Well, this wraps up our Olympics. We hope you enjoyed it. We now go into our secret laboratory to work out the final details for Sports On Earth, which will be launching in just a few weeks. In the meantime, you can find me back at my old blog, JoePosnanski.blogspot.com.
LONDON — When I was a kid, I didn’t like reading much. Oh, I enjoyed reading about sports — Matt Christopher, Alfred Slote, “The Kid Who Batted 1.000,” that sort of thing — but it was the sports part that interested me, not the reading. The other reading was a chore.
The first book I remember loving for the words, for the reading itself, was “Catcher in the Rye.” And the section that spurred it was when Holden Caulfield talked about how, when he left the school, he wanted to find a goodbye. Something about that clicked in me. I’ve always been the sort of person who finds it hard to stay in the moment. My parents often tell me that when we used to go to someplace cool, like an amusement park, I would inevitably say something like, “But what are we going to do tomorrow?”
This is why, at every Olympics, I try not to leave without finding a goodbye, a moment that I can carry with me. It’s more than a memory. It might not be the best moment of the Olympics. It might not be the most touching moment or the most telling moment. It’s something that stays with me, that helps me remember the Olympics, what it was like and, like Hemingway said, how the weather was.
In Atlanta, my goodbye was the memory of Michael Johnson tearing around the turn in the 200, that second or two when he came out of the turn in the lead and moved faster than anyone ever had before.
In Sydney, my favorite moment by far was Rulon Gardner winning gold, but my goodbye was walking along the bridge at Darling Harbour and having a huge athlete, filled with overwhelming joy, come up to a group of us, to let us wear his silver medal.
In Athens, my goodbye was the day I spent in Olympia, where they held the ancient Games. There was something haunting and beautiful about that place.
In Beijing, the goodbye was a bit different, a bit of perspective. It was the day I spent playing table tennis in the park. The moment I remember most was noticing that I was the only one who held the paddle with what I guess is called the “shake hands grip”; everyone else held it upside down. I told our interpreter, Linjun Fan, that I was the only person who “holds the paddle regular.” She started laughing hysterically. “Oh,” she said, “so YOUR style is regular?”
It’s the billion people, apparently, whose style is irregular.
The London goodbye was the toughest one yet. This was an overwhelming Games; I have never left an Olympics feeling so drained. Everything was bold and in such bright colors. Take Michael Phelps: We’ve been following him forever it seems. But this was different. He proved, on the first day, that he was not the same invincible swimmer he had been in Beijing, when he won eight gold medals. He finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley — the first time since he was 15 that he not medaled in an Olympic race. Later, he would barely lose his first international 200-meter butterfly race in a decade.
But it turned out that these small signs of imperfection made him more interesting, not less. In Beijing, he was this machine, this invincible superhero, and even though some of the races were close and spellbinding, the end result seemed assured. In London, though, Phelps was recognizably human, fighting age (even at 27), and that made it electrifying to watch him beat his rival, Ryan Lochte, in the 200-meter individual medley, to see him beat his man to the wall in 100-meter butterfly, to swim so brilliantly in the United States’ majestic relays. In Beijing, he was Superman. In London, he was a legendary athlete reaching deep into himself one more time before saying goodbye.
In a different way, that’s what beach volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walshdid, as they won their third consecutive gold medal, this one on sand spread out a short walk away from 10 Downing Street, with Big Ben in the background. This one was very different from their first two golds. They did not come in as the favorites this time, and they lost their first set together in Olympic competition. Walsh is a mother now, and May-Treanor is retiring, and so they both looked around a bit, tried to take it all in, the way people do when they know it’s almost over. To also win gold … extraordinary.
Well, it was an extraordinary Olympics for women. That was one of the big themes of these Games. For the first time, every country that sent a team to the Olympics sent a female athlete. For the first time, women boxed at the Olympics. Heptathlete Jessica Ennis captured the imagination and joy of Britain when she won gold.
Closer to home, the women won 29 of America’s 46 gold medals. What was especially cool was that the U.S. women were at their best in groups. Of those 29 golds, 11 were won by teams of women, whether it was the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, winning another gold medal in doubles, or the women’s eight winning gold in rowing. The U.S. women won four relays — two in track, two in swimming — and two of those were world records. The women’s soccer team again captured the nation’s imagination on the way to gold. The women won America’s first gold in water polo since 1904, and that gold was slightly undermined by the fact that only three teams entered the competition — all American teams.
And, really, the most dominant team at the Olympics Games – any sport, any gender — was all but overlooked in the United States because they have been so dominant for so long. While people still mechanically call the U.S. men’s basketball team the “Dream Team,” the U.S. women’s hoops team won its fifth straight gold medal, and won it with such ease that a 13-point victory over Australia in the semifinal was by far the closest game. While the U.S. men needed some late heroics to hold off Spain in the gold-medal match, the U.S. women destroyed France by 36.
It was an Olympics, like all Olympics, of extraordinary performance. Kenyan David Rudisha’s 800-meter world record was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. He basically ran as fast as he could around a track … twice. Amazing. So was the extraordinary wrestling performance of Jordan Burroughs. Watching Gabby Douglas win the gymnastics all-around with such joy, and watching a British crowd bring home Mo Farah in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and listening to team handball legend Olafur Stefansson talk about what sports really mean, and sitting in wonder as an entire stadium sang “Hey Jude” with Sir Paul McCartney. I will never forget any of that.
But none of them was quite the goodbye I was looking for.
In the end, I settled on a split second. The most electrifying athlete of these games — of any games, probably — was (of course) Usain Bolt. Well, there was a split second toward the end of the 4×100 relay on the last night of track and field that stays with me. You might remember it. It was the second that Bolt was handed the baton by Yohan Blake so he could run the anchor leg. And at that same second, American Tyson Gay was handing off the baton to Ryan Bailey.
Bailey had been noticeable at these Games. He’s fairly new to the international sprinting scene. He’s just 23, and he started very late in life. He did not run track until he was a sophomore in high school, and even then he wasn’t much interested. He grew up in a single-parent home, his father wasn’t around and his stepfather was in prison. It was a rough time — one not geared toward sprinting excellence. A track coach more or less adopted him, and Bailey began to run. His talent was off the charts. Only slowly did he start to love it.
In the qualifying heats of the 100, he ran a 9.88, the fastest time of anybody. In the final, he ran that time again, a time fast enough to have won a medal at any previous Olympics except for one: Athens, 2004, where he would have finished fourth by one-hundredth of a second. Here, in the fastest 100-meter dash ever run, it was only good for fifth. But, coaches talked about how Bailey was emerging, how his potential was unlimited, how this was only the beginning for him.
So, he and Bolt got the batons at the same time, more or less, and they began to run the final leg of the 4×100 meters. And for two seconds or so, three or four strides, they ran together. And that’s my goodbye. Those two seconds. There was the greatest sprinter who ever lived and a young man from a difficult past running together. Everyone knew that before too long Bolt would pull ahead, it was as inevitable as rain in London, and Bolt did pull ahead. Bolt raced ahead and finished off the Jamaican world record and did his famous pose for the cameras. Bailey ran fast enough that the U.S. time would have matched the OLD world record – it was faster than any American relay team has ever run.
But my goodbye is not how it ended. I like to think of that brief time when the two were together, when the excitement hit its crescendo, when the crowd was crazy with happiness, when everything else melted away except for a race between a young runner and a legend.
The legend won. This time. The young runner will try again.