Winners, losers and others
From the word go, these Olympic Games, which were brought to a rousing, musical finale late on Sunday evening in the centerpiece main stadium, seemed poised to give their highest priority and news coverage to what went on out of the arena. The preparatory rush remained center stage until late, fewer world records were broken than in some past Games, and more spirits and careers broken because of positive doping tests or missed tests. Yet in the end it was sport that prevailed, which is as it should be. All too soon, it will fade from memory, with only wrap-up DVDs and photo compilations to preserve the action. Here is a categorical wrap-up, or at least a wrap-up by quirky category, from one set of eyes and ears. Perseverance rewarded. It is hard not to start with Hicham el-Guerrouj of Morocco, arguably the greatest ever middle-distance male runner, who had been thwarted at two previous Olympics in his bid for Olympic gold despite utterly dominating his specialty, the 1,500 meters, seemingly forever. This time he was not to be denied, pulling away in the home stretch to win the Games’ traditionally signature event. Having waited for three Olympics for his first gold, he got his second within days, after a textbook 5,000-meter race, something never done since 1924. His wins justified those who believe in effort rewarded, and his unbridled happiness afterward a tonic for jaded souls everywhere. Kelly Holmes parallels him effort-wise. The British runner, the oldest ever female 1,500-meter winner at 34, had already added the 800 meters for a rare double after years of injury and frustration. Excellence underscored. Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski, hands down the greatest race-walker in history, won the longest race in athletics, the 50-kilometer walk, for the third Olympics in succession on Friday. Nobody else has gained more than one in this punishing event. No photo finish was required; the 36-year-old won with over four minutes to spare. Brazil made its mark in Athens, notably by winning both the men’s beach volleyball and its indoor version, but nobody more than its Toren Grael, 44, who became the first sailor to win five Olympic medals. Birgit Fischer, 42, came out of retirement to rejuvenate not just the German team but her entire sport of kayaking. Some 24 years after winning her first gold in Moscow in 1980, she took another, her eighth, at Schinias in the four-person team event after a stirring comeback. On Saturday she came close to her ninth, settling for silver. Korea’s Sung Hyun Park, the prohibitive favorite, duly won the women’s archery gold, though with a tight final match against compatriot Sung Jin Lee. Justine Henin-Hardenne, the world’s No. 1 tennis player from Belgium, prevailed in the women’s draw after being sidelined much of the year by a viral infection. Her semifinal win over Russia’s Anastasia Myskina, after being down 5-1 in the third set, was one of these Games’ most stirring comebacks. US women’s team sports remain powerhouses. Its softball team plowed the opposition under by a total score of 51-1, to win their third straight Olympic gold medal. Their soccer-playing compatriots, who helped put their sport into the Olympics, went out in a blaze of glory too, though after a much tougher fight, and the women’s basketball team also won their third gold in a row and fifth in total in the last seven Olympics. China stamped its domination on diving, winning six gold medals of eight, and the same in table tennis too, with three of four. The Japanese dominated their traditional sport of judo despite tough world competition, winning eight of 14. Greece’s Nikos Kaklamanakis, who lit the Olympic cauldron after the Kenteris fallout and then had to wait nearly two weeks for his decisive Mistral race, staged an improbable comeback to claim the silver to Israel’s first-ever gold medal, by Gal Fridman. The 1996 gold medalist at Atlanta has been a world-class windsurfer since the 1980s. And how about Pyrros Dimas? Bearing crushing expectations for a fourth gold yet going through knee surgery this year then injuring his wrist two weeks before the Games, he mustered the strength to win a medal again, this time a bronze. He then soaked in the adulation of a grateful nation as the other two (higher) medalists shuffled their feet and studied the ceiling.