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.