The eternal flame

Like all the Olympics, the Beijing games leave us with abiding memories -- and a spark of inspiration.

Published August 25, 2008 8:30PM (EDT)

The Beijing games came to a close with the dignity and gravitas that befits the world's greatest sporting event, as Jimmy Page and Leona Lewis promised to give the world every inch of their love. Actually I think they left out that deathless line from "Whole Lotta Love," but it was still pretty hilarious, trying to figure out what the phallic ur-metal anthem of my high school years had to do with the Closing Ceremonies of the Olympics. Although if reports of the overheated libidinous behavior of the athletes at the end of every Olympics are true -- what do thousands of young men and women with perfect bodies who have just finished a competition they've been training for for four years do? -- we should be grateful that we weren't treated to "The Lemon Song."

Closing Ceremonies are always a peculiar combination of Cecil B. DeMille spectacle, athletes cutting loose and rock songs from the Paleolithic Era, and Beijing's was no exception. The Chinese may have won the most gold medals and have demonstrated that their half-inspiring, half-terrifying state-communal machine can generate thousands of perfect athletes, perfect buildings, perfect fireworks, and perfect medal-ceremony beauty queens with identical bustlines, but they need work on their pop music. "Beijing, Beijing, I love Beijing" may set Chinese President Hu Jintao's knee a-jiggling, but it ain't going to bust the charts in New York or London. In the rock finals, 235-year-old guitarist Jimmy Page won gold easily over his Chinese rivals, outdoing Dara Torres to become the oldest medalist at these games. When China becomes free, loose and crazy enough to turn out some kick-ass rock 'n' roll, it will be time to hand it the keys to the future, kick back and enjoy the Eastern age.

For me, the fun part about Olympic Closing Ceremonies isn't the spectacle, but the sight of all the athletes pouring out together onto the vast field, hamming it up and laughing and taking pictures and embracing each other and nervously making friends with other young people who have just gone through the same incredible ordeal, who have done their best, have won or lost, and are now trying to take in this strange moment of international camaraderie that only happens once every four years. It's a silly, chaotic scene, but it always moves me. For it's an image of what the world could be like, if its wars were only on the playing field and flags were only brightly colored pieces of cloth.

And looking at the athletes, at their faces now goofy and relaxed and joyous, you think of all the faces you've seen in the last 17 days. Faces of utter concentration, of determination, of high seriousness. Faces that remind you what human beings look like when everything inessential has been stripped from them. Faces like prayers. Faces that lift up your heart, and break it, and put it together again stronger than it was before. The faces of the human race. Our faces, in those secret moments when we're at our best.

A gallery of faces floats up from these blazoned past two weeks. There are the faces of victory. The exultant face of Beijing Insta-legend No. 1, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, as he shattered the world record in the 100 meters, an intoxicating triple shot of youth and cockiness and sheer, untrammeled fun. Australian 100-meter hurdler Sally McLellan after she won silver when American favorite Lolo Jones clipped the next-to-last hurdle, leaping into the air in disbelief, an electric shock of joy running through her face, leaving a memory trail in the nerves that she will carry until the day she dies. The gut-clearing roar of Beijing Insta-legend No. 2, Michael Phelps, after teammate Jason Lezak stormed back to outtouch French swimmer Alain Bernard in the 4x100 relay, every buried ounce of passion pouring out of Phelps, only his teammate's deed capable of releasing it, not his own. The sobs of French gymnast Benoit Caranobe after he won unexpected bronze in the all-around, a bronze worth more to him than some athletes' gold. The ferocious warrior face of Cuban hurdling great Dayron Robles, his sensitive-professor look gone as he clapped his hands, puffed out his chest and shouted out "Ahora! Ahora!" before destroying his competitors and the world record in the 110-meter final. The guttural, monster-mash cackle of Chinese gymnast Yang Wei after living up to the expectations of 1.3 billion people by winning the individual all-around. The radiant, childlike smiles worn by every member of the U.S. men's basketball team after they beat a brilliant Spanish team in a thriller, 12 NBA greats with monster egos and salaries who played as a team, experiencing a different and perhaps deeper satisfaction than they had ever known before.

And the faces of defeat. The devastation on the face of Chinese 10-meter platform diver Zhou Luxin after his weak final dive, followed by a brilliant effort by Australian Matthew Mitcham, cost Zhou the gold medal and a Chinese gold-medal sweep in all eight diving events. The shell-shocked face of American gymnast Alicia Sacramone after she fell for the second time in the team competition, an almost unbearable glimpse into the agony of an athlete who knows she has let herself and her teammates down. The bitter disappointment carved on the face of Chinese hurdler Liu Xie, Athens gold medalist, the second-greatest 110-meter performer in history and the pride and joy of his country, after he had to withdraw because of injury -- and the tears that flowed down the faces of thousands of ordinary Chinese people when they learned what had happened. The heart-wrenching glimpse of Lolo Jones, standing alone, her interviews now done, sobbing uncontrollably after a mistake she only made once or twice a year cost her her Olympic dream.

And the faces of sportsmanship and consolation. Chinese diver Qin Kai and Canadian diver Alexandre Despatie clasping hands after their duel was finished, that classic terse male gesture of respect, the kind that reveals that sports can be not just a game but a noble contest. Lolo Jones, who had fallen only moments before, interrupting her interview to embrace silver medalist Sally McClellan as she walked past and say, "Good job, hon." Kenyan 800-meter runner Wilfred Bungei gently approaching a disconsolate Yuri Borzakovsky after the Russian failed to qualify in the semifinals, first touching his back, then putting his right arm on Borzakovsky's, then leaning over and putting his head tenderly down next to the Russian's, the small black man comforting the tall white one.

These are some of the faces that we'll remember from these games. They're the reason we watch them. Because they show us the human striving for excellence -- and because they teach us that striving isexcellence. That's a lesson that endures after the records and medals are forgotten.

"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!" Hamlet delivered that glorious speech, the quintessential statement of Renaissance optimism, but he didn't believe it. What he really believed was this: "And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me."

Most of the time, most of us see the world the way Hamlet does. The earth is a sterile promontory, and man just an animal that wanders around on it. But there are certain things that offer a different view of what our species is capable of, and the Olympics is one of them. Past the hype and the commercialism, the drugs and the politics, you can still see him, that ancient and always renewed figure on an orange and black vase, running ahead of us, taking us with him.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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