Column flashback: Reflections on the 2004 Athens Olympics

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 27, 2004

Numerous Olympic memories are timeless

By Ed Odeven

If you could put time in a bottle, what would you put in it? I’d like to set the 2004 Summer Olympics in this container. I don’t want the excitement, the drama, the surprises and the pulse-raising performances to end.

I’m certainly no magician, but the printed word is still a magical tool, and these memories, and thousands of others I have no space to write about, will stand the test of time.

To wit:

We witnessed the U.S. women’s soccer team capture the gold medal with a scintillating 2-1 overtime triumph over Brazil Thursday. People might’ve called the University of Michigan’s famed quintet of early 1990s hoops freshmen the “Fab Five.” Sorry, folks, but the group that holds a legitimate claim to that title is the five ladies of this two-time gold medal-winning soccer squad.

Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett and Kristine Lilly have set the standard for future women’s soccer programs. They’ve won the first two Women’s World Cups and the only two Olympic golds. ‘Nuff said.

We observed the exhilarating showdown between Ian Thorpe of Australia and American Michael Phelps in the men’s 200-meter freestyle swim, a race in which The Thorpedo, a man who can’t escape his fame Down Under but has had the fortune of two productive, low-key training camps at NAU’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex in the past year, was quicker than the three fastest swimmers of all time.

We were captivated by patriotism in its rawest form — impromptu, sheer joy — as Felix Sanchez, the Dominican Republic’s 400-meter hurdle champ, captured his nation’s first-ever gold medal. And in one of the most touching moments of this Olympics, or any for that matter, we’ve seen Israeli windsurfer Gail Fridman stand on the podium this week as his country’s national anthem was played at the Olympics for the first time. Don’t tell me that moment will be forgotten, either.

We applauded as Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, aka The King of The Mile, won his first gold medal, outdueling Kenya’s Bernard Lagat in the final stretch of the 1,500. We saw true sportsmanship at its finest after the race, Lagat giving El Guerrouj a big hug. This victory also represented redemption for El Guerrouj, who has been one of the world’s top 10 athletes for some time now, but hasn’t had Lady Luck on his side at his two previous Olympics.

We pondered with amazement about just how remarkable British rower Matthew Pinsent’s accomplishment of four successive gold medals in the men’s coxless fours is. Only seven athletes have won four or more consecutive golds in their respective events, and Pinsent’s feat came down to this: 0.08 seconds. (Imagine being the best in the world by such a slim margin. Why do we love the drama of the Olympics? It’s quite simple, really. We’re seeing the entire spectrum of human emotions played out before our very own eyes.)

“Nothing touches this,” Pinsent told The Guardian, an English newspaper, about his fourth gold. How special is this man’s reputation? As Canadian Barney Williams, one of the runners-up put it, “There’s no one else I would have accepted being beaten by.” Wow.

We were moved by the stirring success of the Iraqi men’s soccer team. No one expected the squad to be in contention for a medal.

We cheered without restraint when Greece’s Fani Halkia won the gold in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. “When I entered the stadium today, I could feel it in my bones I would win,” she said later. “No matter how arrogant this may sound, it is true through and through.” (How many events in our daily lives are as glorifying in their certainty?)

We were delighted by the exploits of Jeremy Wariner, the unheralded American sprinter, who won the 400. He is, in the words of black teammate Otis Harris, “the fastest white guy I ever saw.” Surely, Wariner’s performance will inspire others to run faster.

We watched in reverence and in awe when shot-putters ambled into the stadium in ancient Olympia. It was only here where the Olympics could make a dramatic return after a layoff of some 16 centuries. Somewhere, Zeus is smiling.

We get excited every time a world record is broken. We get mad every time the International Olympic Committee strips another athlete of a medal after a failed drug test. We take the insult personally. Fortunately, these Olympics have been more about triumph than disappointment. They always are.

Finally, the Olympics are, in the words of British sailor Nick Rogers in an interview with The Guardian, a brilliant reminder of this:

“It just makes you realize that anything is possible.”

Except stopping time.

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