Liu Xiang stopped. The Olympics -- all sports, for that matter -- are about movement: Faster, higher, stronger, right? But for me the instant that will linger longest was one of absolute stillness.
Liu, China's hero of Athens and its bust in Beijing, had come to London for his Olympic rubber match. And at first it was horrible. Breaking from the blocks in his 110-meter hurdles heat, Liu, 29, struck the first hurdle with his left heel and tumbled to the track. He grabbed for his right Achilles tendon, which also had derailed his Olympic run in 2008. He then rose and hopped on his left foot into the nearest stadium tunnel.
It was over. Liu had ruptured his Achilles. But then, halfway down the tunnel, Liu stopped. He stood for an instant, perched on the one leg like a heron waiting at water's edge. You could almost hear his body screaming, "Lie down!" but see him thinking, No.
His leg hovered. A man pushing a wheelchair came rushing up, but Liu didn't want that. He pivoted 180 degrees and began hopping again. When he emerged into the stadium, the cheering rose. Liu kept hopping, wincing, gritting his teeth down the side of the 110-meter course, the one he hadn't completed at an Olympics for eight years. He veered into the center of the track, leaned over and gave the final hurdle in Lane 5 a kiss. Then he hopped across the finish line.
In all, Liu had covered about 250 meters, had been hopping on his one leg for at least 65 seconds. Hungarian hurdler Balazs Baji, who had started the heat next to him, grabbed Liu's right arm and thrust it into the air: a champion, nonetheless. That seemed about right.
In an Olympics that were a 17-day festival of hugs -- of celebration and consolation; exhaustion and exuberance; between teammates and between rivals; on the field, in the pool, on the mat and even in the stands, shared (quite properly, of course) by a royal couple -- it is the one I will remember most: a spontaneous embrace that wrapped up in its fierce and joyous grip a lifetime's worth of pain, resilience, trust and love, and, absolutely, the redemptive power of sports.
American judoka Kayla Harrison's story had gotten plenty of play before the Games: how she had been sexually abused for years by her coach before finding the courage as a teenager to testify against him, sending him to prison; how she had moved -- still fragile and angry -- from Ohio to Massachusetts to live and train with famed coach Jimmy Pedro and his father, Big Jim (always referred to as "America's first family of judo"); and how the two tough men had given her a haven and molded her into the strong 22-year-old woman who would come to London as the best hope to bring the U.S. its first-ever gold medal in judo.
And it happened: In the packed and deafening confines of the ExCeL's North Arena 2, Harrison dominated Britain's Gemma Gibbons in the 78-kg (172-pound) final to win 2-0. After throwing her arms to the sky and then bowing to Gibbons, Harrison leapt from the platform into the arms of Jimmy Pedro, who held her suspended in a bear hug that might have crushed anyone else.
Later, in the media mixed zone, a broad smile breaking again and again across her face, Harrison would talk of finding her fianc�, Aaron Handy, in the stands; of seeing Big Jim crying ("But don't write that -- it'll ruin his reputation"); of her plans to become a firefighter; and, most of all, of hoping to be a role model. "I want to help kids overcome being victims," she said. "I want to help change people's lives."
It was the Olympic moment I will hold onto tightest.
Maybe it's because it was kept secret until the night. Maybe it's because Rowan Atkinson can leave me laughing and crying at the same time. Maybe it's because the skit sent up a piece of instrumental music that, in Britain, is a kind of secular hymn. Whatever the reason, I loved Atkinson's Mr. Bean in the opening ceremony, pounding out
I know what you're thinking. Is that it? From 17 days, with Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Alex Morgan's header to choose from, the best you can come up with is some guy picking his nose? Please don't take this as damnation by odd praise -- even if it may seem so, what with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has little love for the British these days, having raved about the Bean bit too.
An opening ceremony is usually a humorless exercise in breast-beating. Beijing's was four years ago, and Putin & Co.'s in Sochi two years from now surely will be too. Atkinson showcased what I love about the British, and what made these Games so reliably pleasing. Brits can be stuffy. They can be insecure. Encrusting themselves in tradition, they sometimes cling to a past that's more and more irrelevant in a changing world. But they also know how to laugh at themselves, and there's nothing more likely to kindle sympathy than that.
Andy Murray was having a personal picnic on the lawns of the All England Club. He was a set away from beating Roger Federer, on the verge of becoming the latest member of Team GB to prospect Olympic gold. The capacity Centre Court crowd was delirious. So were a few thousand additional fans on the grounds, gathered on so-called Murray Mound and watching this contest on a big screen.
