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Something far greater than gold

We asked the Sports Illustrated writers who covered the Beijing Olympics to leave us with their indelible memory of the Games.

BEIJING -- It seemed a sure thing. The game's first event would be the 10-meter air rifle, won four years before in Athens by Chinese shooter Du Li. And now, before the ultimate home crowd, she would vie for China's first gold again.

Everyone kept talking about it; Du would soon be the new national hero. The Chinese crowd filed slowly into the Beijing Shooting Range Hall. We had all gotten up bleary-eyed and still buzzed, figuratively at least, from the spellbinding Opening Ceremony of the night before. "I only slept three hours last night," said Ping Ping Li, an impossibly bubbly, 25-year-old woman who had come, like me, to witness history. "Du Li is famous in China. We hope she will win the first medal today."

I went inside for the preliminaries; Du Li seemed on her way. Then in the final, her shots began to drift; she crumbled and finished fifth. China's first hope bolted the hall in tears. This wasn't good. I watched Du go, feeling all air go out of the story. I thought about my pillow, cooling across town. I wondered why I had wasted my time.

Then I noticed the morning's winner walking to the rail at the edge of the stands. She was three feet away. A blond man leaned over to her and now she was beaming, looking up at him, and he was staring into her eyes and then he lifted his left hand up to her face. So slightly, she adjusted the angle of her head, so she could feel more of his touch on her cheek. The man whispered. Her eyes glistened. She smiled wider now.

We all know what an Olympic moment is: Not the massive thing, not the hyped thing, not that famous face or that name -- Michael Phelps Michael Phelps Michaeal Phelps -- you hear so much that its omnipresence becomes like a bludgeon hammering every other sport and athlete and nation into powder. It's something small -- runner Derek Redmond with his dad in Barcelona, marathoner Vanderlei de Lima making like a plane in Panathinaiko Stadium, a chance meeting with an old Cuban star unnoticed in the crowd. But you never expect it the first day. I wasn't looking yet. But there it was.

The woman's name was Katerina Emmons. In 2004, she was Katerina Kurkova, a Czech target shooter who had watched stunned, like everyone else, as American shooter Matt Emmons blew his chance at a second gold medal in Athens. Just one shot away from winning the 50-meter rifle three-position target event, Emmons had inexplicably fired at the wrong target and lost. Kurkova was working as a TV commentator because her competition, in which she had won the bronze, had ended by then. She approached Emmons, drinking a beer, and asked to talk to him. He fell for her instantly. She liked the way he handled his gun, the loss. They married in 2007.

Now, in Beijing, his wife had just won her first Olympic gold. He spoke to her. I was close, but this was husband-and-wife stuff, too intimate to hear. She cried a bit. She responded in kind, put up her own hand and placed it on his cheek. It wasn't the usual screech-and-hug, juiced up for the cameras. This was calm. This was real, and no matter how cynical or cool you want to think yourself, you had to admit it looked like love, indeed, frozen in an Olympic frame and somehow bigger than all the posturing and global politics and competition swirling around it.

I found myself thinking of that moment often over the next three weeks. I thought of it most, though, 10 days later when Matt, again just one shot away from gold, again gagged on his final shot. Katerina, gold and silver in her pocket, watched again stunned, but now it was her husband going from winner to loser in an eyeblink. Her jaw dropped. Her eyes bulged. But when I read Emmons comments the next day, they didn't come as any surprise. "Things happen for a reason," he said. "I'm sure something good's going to come from it." It sounded pat, but I believed the man. I had seen it first hand. Losing gave him a win far greater than gold.