King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Olympics: And so it ends. Now we begin filing the memories: Let's see, Phelps, hoops, drugs, two Hamms, empty seats and a nutcase at the marathon. Plus: Dee-fense!

By Salon Staff
Published August 30, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

I miss the Olympics already.

Watching Jim Lampley sign off Sunday afternoon after that crazy men's marathon finish, or even as I listened to Bob Costas' farewell after having fast-forwarded through most of the Closing Ceremonies, I felt like summer camp had ended. I couldn't believe that when I woke up Monday morning I wouldn't have six hours' worth of rowing, shooting, badminton, tae kwan do and beach volleyball to catch up on.

I can't say I enjoyed every moment of the Athens Games, and as the 70-hour days ground on and took their toll on various body parts, there were times when I hated them. But you can't spend two weeks watching such a huge collection of athletes competing in what for many is a do-or-die event and not have moments of awe and wonder. A lot of them. More, in fact, for me than there were moments of "I have such a pain at the base of my neck and my God is there another rowing heat?!"

Everyone who spends much time with an Olympics comes up with a little list of unforgettable moments, images that will pop to mind whenever those Games are mentioned in the future.

The few that enough people agree on become the indelible images from those Games, particularly if the media helps with the remembering. So we Americans get Edwin Moses flying over a hurdle in Los Angeles, maybe that side shot of the outdoor diving platform in Barcelona, Flo-Jo burning up the track in Seoul.

I have my list from Athens and I'm sure it's different from everybody else's, a mix of what I'm interested in, what country I grew up in, what NBC and its hench-networks decided to show me and, maybe least of all, what happened.

The mental slide show is hundreds of images long, but there are highlights, from the torpid look on the faces of the U.S. men's basketball team as they got smoked by Puerto Rico in the opener to the sight of a religious nut dressed as an elf jumping onto the course and pushing marathon leader Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil into the crowd.

It includes Michael Phelps, shot from head on, pulling up to breathe as he swims the butterfly, already my enduring mental image of him, thanks to NBC. Gary Hall Jr., in a stars-and-stripes boxing robe and trunks, clenching his fists on both sides of his head like a movie champ. Natalie Coughlin sticking her tongue between her teeth as she smiles the smile that will soon have her hosting youth-oriented TV shows, the kind where the camera zooms in and out for no reason while she's talking.

There's Shawn Crawford talking to Justin Gatlin as the two Americans cross the finish line in a 100-meter heat, and then Gatlin, having won the final, skipping around with a dazed smile on his face, trying to figure out what to do, and finally dropping to his knees in the phoniest prayer gesture I have ever seen. There's the general youth movement in American sprinting, especially Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams, gold medals for dominant U.S. women's basketball and softball teams, and one last win for the women's soccer team that put a soccer ball under your daughter's bed.

But all the images aren't of Americans. There's Fani Halkia of Greece electrifying the home crowd with an out-of-nowhere gold in the 400 meters. Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, whom people who know about such things often call the greatest middle-distance runner of all time, finally winning the 1,500-meter gold that had eluded him in Atlanta and Sydney, and doing it in one of the most incredible finishes I've ever seen.

Leading at the final turn, he'd been passed on the home stretch by Kenyan Bernard Lagat, who looked stronger than El Guerrouj. But El Guerrouj, who looks on his best day like he needs a good hot meal, reached back and found one last piece of coal to throw into the furnace. He retook the lead and crossed the line first, then collapsed to the track, kissing it. Lagat, beaten, had eased up in the last few steps. His first move after finishing was to throw his arms around El Guerrouj.

And then El Guerrouj went out and won the 5,000 also, which happens all the time. Paavo Nurmi just did it in 1924.

There's Chinese sprinter Liu Xiang winning the 110-meter hurdles, the first track medal for the country that will host the next Games, and will probably dominate the Olympics someday soon. Gal Fridman won a gold medal in the silly sport of windsurfing, but it was the first ever for Israel.

There are others, but lists get boring pretty quickly, I think, so I won't mention Paula Radcliffe and Iraqi soccer and Amir Khan, won't go on about May and Walsh, Manu Ginobili or Taufiq Hidayat.

As these Games fade into history, I think the enduring images in this country will be:

  • The oceans of empty seats that were in the background of so many events, particularly in the first week.
  • The controversy that surrounded Paul Hamm's victory in the men's gymnastics all-around and then the booing and controversy a few nights later at the individual competition. And then, only if Hamm handles his image deftly, which appears unlikely: his clutch performances both nights.
  • Phelps and his eight medals, six gold. And then, only if Phelps handles his image deftly, which appears likely: his giving up a spot in a relay final to Ian Crocker.
  • The doping scandals that served as a prelude to the Games and a recurring theme. In Greece, the withdrawal of sprinters Kostis Kenteris and Katerina Thanou after they skipped a drug test and then had a highly suspicious motorcycle crash will dominate people's memories. In the rest of the world, the memory will be of the record 23 expulsions, including a stripping of the gold medal of Russian shot-put champ Irina Korzhanenko, who had won the much-ballyhooed event at the ancient site in Olympia.
  • The improbable run of the Iraqi soccer team.
  • The bronze-medal "failure" of the (insert your favorite modifier: "lazy and shiftless," "arrogant," "poorly constructed") U.S. men's basketball team.
  • The gold medal for the aging U.S. women's soccer team, the swan song of the hugely influential core group that's been together since the early '90s, but especially Mia Hamm, who can reasonably be called the Babe Ruth of her sport.
  • The intruder at the marathon, who by Monday afternoon had already received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of $3,600 from a Greek court.

    Someone should make a movie about that Iraqi soccer team.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Defense is where it's at [PERMALINK]

    I don't want to sound like I'm making light of the scary, stupid incident that marred the marathon Sunday, when a whack job tackled leader Vanderlei de Lima to make some kind of point about the Bible, but I think it proved a point I've been trying to make for a long time: Defense is what makes sports interesting.

    The crucial element, for me, is someone facing an opponent and actively trying to stop him from doing whatever it is he's trying to do.

    I happened to have a house full of people Sunday when the marathon was on the tube, and there was a general lack of interest. One guest compared it to watching paint dry. After elf boy took out the Brazilian, everyone present spent the rest of the race riveted. Could de Lima, who had been leading but fading, hold on to win after that disruption?

    The incident was wrong and cruel and everyone wished it hadn't happened, but all of a sudden the marathon got a lot more interesting, didn't it? I doubt mine was the only house where this happened.

    I'm not saying the marathon should have linebackers trying to stop the runners. Well, I do think that. But really what I'm saying is that the genius in sports is defense.

    People who favor cycling, track and field, NASCAR or a number of other sports over baseball, football, hockey, soccer and basketball refer dismissively to the latter endeavors as "stick and ball sports." But it's not the sticks and balls. It's the direct, literally face-to-face competition.

    Those other sports are nice, all those races and routines. But if the opponents aren't facing each other, something's missing.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Hench-items [PERMALINK]

    Just one item: I've heard talk over the last two weeks that the sun still came up during the day, that baseball games were still being played, that a large American professional football league was preparing to get its season started, and that I am married and have a son.

    I'll be taking the rest of the week off to investigate these rumors. We'll talk again next Tuesday.

    Previous column: American guilt

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