There was scant attention paid to the bronze medal men's singles match held on Court One, where Serbia's Novak Djokovic and Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro were locked in combat. If this was a "losers' consolation match," as one commentator coldly called it, that was never conveyed to the two principals. They labored and chased shots and competed as though losing points carried a price in blood. They pumped their fists after winners and grimaced after errors.
Both men have won majors titles. They have amassed enough wealth for multiple lifetimes. They were there with their entourages, clad in apparel they're paid handsomely to wear. True, the Olympics come only once every four years, but Djokovic and del Potro would have another opportunity to win a big event at the U.S. Open in early September.
None of that mattered. This was the Olympics.
Finally, after 108 minutes of matching skill and will, del Potro closed out the match, 7-5, 6-4. He fell to his knees as if he'd been shot. He embraced Djokovic at the net -- this is how the sportsmen in men's tennis roll these days. But then his knees buckled and he fell again, covering his face with both hands, leaking tears.
A third-place finish in tennis? In any other context, it would be a disappointment. This was something else entirely. "I'm the most happy man in the world at this moment," del Potro announced, having just won Argentina's first medal of the Games. "I think this is a gift for all of our country."
Tennis returned to the Olympics in 1988 but had been something of an outlier, an outer ring as it were. This was the year the sport truly became part of the tapestry. This was clear when eight different tennis players carried the flag for their countries. This was clear when athlete after athlete (from Kobe to Ryan Lochte) made it over to the tennis venue, trying to glimpse Federer or a Williams sister. This was clear when Serena Williams, who won the women's gold, played the best tennis of her life and Murray showed unprecedented courage. But to me, perhaps the most vivid illustration came when a millionaire star finished third and was still incapacitated by pure joy.
We were sitting on the slick, wooden floor of a condo complex outside Albuquerque. Mohamed (Mo) Farah was comfortably stretching his limbs from a yoga-esque position, seemingly without joints to hinder him. I was squatting, asking questions with a smile to mask the shooting pain in my balky, old runner's knees. Nearby, Galen Rupp cranked out 40 minutes on a noisy treadmill.
It was the second week in February, not long after I had undergone a series of facial surgeries after skin cancer was found. This was my first travel assignment since then, and I was nervous about my appearance and my rustiness. It was a story that I had pitched to my editors -- the best distance runners in Great Britain and the U.S. training together for the Olympics. But getting back on the horse was difficult.
Yet we got through it. I watched Rupp grind out a tough weight session and Farah run indoor intervals. Talked to both at length back at the condo. They gave me what we sportswriters call good stuff. I was back on a plane in two days and then wrote a story that appeared in
His team of underdogs was hanging within six points of the Dream Team deep into the third quarter. Mark Worthington tried to lead Australian teammate Joe Ingles with a bounce pass on the wing. But Ingles misread the play. He was leaning the wrong way. He stretched his arms forward, but it was as if his sneakers were bolted to the ground. The ball that should have been within reach bounced past him out of bounds.
My favorite moment of these Olympics came as Worthington jogged back on defense, looking over his shoulder at Ingles without frustration or anger of any kind between them. They were sharing in this quarterfinal they could never win the understanding that there were plays they were never going to be able to make. But they were going to have the game of their lives trying to make them nonetheless.
Other teammates would have been yelling or glaring. As Ingles jogged back, his eyes cast down, he raised his hand in a salute of apology to his friend, Worthington, who smiled back at him.
And then Kobe Bryant drilled two threes and just like that the U.S. lead had doubled and the game was out of reach. The Australians kept trying to make plays to the end of their inevitable 119--86 loss.
"I don't believe the final margin is indicative of the game,'' said Australian coach Brett Brown afterward. For the Dream Team's opponent it wasn't the score that mattered as much as the way the game was played, and that is an ideal rarely found in professional sports anymore.
Gymnastics is made for the ponytail and peach-fuzz set. It's the only Olympic sport in which retirement sometimes kicks in before puberty. In London it was refreshing to watch two gymnasts who, by their sport's absurdly accelerated timeline, should be cashing social security checks. Germany's Oksana Chusovitina is 37, and Bulgaria's Iordan Iovtchev is 39. Yet both grizzled vets acquitted themselves more than ably. Chusovitina placed fifth in the vault and the silver-haired Iovtchev took seventh in the rings final at his sixth Games, the most ever for a male gymnast. When Chusovitina, also a six-time Olympian, won her first Games medal, a gold in the team competition representing the former Soviet Union in 1992, no member of the 2012 U.S. women's team had yet been born. After the USSR broke up, she represented Uzbekistan for 13 years and then settled in Cologne, Germany, where her son, Alisher, now 12, could receive better treatment for leukemia.
