Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 September 2004
Issue No. 706
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The end

It began with a scandal in the sprints and ended with an ambush in the marathon but it was sheer delight in between

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From the top clockwise: Anna Bessonova of the Ukraine in rhythmic gymnastics; Dae Sung-moon of South Korea in taekwondo; the Croatians celebrate a handball gold; Brazil and Italy in the volleyball final; Al-Guerrouj won a unique track double

The 17-day festival of joy and sorrow has ended. Before a crowd of some 70,000 and beneath a full moon and flourishes of fireworks, Greece bid farewell to the 2004 Olympic Summer Games on Sunday night.

The XXVIII edition proved that for grand stages and stunning surprises, there is still nothing in sports quite like the Olympics.

Exhibit A: upset is how the Greeks felt when hometown heroes Kostas Kenteris and Katerina Thanou skipped a drug test on the eve of the opening ceremony to take a mysterious midnight motorcycle ride that ended with both forced to withdraw from the Games.

Exhibit B: before the closing ceremony, Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei de Lima was leading the race with about 10 minutes and three miles to go when a defrocked Irish priest in a bizarre costume stepped onto the course and shoved de Lima into the crowd. De Lima got back into the race, but was eventually caught and passed by the winner, Stefano Baldini of Italy. De Lima won the bronze.

A protest filed by the Brazilian track federation asking that de Lima be given a duplicate gold was denied by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Brazil said it would appeal that decision to the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport, whose decision would be final. De Lima was instead given a medal designating exceptional sportsmanship and Olympic spirit named for the founder of the Modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, didn't call these the best Games ever. That put Athens, the city that hosted the first Modern Olympics in 1896, in the same category with Atlanta, the only other city that didn't get the "best-ever" tag.

But if that was a blow to the Greeks, Rogge softened it eloquently when he said, "These Games were held in peace and brotherhood. These were the Games where it became increasingly difficult to cheat, and where clean athletes were better protected."

These weren't the best Games. The 2000 Sydney Games retain that designation. But Athens wasn't far behind, and the only thing that kept Athens from assuming the title was the lack of attendance at many events, especially during the first week of the Games. It also would have helped if the Olympic Stadium were surrounded by something other than a dust bowl, the only visible reminder that Greece procrastinated on getting the show together until it was almost too late.

Regardless of these acts, the Games' closing ceremony was great. It was far more informal and festive than the stately, dramatic opening ceremony and featured an array of Greece's most popular singers.

The night started with Greeks dressed in every kind of costume they have ever worn -- and with 3,000-4,000 years of history, that covers a lot of costumes -- dancing into a stadium whose floor was decorated with a golden spiral of ripe wheat. Opening night was about ancient Greece, the Greece of myth and legend.

This night was about the Greece of people and life, and it was played to a seamless background of native music, from folk to pop to that famous tune that you can never hear without seeing Anthony Quinn dancing as Zorba the Greek.

And as one singer and one set of dancers flowed into another, peasants endlessly bent to the task of harvesting the spiral of wheat, oblivious to what was going on around them.

Greece makes no apologies for seeing life as a sensual experience, something to be lived rather than controlled, and so bare-chested young men and sinuous young women took their turns on the long stage that stretched to the middle of the stadium.

At the end of it all, before the athletes piled into the stadium, not in neat formation according to country but all mixed together in happy disorder, Greece had some fun with itself, bringing in a crowd of tourists to come and join the fun.

And that's this country's hope -- that the Games and the publicity they generated and the images of this wonderful and ancient country that reached billions of people will bring new waves of visitors -- and their euros and dollars -- to see live what they'd watched on television.

In closing, let's return to Angelopoulos Daskalaki, the Athens organiser, the First Lady of the Games.

"We loved having you here," she told the crowd. "You waved your national flags. You stood for every anthem. You danced to our music.

"Let us all thank the athletes. You came here as competitors. You performed here as Olympians. You made our hearts bound with joy. When you cried on the medal stands, we cried with you. Because of you, the Olympics are the most powerful source of inspiration and hope to humanity."

