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At the confluence of history and sport and theater flowed a woman of Aboriginal descent, running free in the Olympic Stadium, uniting a nation, defining a new era. To the roar of more than 110,000 countrymen, Freeman strode gracefully through the night air in a hooded track suit, veiled yet unmistakable. The Aussies' high-spirited, Good-On-Ya Games had one of the happiest vibes of any Olympics, but Freeman's victory was not merely uplifting -- it was also profoundly moving. In a stadium where she had already lit the cauldron, Freeman kindled a flame that would burn long beyond the 17 days of competition.
An unexpected win in world-record time not only made Liu China's first track-and-field gold medalist, but also transformed the willowy 21-year-old from Shanghai into the face of the Beijing Games four years hence. Beyond that, it declared the arrival of the next great Olympic power, a reality confirmed by China's place atop the gold-medal standings in 2008. Liu didn't share in the glory in Beijing; plagued by a painful right Achilles, he grimaced and limped off the track before his first-round heat, stunning his nation and providing an image as compelling as his triumph in Athens.
An underplayed story of the decade was the emergence of the U.S. as a Winter Olympics force. Having won no more than 13 medals at any previous Winter Games, the U.S. claimed 34 as the home team in Salt Lake City and 25 more in Turin. The breakthrough was driven by the addition of two decades' worth of new sports, from short-track speedskating to skeleton to snowboarding, in which White was a global star even before he dominated the final in Italy. The Flying Tomato's victory elevated 'boarding's place in the Olympic realm and, more significant, conferred on the Games a new sense of coolness.
The swimmer from Equatorial Guinea needed nearly two minutes -- and quite nearly a life preserver -- to finish a full lap, perhaps not surprising given that he'd taken up the sport only eight months earlier and had never seen a 50-meter pool before arriving in Australia. Yet though his performance and good nature made him a cult hero, his legacy could be less cheerful: His embarrassingly slow time caused officials to tighten qualifying standards in a number of sports, including swimming, reducing the likelihood that we'll ever see another quite like him.