COLOMBES, France – At what’s left of the stadium where Harold Abrahams won his “Chariots of Fire” Olympic 100 meters, where Paavo Nurmi won the 1,500, caught his breath and then lined up 55 minutes later to win the 5,000, it is almost as if their feats at the Summer Games of 1924 never happened.
There is no plaque to commemorate the students from California who won the last Olympic gold in rugby and humiliated France 17-3, infuriating the 40,000-strong home crowd that burned the American flag, knocked an Illinois spectator unconscious and booed “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the medal ceremony.
There are no statues of William DeHart Hubbard, the Cincinnati-born chauffeur’s son whose long jump of 24 feet, 5 inches (7.44 meters) made him the first black athlete to win an individual Olympic gold, or of Johnny Weissmuller, the U.S swimmer who won three golds and then became bigger in a Hollywood loincloth as Tarzan.
Even with your eyes closed, it is almost impossible to imagine the spectators in their berets and straw boaters whooping from the terraces now thick with weeds and fenced off as unsafe. The Olympics came here? To this bedraggled arena, on the outskirts of Paris, that town planners now hope to demolish? Surely not.
Forget the notion that Olympians and their exploits invariably shine forever. It’s not true. They are no more immortal than any of us. How could they be? Because the Olympics, more than mere bricks, mortar and commemorative steles, are a human communion – between the athletes and us, the people of the world who will be wowed by them again this July and August. And neither we, they nor our collective memory will be around forever.
So feast on London 2012 while you can, because the emotions will be over in a flash. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or whoever grabs our imagination will be filmed, photographed, tweeted and Facebooked as never before. The records, winning times, throws and point totals, the medal winners’ names, all that stuff, will again be squirreled away in the vaults. Future generations will have archives far richer than the black and white photos and scratchy footage we have of Nurmi and his peers.
But only we will actually remember the physical sensations, what it really felt like, of watching this generation of London Olympians perform. Only we will be able to say, “It sent shivers down my spine. I wish you’d seen it.”
The same, of course, must also have been true for those in the Colombes stadium who witnessed Nurmi’s same-day Olympic double on July 10, 1924. But 88 years on, how many of them are alive today? In short, appreciate the Olympics for the uniquely human and ephemeral experience they are.
There has been a lot of griping in Britain about the 9 billion pound (11 billion euro; $14 billion) price tag, the extreme security, the commercialism of the modern Olympics and the expected disruption to Londoners’ everyday lives. Some in New York, which also bid for the 2012 games, feel lucky their city wasn’t selected. The debate about whether the Olympics have become too big, resource-draining and wasteful is valid, important and needs to continue after London.
But nothing else we do showcases us quite in the same way as the Olympics – our strengths, weaknesses, colors, cultures, our savage hunger to compete and prove ourselves, our chest-beating individuality and ability to work in teams, the pleasure we get from watching others succeed and fail, and the fleeting nature of our youthful years when we are capable of anything but not yet fully aware of how quickly they will be gone.
Yes, yes, I know the United Nations also brings together all four corners of the globe. Call me shallow, but the prospect of watching the Security Council deliberate doesn’t excite me like 17 straight days of swimming, track and field, Greco-Roman, BMX, beach volleyball or even syncro-swimming – whatever tickles you.
What makes Olympians so fascinating is that they’re just like you and me and yet not like us at all. They burn toast, chew their nails, can’t remember where they put the house keys, but put themselves through hell and high water in pursuit of their goals – to be the best in London or simply to do their best.
In other words, we’re sufficiently alike for us to be able to dream that we, too, could have been like them if only we had been born bigger, stronger, faster, luckier, less lazy and more determined than we are. They are an ideal – even if, as people, many of them aren’t ideal at all.
So we all should feel that we own a share of the achievement when Olympians in London redefine what we imagined humans are physically capable of doing. They are our ambassadors, performing exploits that we can’t or won’t but, in different circumstances, perhaps could.
If Bolt or Phelps, the stars of Beijing 2008, break more world records this time, it won’t make them better humans than the rest of us.
But by being superhuman, they and the other Olympians will show how super more humans perhaps could be, given the chance and the will.