Time comes full circle as some big names bow out

The Olympics are the biggest showcase of world sport, and consequently young stars come out of seemingly nowhere to make an immediate and indelible splash. Here we are not even speaking of people like Michael Phelps, 19, who already rocked the swimming world at last year’s world championships with a slew of world records, much less of Ian Thorpe, a veteran of the pool at age 21. How about 16-year-old Carly Patterson, who won the women’s all-round gymnastics gold? Or 15-year-old Hungarian swimmer Daniel Gyurta, who beat world recordholder Brendan Hansen to the silver in the 200-meter breaststroke? Or Lauryn Williams, a 20-year-old collegian who took silver in the women’s 100 meters on Saturday evening after leading halfway through? For those on the lee slope of their careers, however, Olympics appearances have an altogether different meaning. Even if they have no intention of immediate retirement, many have to believe that they can’t, or won’t, remain in top shape for the next round; Beijing 2008 seems so very far away. And success after 30, when family or work obligations impinge, injuries take longer to heal and doubts creep in, is a wholly different prospect. This is a last shot and there are no guarantees. Going into these Athens Olympics was a whole slew of athletes who will someday (if not already) be considered legendary, making their fourth or even fifth appearance. Martina Navratilova, a 47-year-old tennis legend who retired from singles play over a decade ago and played doubles here, losing in the quarterfinals, is the standout example, even though her career was built outside the Olympics. Some manage to get deserved and warm applause, notably Greek lifter Pyrros Dimas, who took bronze for his fourth medal in four Olympics, and soaked in a standing ovation for a good 10 minutes in the Nikaia Olympic hall, which could just as well be called «the house that Pyrros built,» such has been his impact on the sport in Greece. Others fade a bit more abruptly and poignantly, but still gracefully. Friday night was one such time, when, in the 10,000-meter run, the Ethiopian great Haile Gebrselassie, once with the greatest kick in the world, going for his third straight gold, faded in the last third of the race and finished fifth. Even in the media area you could sense people silently pulling for the charismatic African with a perennial smile as he faded slightly mid-race, then pulled gamely back to third, only to be bested by younger talent in the final laps. His compatriot, Kenenisa Bekele, blitzed the field with a 53.02-second final lap that had even watchers gasping. Yet the 31-year-old Gebrselassie joined his gold-and-silver-earning compatriots in the celebratory lap. He’ll now be running the marathon, though not in Athens. In the pool, 31-year-old Jenny Thompson interrupted her medical studies to return for one last shot at an individual gold after retiring from her sport; she has eight, but all in relays. She fell short, but there is no dishonor for her; after all, she picked up medals 11 and 12 in relays this past week. Or how about Russia’s Alexander Popov, at 32 now in his fourth Olympics as well, and so associated with them that he was the second runner to carry the torch at the Olympic Flame-lighting ceremony back in March? He won a unique 50m/100m freestyle double in 1992 and 1996, remains in amazing shape (he regained both world titles just last year), yet failed to qualify for the finals of either race at Athens. And on the track, Gail Devers, another veteran of 1992 (she was the one who fell, enabling Greece’s Voula Patoulidou to win the 100-meter hurdles that year), did not qualify for the 100-meter finals. There was another heartbreaker in that race as well; Merlene Ottey, now 44 and, eye-poppingly, at her seventh Olympics – and representing her second and adopted country, Slovenia, rather than her first, Jamaica – raced solidly but came a step short, in ninth place, just out of the final. Remarkably, back in 1997 at Athens’s world championships, she was already one of the oldest runners. She has been chasing her ninth Olympics medal but first gold; and with such an astonishing streak, who knows if she’s finished even now? The same fate befell Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks, 37, silver medalist in 1992 and 1996, who won his first heat but didn’t make the semifinals. Yet the fact that someone could remain so swift for so long – and still so hungry to keep it going – is almost miraculous. Surely that sort of track record is at least as impressive as a more-medaled but shorter career. In beach volleyball, a pair in their mid-30s in this youthful sport is playing the best of their careers, Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs; McPeak had two Olympics dashed when her playing partners got hurt, but still burns with intensity. At the Olympics, breadth of commitment, and ability to draw on wiles and experience rather than just brute force or speed, is often just as noteworthy as singular or rapid-fire achievement. And just being there, as an Olympian for a final go, is prize enough for some, whether they’ve won a dozen medals or are still seeking that elusive first.

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