilles would not be Achilles without Hector. That's why it's so important that three medals, not just one, are given out -- it means that there isn't only one victor. Whatever its color, a medal commemorates what humans can do when pushed to their limits. Forget the leeching future and the haunting past, a medal says: Let's pay homage to today.
And the simple act of paying homage may be the most important thing of all. For not only do we not honor excellence in our daily lives, we don't honor anything. We have no rituals that allow us to salute our fellow humans. That's why the humility we feel during a medal ceremony is rarer than gold. Watching the athletes stand on the podium, we throw away the dross and carping chatter of our minds, quieting ourselves to a state of reverence -- you could almost say of love. It is the way a parent feels about his or her child. And sometimes, watching the happiness on the faces of the athletes on the medal stands, men and women of all colors, nationalities and backgrounds, it's impossible to resist the heart-quickening thought that they are all -- that we are all -- children of one family.
Most of those who stand on the podium feel something like this, too. At least, they feel that the moment is larger than them, as it is larger than those of us watching, and it is lovely and poignant and funny to watch them trying to come to terms with that fact.
At the Olympic Stadium Wednesday night, three faces stood out on the victory stand. I remember them because the moment seemed to strip each of them to who they were, all the way down -- so that 100,000 people looking at the huge screen in the stadium, and millions more around the world, could see something on their faces that only their parents, or lovers, had ever seen.
The first face was that of Kazakhstan hurdler Olga Shishigina, who won the 100-meter hurdles. On the track she looked tough and dauntless, but on the stand a completely different person emerged. Shishigina had the deepest, most soulful eyes, like those of a little girl waiting to take first communion. The poetry of the moment did not escape her: It seemed to float above her, and she was content to shyly watch it, like a timid forest creature or a saint to whom a blessed vision had appeared.
Then there was Germany's Nils Schumann, who won the 800 meters in a split-second upset over the great Danish runner Wilson Kipketer. Schumann seemed overwhelmed by what he had done, and as he stood on the stand, he kept rubbing the bridge of his nose, with an expression on his face that looked almost sad. Maybe some emotions are so great that they take the form of their opposites.
And finally, there was American hurdler Angelo Taylor, who won the 400-meter hurdles. Under his cornrows Taylor had the sweetest, most innocent face, and as he stood waiting to receive his medal, constantly changing expressions of naive wonder and childlike surprise and utter joy flitted across it. After the ceremony he fumbled to pose correctly with the other runners, a young man who found himself suddenly on the biggest stage in the world and didn't know quite what to do. He was every American's kid, and we were as proud of his innocence and his confusion and his decency as we were of his feat on the track. I was, anyway.
And the American national anthem played, and we all stood in respect, as we do for every anthem. Angelo Taylor stood there. And looking at his shining face, I remembered a line from Dylan Thomas' "A Child's Christmas in Wales": "I mean that the bells the children could hear were inside of them."