LONDON — “Greatness” and “Legacy” are thrown around so liberally it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between a phenom-of-the-month from a lasting, memorable champion.
But on the chance I had witnessed either greatness or legacy, I saved a copy of the Daily Telegraph from the day after the first night of the swimming competition — more or less as a souvenir. This morning, I noticed that paper and how the entire front page was anchored by an awesome, full-color photo of Ryan Lochte, emerging violently from the water in the breaststroke during that 400-meter individual medley, under the heading, “The New King of the Pool.”
I like to imagine Michael Phelps, who failed to medal in that race for the first time in 12 years in an international meet, picking up the same London paper and seeing that headline — and then mouthing quietly, “Not so fast.”
I like to imagine Usain Bolt saying the same thing to himself after losing in the Jamaican trials to Yohan Blake. Like Phelps, Bolt had done the incomparable in Beijing and entered these Olympics four years older, much more fallible and ultimately competing against the legends of themselves they had created.
And they still managed to triumph.
There is nothing more difficult in sports than to repeat greatness. Because once it’s achieved, the rest of the world hunts, chases down and eventually catches the champion.
But no one caught Bolt. No one caught Phelps. They defended almost all their titles, and they left the Games of the XXX Olympiad as the greatest sprinter and greatest swimmer of all time.
These were certainly Britain’s Games: 80,000-strong Olympic Stadium exploding in sound as Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon and Mo Farah was golden in both the 10,000- and 5,000-meter finals, a record 64 medals for the host nation. The way in which the U.K. co-opted Bolt and Phelps and, really, every scintillating performer who wasn’t wearing the Union Jack, proved my first cabbie correct when he said, “We love the spo-o-art here, mate.”
But they were also the Legacy Games, two weeks in which the suddenly humbled and human came back to show they weren’t done amazing us; that they still had gold in their churning legs and their powerful strokes.
The host country truly was Great Britain. London delivered a rousing Olympics. I wasn’t in Beijing, but the consensus is these were the most organized, enthralling and enjoyable Games since Sydney in 2000.
The English-snob caricature is often pawned off as a societal narrative, but it doesn’t fit anymore. The U.K. hasn’t had that high opinion of itself for a while. Slate-gray days of rain. The gradual drain of global importance of a once-omnipotent empire, all the wrenching losses their national teams have suffered on the soccer pitch.
As my friend Ian Whittell of The Times of London explained, “We’ve been Cubs fans longer than Cubs fans. We’re naturally pessimistic. Even with the Olympics. We were convinced the transportation system would fail. When that didn’t fail, we were convinced the teams and athletes would.”
Now, with Queen Elizabeth II’s drawn-out diamond jubilee birthday celebration and the build-up and execution of pulling off a fairly flawless Olympics — give or take 50,000 empty seats that somehow never made it into the hands of their public — it’s been absolutely rejuvenating for Britain’s esteem.
Britain has been on an almost two-year, self-affirmation tour, and it was that country that showed up, smiled, laughed at itself, and howled its record-setting medalists’ names for more than two memorable weeks.
Beyond the palace walls, human majesty was contagious.
Kirani James, the 400-meter gold medalist from Grenada, swapped name bibs with Oscar Pistorius after the inspiring double-amputee runner from South Africa failed to qualify for the finals with his running blades that were attached just above his knees.
Oblivious to the controversy over the inclusion of the “Blade Runner,” James never considered whether Pistorius’s abilities were God-given or carbon fiber-driven; he merely wanted a keepsake for having competed against a man whose legs were amputated when he was 11 months old, who grew up to race able-bodied Olympians.
A 5-foot-5, 130-pound woman from Ireland made them sing, “Danny Boy,” bringing more fervor and old-country patriotism to the boxing venue than any Irish athlete in 20 years. Apropos, no, that Katie Taylor won Ireland’s first gold medal since 1996 at partisan-female Olympic Games. Women from the United States, China and Russia won more medals than their male teammates.
Two memories stand out most. First, Bolt’s news conferences were hilarious — not his amusing answers as much as the foreign journalists who asked the questions. (“Mr. Usain, all of Italy would like to salute you as the legend, the number one in the world, the greatest ever. Now, my question — and maybe it is too difficult for you to answer — but tell us: Who is now more important in Jamaica, you or Bob Marley?”)
The second is of a woman who finished her 100-meter heat in less than 15 seconds after eight years of convincing her family and her nation that it was okay for a Muslim woman to leave the house and run as fast as her conviction would take her. Just four reporters, all of us from different countries, were standing there underneath the stadium, straddling a hip-high barrier separating the athletes and journalists, and I don’t think any of us was waiting for her when she walked up to us.
“My taxi driver throw me out on the street when I told him I was training for Olympics,” said Tahmina Kohistani, Afghanistan’s only woman at the Games, in the halting English she had learned through mail-order language courses. “He said, ‘Get behind the man. You are disgrace to Muslim women.’ My coach fought other men outside the stadium where I train because they do not think I should run. But my country will remember me forever one day. They will see I am the right one and other girls will watch me and I will tell them, ‘Come, run with me. Run with me, Tahmina.’ ”
About 25 minutes later, after we heard the most harrowing journey anyone could have taken to run 100 meters at the Games, one of the male reporters began weeping. He finally said, “You’re a hero. You’re a hero to your country and women everywhere.” Beneath her hijab, Tahmina sheepishly said, “Thank you,” and began to cry. We were all choked up and didn’t know what else to say.
As I type this now, I still don’t know what to say, except that I knew in that very moment, for one of the few times in my job, I was in the presence of a greatness and a courage as real and inspiring as anything I’ve ever seen in sports or life.
“Hey, who was that?” a colleague of mine from the United States asked.
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t talk. I just walked a few steps away, turned away from him, and started crying — for a woman who finished 31st in the world in her event. A minute later, when he came to see if I was okay, he asked again, “Who was that?”
I swallowed hard and said, “That’s why I came here.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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