It is a competition built on an ideal; thank goodness for it.
It is peace, and it is honor, and it is integrity, mixed with interlocking rings and the sounds of national anthems. It is the world at play, and the world as it works. It is the Olympics, and still, it matters.
I have covered 10 of these Games (six of them Summer Games), from Barcelona to Athens, from Sydney to Atlanta, from Beijing to London. And now, as another Games begins, the memories flow. From Tonya Harding to Nancy Kerrigan, from Dan Jansen to Tommy Lasorda, from Michael Phelps to Carl Lewis, from Nicole Haislett to Michael Jordan.
I met the great Nelson Mandela at an Olympics, where I asked him how he knew when a sports boycott worked to fight apartheid, and when he believed it was time to come back. I watched Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking, light an Olympic torch. I covered Greg Louganis with blood in the water. I covered the original Dream Team.
And I fell in love.
The Olympics are not perfect. This country is always mad at that one, and this athlete won’t compete against the other one. But for three weeks, the world mostly gets along. Athletes stand on podiums and wrap themselves in flags.
These are not the mainstay sports of our country. I would suggest that most of us aren’t going to watch volleyball and team handball and gymnastics next weekend. But there is a purity to the games, a joy in watching a hammer thrower who may spend years trying to improve his finish from 18th to 14th. Over the years, the Games became more commercialized, and the athletes became more and more professional, and much of the heart of the Olympics faded. But it was still the Olympics. It was still magical.
You know what I loved about the Olympics> The stories. There have never been so many stories. A young Jennifer Capriati, still innocent, winning gold. Dan Jansen, signaling to the heavens and his late sister. Christine Witty, brave enough to talk about the abuse she suffered as a child. Sauro Toma, the keeper of the Wall of Death and the plane crash that had taken most of his soccer teammates. Phelps as he conquered China. Natalie du Toit, an opener-water swimmer with only one leg. Oscar Pistorius, the runner with none. (Who later became a murderer).
There was Amy van Dyken, who won golds in Atlanta and proclaimed that this one “was for all the nerds.” There was Kerri Strug, vaulting on a leg she thought was broken. Cathy Freeman, the Aboriginal who lit the torch in Australia. There was Michael Johnson and his 19:32 over 200 meters. There was the incomparable FloJo. Tommy Lasorda, who struck up the stars and stripes after beating Cuba for the gold in Sydney.
I liked it all, except for the tiny dorm rooms you slept in for weeks at a time, except for the endless bus rides. Overall, I had a blast. I saw the Northern Lights. I saw Bondi Beach. I saw the Great Wall of China. And I saw athletes deliver under pressure.
Moment after moment, the Olympics built like a giant relay race.
In the end, everyone won. Me especially.