Iovtchev has also exercised his skills in other nations. He trained and coached in the U.S. for 11 years, competed several times in the Sasuke obstacle-course television series in Japan and served as head of the Bulgarian Gymnastics Federation for three years, all while amassing four medals at the Olympics and 13 more in 17 appearances at the world championships. Few dismounts from gymnastics competitions have been as graceful or as long in the making as theirs.
I've been at NBA Finals clinchers, watched ringside at Oscar De La Hoya-Floyd Mayweather and sat on the floor for one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history (Nets against Celtics, 2002), and never have I experienced an atmosphere like that in the ExCeL South arena for Irish boxer Katie Taylor's gold medal match against Russia's Sofya Ochigava. Taylor, a former national team soccer player, is an attractive, 26-year-old lightweight with deep brown eyes and a disarming smile. She has emerged as perhaps the most popular athlete in Ireland. And in the gold medal match, seemingly half the country had showed up to support her.
From the moment Taylor emerged from the tunnel the Irish fans were up, chanting, cheering, and singing, "There's only one Katie Taylor," to the tune of Felix Bernard's
It had been inconceivable until the split second it happened: On the very last stroke of the 200-meter butterfly, an event Michael Phelps had owned for the last decade, he was outtouched at the wall by a young swimmer who had idolized and studied him for years. Chad le Clos, a 20-year-old South African in a green cap who called himself Phelps's "biggest fan," pounded the water in triumph and disbelief, moments later telling a press scrum, "I'm as shocked as you are." As endearing as le Clos' reaction was, it was Phelps, in his defeat, who left the greatest impression. Up on the awards podium later, Phelps, who had won 14 Olympic gold medals in his career but had yet to win one in London (he would leave London with four golds and two silvers) became le Clos's victory coach, showing the still-shaking young man how to hold his gold medal up near his face for the photographers and reminding him, as they walked around the pool deck to accept applause from the crowd, to "live the moment and enjoy it because it really is special." As many Phelps victories as I've witnessed in the last three Olympics, it is this rare loss, and his humanizing reaction to it, that will stick with me the longest.
Looking out on the field of 25 swimmers in the men's 10K open-water race, you couldn't miss Benjamin Schulte. The 16-year-old swimmer had fallen behind the pack early and swum alone for most of the race. By the time he finished his first of six laps of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, he was not within 100 meters of any other competitor.
Schulte was one of the eight Olympians in London representing Guam and was the last qualifier for the marathon swim. He's a pool swimmer who is aiming for Rio in 2016, but he embraced the opportunity to swim in London when New Zealand forfeited its spot. The youngest competitor by four years, Schulte knew he wouldn't compete for a medal, that his only company in the water would probably be a flock of swans. His goal was to finish the race.
So as the pain of the race set in and he thought about quitting -- which he admitted was often -- he focused on the words of his coach: "If you finish, then you're a true Olympian. If you don't finish, then you've just come here to swim."
By the fourth lap, trailing the rest of the swimmers by more than six minutes, Schulte told himself just to make it to the next buoy: You can put your hand up and surrender there. When he reached that buoy, he told himself he could quit at the next buoy. Buoy by buoy, Schulte swam the last two miles thinking of all the coaches, friends and family members who had worked to get him there. "I just felt like had I stopped, I would've let a lot of people down," he said.
The thousands lining the Serpentine cheered when Schulte finally touched at 2:03:35.1. He finished nearly 14 minutes after gold medalist Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia, more than nine minutes after Egypt's Mazen Metwaly, who stroked in 24th. Schulte finished dead last, but he finished, an Olympian indeed.
After six days of track cycling at the crisp-configured velodrome, nicknamed the Pringle, the races had ended, all 30 medals had been assigned, and Teun Mulder hadn't gotten one.
But no one had come closer. When Sir Chris Hoy, the Flying Scot, found fifth gear going into the final turn of the Keirin, the 31-year-old Dutchman gutted himself to hold the Brit's wheel -- that's where the medals would be. But Germany's Max Levy beat him to it, and took silver. As for bronze, who knew? Mulder and Simon (the Rhino) van Velthooven crossed the line together. The judges would sort it all out.
Circling in the infield, Mulder noticed that he was fourth on the scoreboard, the Kiwi third. His spirits sank. "Was not a good feeling for me," he told me later. "But I was still hoping."