A full moon lit up the sky, adding an extra sparkle to the night "You have won," Rogge told the Greek people who responded with a roar. "You have won by brilliantly meeting the tough challenge of holding the Games. These were unforgettable, dream Games."

He was right, even if they started slowly. The first week saw empty seats and vacant plazas as many Greeks took their holidays and frightened tourists stayed away. The second week saw the Games transformed. The huge Olympic stadium was packed each night for track and field. Basketball, tennis and beach volleyball rocked.

It reminded us again, at a time when we need all the reminding we can get, that the Olympics celebrate humanity's highest aspirations, the universal quest for peace and the exalted qualities of body, mind and spirit that transcend cultures.

Efharisto -- thank you in Greek -- Athens, for coupling the ancient with the new, putting up with years of jarring construction, spending billions beyond your budget, and giving us a glimpse of your future as a sophisticated, modern city.

There were scandals and controversies, as always.

The scourge of sports -- steroids, stimulants and other drugs -- intruded but didn't spoil the Games. A record two dozen athletes were caught, seven lost medals, and there could be more to come as the test results keep rolling in.

"Each positive test is a blessing for us because it's eliminating the cheats and protecting the clean athletes," Rogge said. "The more we find, the better."

Three gymnastics judges were suspended after it was determined South Korean Yang Tae-young was scored improperly, costing him a gold medal that went to American Paul Hamm.

The United States, buoyed by the brilliance of swimming star Michael Phelps but embarrassed by the three losses and a mere bronze for its once-vaunted men's basketball team, won the most medals. US track star Marion Jones was fortunate to stay ahead of the drug testers, but she couldn't say the same about the competition. She was soundly beaten in the long jump, then undone in the 400-metre relay by a botched pass of the baton. Still, Americans beat their target of 100 by three, 35 of them gold. Russia finished second with a total of 92, including 27 gold.

China, third in the medals race, previewed its own welcome of the next Games with a group of children performing with the Beijing Opera. A young girl, standing by a huge red lantern-shaped stage, held a small lantern and sang "Jasmine."

Some stars wrote their names in history. Phelps won six golds and two bronze, and left people wondering what might have been. Then he did something almost as impressive. Phelps handed his spot on the 400-metre medley relay team to friend and rival Ian Crocker, took a seat in the stands, and cheered his heart out.

Moroccan Hicham El-Guerrouj, the greatest middle-distance runner of all-time, won the 1,500 gold after failing twice before at the Games, and then added the 5,000 -- a double that hadn't been accomplished since Paavo Nurmi did it in 1924.

Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner couldn't duplicate the drama he staged in Sydney, but at least he left on his terms. With tears rolling down his face and an American flag cradled in his arms, Gardner took off his shoes and left them in the middle of the mat -- as eloquent a retirement ceremony as there is in sports.

His leaving was offset by arrivals every bit as inspiring. Chinese sprinter Liu Xiang won the 110-metre hurdles to become his nation's first gold medalist in track and equaled the world record of 12.91 seconds in the bargain. It was the centrepiece of a haul of 32 golds -- second only to the United States total of 35 -- that sent a shiver down the spine of every nation headed for Beijing in 2008, when the Olympics become home for the world's most populous nation.

Some nations, though, were too busy shivering with joy to notice. Egypt came home with five medals after a 20-year wait.

Ahmed Al-Maktoum, a wealthy sheikh, gave the United Arab Emirates its first gold in trap shooting. Taiwan got its first in taekwondo; the Dominican Republic in men's 400-metre hurdles, Chile in tennis and Georgia in judo. Windsurfer Gal Fridman won Israel's first gold. Winless in nine previous Summer Games, Paraguay took silver in men's soccer. Eritrea, a nation that didn't exist a dozen years ago, won bronze in the 10,000 metres, courtesy of Zersenay Tadesse.

The Games returned to Athens after 108 years on the road and concluded, for many, all too soon, after a little over two weeks. The cauldron of the Olympic flame was slowly lowered, symbolically lighting the torches to be carried around the world to the next Summer Games. At 10.48pm Athens' flame was extinguished, singers took the stage and volleys of fireworks again lit up the sky. And, once again, Athens, Efharisto.

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