In summing up the Athens Games, the first order of business is to extend a big "sorry" to the Greeks. Nothing blew up and nothing collapsed, and nothing less has been accomplished than the full restoration of Athens as a splendid world capital. The Greeks have proved a very pointed point. There is more than one way to throw an Olympics.
There was a sense of exquisite difference about these Games, from the herbed dust that constituted the city air, blowing straight from the Sahara and mingling with spiced smoke and exhaust, to the tourmaline Aegean waters, and the phosphorous lemon sun illuminating ruins. We were far away from the familiar, down at the end of Europe where you could stand on a beach and stare at white sails on a flat sea that extends to Asia Minor. But if Athens will be remembered as one of the most richly atmospheric Olympics, it also had to be credited as modern and well-organized, which no one would have predicted. We were too busy arching eyebrows and passing remarks about the Greeks' casual unhurriedness, the laziness of their labor, and their indulgence of dangerous anarchists. What did we know?
"The citizens of Greece have proven the doomsayers wrong," said USOC board chairman Peter Ueberroth. "The Olympic family learned a lesson from the people of Greece. History will record these Games as among the greatest, if not the greatest, of all time."
Not everyone cares about the same things, and anyhow the Olympics are hardly supposed to be a celebration of sameness. One of the things they do best is broaden the perspectives of those who attend them. The Greeks did this in their way -- while also humoring the stubborn American fixation on security, our conviction that our personal safety matters most and our definition of danger is the only one that counts. The smallest and grittiest country in the European Union, with a population of 11 million, hosted the largest sports event in the world and kept us all safe, while offering daily instruction in the glories of antiquity. So while the enormous cost, now estimated at $9 billion, and the emptiness of some stadiums can be counted against them in weighing whether these Games were a success, frankly, that's their business. It's not ours, since we won't be around to split the cost or help shoulder their problems after tomorrow.
"The Olympics are not about money for us," a cab driver said, midway through the Games, "it's about an idea." Then he double charged me. For some reason, I paid without complaint.
There was no Centennial Park bombing, and no tacky commercialism in Athens. Instead there was a sense that the athletes who won here will, years from now, feel that their medals are the rarest of treasures from an Olympics that stood apart from all others for authenticity, because of the simple fact of where they were held. Nothing seemed to affect that authenticity, not even scoring errors, judging disputes, doping disgraces, rock-throwing protests, international wrangling, the looming specter of terrorism, or that eye-gouging, crotch-kicking election campaign back home.
Towering over the Games each day was the 2,400-year-old Parthenon, the world's most elegant representation of what can happen when thought meets depth of feeling, when clarity and intellect are combined with reverence and the beauty of a clear hot sky. Nothing could make a dent in it as image; it dwarfed all the ailments and annoyances of the modern Olympics. The Parthenon and its accompanying temples were a constant corrective, providing a longer and kinder perspective.
What will we remember, for instance, from the competition at Olympia? Irina Korzhanenko got popped for drugs after winning the shot put, but no one will remember that as much as they'll remember the enormity of the moment, walking into that stadium for the first time since A.D. 393. Personally, I won't remember that the bronze medalist in the men's marathon was tackled by a crackpot as much as I'll remember the sweetness of his Olympic spirit as he entered Panathinaiko Stadium and sailed around the track with his arms out like wings.
I won't remember that Marion Jones failed to medal as much as the compassion Jones and her relay teammates showed for each other after their failure in the 4x100-meter relay, looking like moving sculptures as they circled the track with their arms resolutely linked. I'll remember the fresh, sweat-covered expression of Andre Ward with his single gold medal, in contrast to the so carefully media-managed opacity of Michael Phelps, with his six.
Everything here seemed more genuinely Olympic, both the victories and the failures. Why? An interesting argument has arisen in the hot debate over the so-called Elgin Marbles. In 1801, two-thirds of the sculptural adornments of the Parthenon were removed and carted off to England, where they remain on display in the British Museum. The Greeks would like them back, and the British have so far refused, calling repatriation unfeasible. The best argument for returning them is that they were not meant to be viewed in pieces, in the cold, smoky gray light of England. They were meant to be seen as a complex narrative, and in the radiant luminosity of that white Greek light, with its peculiar lit-from-within effect that can't be duplicated. "The images were executed to be read as a meaningful whole," wrote scholar Jenifer Neils. In other words, if the British love them, they will give them back.
The very same thing could be said of the Olympics. To watch them in Athens was to see them in their original light, and as a meaningful whole. It was to place them in their proper context, and to return them to their original owners. "Whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us, and we meet them on their way back," writes Thomas Cahill in "Sailing the Wine Dark Sea." So put me down as a converted philhellene, which means someone who has been utterly seduced by this gorgeous country and culture, and from now on call me Sallyiopolous. As for the debt incurred from the Games, I daresay Athens will survive. After all, it's withstood worse, and it's still standing. "For Athens alone among her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation." Pericles said that.