He kept circling. "Photo-finish," intoned the announcer. But after several minutes of poring over video, the judges gave up. Their Solomonic verdict: Give 'em both a bronze.
In a flash, the 4 next to Mulder's name became a 3, triggering what I believe to be the purest and most sustained expression of joy seen at these Games. Sobbing and laughing at once, Mulder hugged every member of his team, and many riders on other teams, some of whom he actually knew. When his name was announced during the medals ceremony, he leapt onto the podium as if performing plyometrics.
A half hour later, his smile still lit up the Pringle. I didn't need to quote him for my story, but found myself chatting him up anyway. The Olympic flame burns brighter in some athletes than others. I wanted to get close to it, for just a moment, and feel its warmth.
Swimming bronze medals don't seem so special in the Michael Phelps era, but give it up for Brendan Hansen. The Havertown, Pa., native, long the hard-luck man of U.S. swimming, was the last qualifier into the 100-meter breaststroke final, made the turn in sixth, and stole third place by .04 of a second, finishing in 59.49.
"It's the shiniest bronze medal I'll ever have," said Hansen, 30, a U.S. team captain who retired after a poor 2008 Olympics and took up triathlons. "It's probably the hardest medal I've ever had to work for."
The number three has bookended Hansen's career. At the 2000 Olympic Trials, where only two swimmers in each event qualified for the team, he finished third in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes. He broke world records in both of those events at the 2004 trials but didn't win an individual Olympic title. Japan's Kosuke Kitajima won double breaststroke gold in Athens and Beijing. In the 100 breast final in London, it was Kitajima, next to Hansen in Lane 7, who spurred the American to bronze. Hansen looked at Kitajima and thought, I'm going to beat you. Hansen did, for the first time at an Olympics (Kitajima was fifth) to win his fifth career Olympic medal (he later added a sixth, a medley-relay gold).
Hansen won individual bronze and silver in Athens, and it was a letdown. In Beijing, too, the goal was individual gold, and he came up short. But in London, finally, Hansen felt satisfaction. "That is as fast as I can go," he said.
My favorite moment took place on a blustery night at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United. One of the big differences between the 2012 U.S. women's Olympic soccer team and the 2008 gold medalists is the number of hardcore European soccer fans on this year's team, players like Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe who watch game after game played in the cathedrals of the sport. Sure enough, it was Rapinoe who found herself with the ball on sacrosanct turf in the second half of the Olympic semifinal against Canada.
The U.S. was trailing 2-1, with Rapinoe and Canadian star Christine Sinclair trading haymakers in a back-and-forth game, but now Rapinoe found an opening on the right side just outside the Canadian penalty area. With technique straight from the coaching textbook, Rapinoe fizzed a right-footed blast through the defense. It pinged off the left post into the goal, cueing a moment of gobsmacked uncertainty in its author. How to celebrate? Rapinoe turned, faced the crowd and threw her hands in the air, her pose frozen in time. "Probably the goal of my life," she would say. "There's no better feeling than scoring a goal, and to do it that way, at Old Trafford, in the Olympics, was just crazy. It's like, Holy s---, I'm the s---. I can't believe I just did that. Absolute disbelief."
There would be more drama in a game the U.S. would win 4-3, but Rapinoe's Manchester moment will always remain with me.
On my five-minute walk from the hotel to the media bus every morning, the British Museum was on the left: massive building, Ionic columns, repository of artifacts of all Western civilization. Tough to miss. True, the museum was not actually a London 2012 venue, but it was more compelling than, say, the weightlifting hall.
I would stop in some mornings for maybe 75 minutes, playing a little Olympic hooky. (Did I mention admission is free? No? Well, it is. And not just for sportswriters.) The Elgin Marbles on the ground floor are spectacular -- Greece still wants the chunks of the Parthenon back -- but I found myself continually drawn up the south stairs to Room 40, where the Lewis Chessmen, the most renowned chess set in the world, were on display. The pieces, Scandinavian in origin, were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth more than 800 years ago. Then I usually would wander to Room 56 and see the pieces (circa 2,400 to 2,600 B.C.) of the Royal Game of Ur, a precursor to backgammon. The connection between these exhibits to the Olympics struck me as as obvious as the three-deep mob around the Rosetta Stone: The chess set and the board game represented man's basic need for amusement and recreation, which, to reduce some 10,500 athletes from 204 countries to their essence, speaks as to why the Games matter. Too bad I needed 17 Olympics to figure that out.