Monday, August 11, 2008

Witnessing Greatness

Or, what it means to be a sports fan. I was instructed upon my return from vacation (very nice job by my colleagues by the way) to write a posting on Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, both admirably representing our great State and Country in Beijing. However I have to slightly deviate from that, as I witnessed something last night which touched home for me and, in my opinion, for any sports fan who watched it. The event I am referring to is the United States 4x100m relay team surging past the heavily favored French to take the gold medal.

This event, this moment in sports, epitomized the ideals of the Olympics; of national pride, of athletic competition in its purest form, of standing in the moment while feeling the weight of history and legend. Cynics dismiss the Olympics as being meaningless and outdated, but what is so outdated about thousands of athletes and spectators from across the globe coming together in the spirit of competition? What makes Olympic competition trite while professional football meaningful? I daresay what we all witnessed last night served as a wakeup call to every Olympic cynic out there that there is something truly special about Olympic competition.

Four Americans– Michael Phelps, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Jason Lezak – lined up to challenge a race in which they all, as one commentator put it, had to each run a perfect race to have a chance at gold. Famed swimmer and 100m world record holder Alain Bernard of the French team boldly proclaimed before the race that the French would “smash” the Americans, and by most all accounts, they were going to. In the race that ensued, the relay teams of five countries would break the world record and combine for arguably the greatest Olympic swimming race in history. Drama, national pride, teamwork, and unparalleled greatness within this event were presented both by the victors and the entire competitive field.

Here is how the race unfolded:
-At the starting buzzer Phelps took off strongly, gaining an early lead over the French. As they approached the first turn at least three teams were already ahead of the world record pace.

-Phelps hands off to Garett Weber-Gale in one of three seamless switches for the United States. The lead notably slimmed heading into the turn, with France gaining the lead as Weber-Gale’s leg came to a finish.

-Cullen Jones takes over for Weber-Gale, losing ground to the French in transition. France increased it’s lead to over half of a body length going into the final stretch. The smashing, it seemed, was on.

-Enter Jason Lezak for the United States and Alain Bernard for France. Alain Bernard is the world record holder for the 100m freestyle, and a sure-thing closer. Jason Lezak, a 3-time Olympian who has never taken gold in the relay (his premier event), had a daunting challenge. Through the first turn Lezak was desperately riding the wave of Bernard but seemingly could not gain any ground on the Frenchman. With 50 meters left to go I remember distinctly one person in the room I was with shake his head – the race seemed all but over. Heading into the final 30 meters Jason Lezak made a furious comeback, and as he gained ground I could hardly hear the play-by-play over the growing roar of the crowd both in the stands and in the room I was in. Michael Phelps and Garrett Weber-Gale frantically stomped, shouted along with the rest of the viewing audience to bring Jason home.

With a flourish the race was over, and the stadium erupted. The world record was smashed. The hard-luck 32 year old swimmer beat the elite French swimmer’s lap time by over .6 seconds, and the US team edged out the French by eight hundredths of a second. Michael Phelps’ potentially history-making drive for eight gold medals was still alive. The heavily favored French who bragged about smashing the Americans were stunned.

In conclusion, we watch sports to witness greatness. We see it in the coverage of Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, even Barry Bonds. And sports fans are constantly looking for the next great player, the next great moment which can be retold for years to come. So I say this to all of the Olympic cynics out there: Try and beat that.
Photo Credit (above): Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Photo Credit (right): AP

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