This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
Murmurs had been growing louder over the past decade or so that the mystique of the Olympic Games had lost its luster. Widespread drug busts of such champions as Marion Jones had supposedly disillusioned us. Young people couldn't connect. They'd rather be watching the X-Games. The average age of the Olympic viewer rose almost ten years, to the upper 40's, from the 1992 Barcelona Games to Athens four years ago. But three forces combined in Beijing to catapult the Games once again high into widespread public consciousness.
One was the Chinese people. No country on Earth could have been so relevant to our collective eyes at this time. That exalted Opening Ceremony summed up the history of their culture, the commitment they made to wowing the world, the organization they demonstrated in putting on a flawless two-week show-extraordinaire. It was said before the Games that China was Hell-bent to open their proud doors to the world and prove just how much they belong on the virtual leader-board of today's world cultures. Well, they succeeded.
The second force that commanded a resuscitated Olympics fascination was, simply put, the state of the nation. The war, the depressed economy, the real estate collapse. We were thirsty for fresh-faced inspiration and we lapped it up.
And, of course, there was Phelps. He splashed his way into the pantheon of great Olympians, along with Jesse Owens and Nadia Comenici and Carl Lewis and the all-time great who mined massive gold 36 years before him, Mark Spitz. Phelps was historic and dramatic, larger than life, and thrilling in every regard, except perhaps his interview side by side with Mark Spitz via satellite from Detroit. For the first time at least any of us who have interviewed Spitz could attest to, Spitz was humble and magnanimous and pressed over and over again to call Phelps the new greatest Olympian of all time. It was beyond awkward, the interview that one broadcaster likened to eating soup with a fork, when, no matter how many times Bob Costas asked Phelps to compare his eight gold to Spitz's seven, Phelps just didn't have the grand poetic perspective in him. The closest he came was “Yeah, I saw a couple of his races one time. This is just so cool.”
Aside from the Spitz moment, Phelps was epic and turned the first half of the Games, when swimming is center stage, into compelling theater indeed. To my mind, the last few strokes of that men's 4x100 freestyle relay, when American Jason Lezak started a full body-length behind the world's best at the distance, Frenchman Alain Bernard, was the ultimate highlight of the entire Games to date. Lezak could not have caught Bernard. Impossible. Bernard was way too far ahead. Even if they were close, Bernard's 6'6” reach would out-touch Lezak. But the visible, palpable will of Lezak over those last few strokes was an embodiment of what the Greeks originally envisioned for the Olympics. You could literally see that he would not allow himself to get to the wall second. His will drove him…and his breathless teammates, including Phelps screaming with wild abandon…to gold.
Then there was Dara Torres' speed at 41. Little Shawn Johnson coming into the Games with tremendous pressure as the star of the American gymnastics team and then showing her poise and sportsmanship as her own teammate and even roommate, Nastia Liukin, out-performed her. The usual sour and sometimes classless Kobe Bryant sincerely awed by Phelps and other non-basketball Olympians. The breezy and likeable Jamaican Usain Bolt crushing the world records in the 100 and 200 sprints and taking on the definitive mantle of world's fastest human.
The fencers and beach volleyball players and wrestlers and weight lifters and archers and rowers and badminton players and cyclists and shot putters, all extraordinary in their skill and their desire to fulfill their dreams. It's been glorious, all of it.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: America's Shawn Johnson won the Silver Medal in the Women's Floor Exercise. Photo: Xinhua