Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Fast: A Recollection.

On the eve of the Summer Olympics in London, allow me a reminiscence on falling in love with the summer games, forgotten sprinters, and the word "fast."

I have no idea where this disparity came from, but at some point early on in childhood I attached myself to the idea that the Winter Olympics are much more enjoyable than their summer counterpart.  Maybe I found the aesthetics of snow and ice superior to those of grass and water and whatever composite they make tracks out of.  Maybe it was harder to focus on the Summer Games since, you know, it was summer and there was driveway wiffle ball to be played.  Since I was six years old or whatever, I can't be sure of my cognitive and emotional process, but I suspect the primary component in my decision was speed.  Humans can run, swim, and bike pretty damn fast.  However, they can ski, skate, luge, and bobsled faster still, gravity being the uniquely helpful mistress that she is.  There is something about a person moving at a velocity usually reserved for big league fastballs that is inherently visceral and compelling.  The blur of national colors, the flail of poles, and the slap-whoosh of a skier whipping tightly around a gate faster than the camera can track is the sort of shock-and-awe inducer that can't really be replicated on foot (or without hiring Michael Bay's CGI folks).  To my tiny childhood brain, the Winter Games were simply faster, and therefore more entertaining.  1996 changed that.  

I was fortunate enough to attend quite a few events at the Atlanta Summer Olympics.  For two weeks, my home city was a miasma of bustle and fervor and even-more-horrendous-than-usual traffic.  Being in the middle of it all was a total rush, and most of my memories reflect that racing, whirring lack of specificity.  But a few moments still resonate clearly in my mind.

Getting trapped on a stalled MARTA train with the Romanian water polo team.  They were resplendent in their matching shiny tracksuit thingies, laughing and joking with the passengers in broken english about how ungodly hot it is in Atlanta in summer, which first of all: no sh*t, and second: why were they wearing full-on track suits in that heat?  They were a gregarious and endearing bunch, though.  I was bummed when they got trounced in the first round of competition.  

Standing in the Morehouse gym and watching USA Basketball kick the snot out of Arvydas Sabonis and the eventual bronze medal Lithuanian team.  Seeing that much elite basketball talent up close and all at once was like a religious experience for my 14-year-old, hoops-addicted self.  Just an incredible night. 

Fun tangent: did you remember that Mitch Richmond was on that iteration of the Dream Team?  I didn't until I looked them up.  Honestly, his name looks a little out of place on the roster next to Stockton, Barkley, The Admiral, Dream, Shaq, Pippen, etc.  For whatever reason, Richmond never commanded that "legendary" aura for me in the same manner as the other guys on that squad, but perusing his career numbers (6X All-Star, 5X All-NBA Team, ROY, 21 PPG, 45.5%FG / 38.8%3FG / 85.0%FT career shooting splits, over 20,000 career points) it appears I was short changing the guy a little.  My bad, Mitch.  

Back to the concept of speed, and my most vivid recollection of the summer: through a family friend, we somehow acquired tickets to the July 29 track-and-field slate of events at what would later become Turner Field.  Running that night in the 400 m finals was a man whose name you've probably forgotten unless you're a big track fan (but which you'll instantly recognize once I jog your memory. ... pun intended.): Michael Johnson.  Johnson was the hyped track athlete that year, having demolished the 200 m World Record in the Olympic trials, and everyone expected him to perform well.  Johnson had an odd, upright running style.  Rather than the powerful fluidity of a Usain Bolt, he looked like footage of a Terminator sped up to 1,000 frames-per-second.  (And I mean the clunky, lumbering contraption from the original movie, not any of the smoother-functioning next generation models.)  There was no grace in Johnson's stride, just a piston-like explosiveness that translated into ungodly propulsion. 

As the runners settled into the blocks, you could feel a collective tension shrink the entire stadium down to the singular focal point of Michael Johnson and his totally boss gold shoes.  Then this happened:

Dude flat smoked everyone else.  As he broke away down the stretch, (seriously, look at the building-sized swath of daylight between him and silver medalist Roger Black!), the stadium erupted in delirium.  We knew we were witnessing history being crafted right in front of us by a man who was exploding what "fast" meant and replacing it with something else entirely.  I have seen a handful of transcendent sports moments live in my lifetime, but this was the iconic flash that defined that two weeks for me*, and really the instant that killed my Winter Olympics bias and turned the Summer Games into something more than two weeks of watching the greatest basketball team in the world obliterate everyone else.  Ever since then, no matter how busy and convoluted my life gets, I make it a point to watch all the Olympic track events I possibly can.  Men's, women's, hurdles, relays, sprints, whatever.  These people, they know from fast.   

*Here's how strongly that moment impressed itself upon me: that was also the night that Carl Lewis, at a miraculous 35 years of age, took home his fourth Olympic gold medal in the long jump.  One of the greatest athletes ever by any measure put a beautiful and truly epic capstone on his career, I witnessed it in person, and it still somehow wound up being my second-favorite moment of the night and the games.  The long jump is cool and all, and Lewis' performance was incredible, ... but it wasn't fast.   

Of course, there is the memory we wish we could forget, too.  I recall arriving home late one night (actually early morning on July 27, according to the internet) from a day wondering around Centennial Olympic Park and all the various surrounding attractions and flipping on ESPN to see how the Braves had done, only to see terrible footage of the park bombing, which we hadn't heard about because it happened while we were driving home.  As it turned out, we had been standing mere feet from where the bomb was placed about twenty minutes before the detonation, and we only left because mom and my cousin were tired.  It was eerie and horrible and hollow-feeling, a reminder of our own impermanence and that even something as big as the Olympics is small in reality.  Everything I just spent time fondly recounting doesn't matter a jot compared to that bomb going off.

Except, of course, in the odd way that it does.  Michael Johnson gave us a luminous breath, a glimpse of what we're capable of when we bring our utmost skill and timing and focus to bear upon a moment.  Usain Bolt did the same in 2008, and he may do so again.  If not, it will be somebody else.  Dawn Harper or Lashawn Merritt or perhaps some other, heretofore unheralded speedster.  Either way, I can't wait.

Faster, higher, stronger, as the motto goes.  I'll take faster any day.     

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