There is Elizabeth Poblete of Chile, smiling jubilantly Friday afternoon after she snatched 86 kg on her first attempt in the 75-kg weightlifting woman’s final.
Sure, it was 45 kg less than the existing world record set by Natalia Zabolotnaia of Russia in 2007, but it set her up to try a personal best 93 kg on her final attempt. That 93 kg attempt, her maximum, was still seven kg less than the minimum attempt of any of the other 12 competitors in the event.While she failed, she showed the true spirit of the games. Poblete soaked in every minute of it and smiled as she walked off, even though her lifts would not have been even warm-up lifts for anyone who followed.
And there is Tuvshinbayar Naidan of Mongolia, standing on top of the podium Thursday evening crying as he sung his country’s anthem, the first time it has ever been played at any Olympic games.
Naidan won the 100-kg Judo title after defeating Kazakhstan’s Askhat Zhitkeyev in the finals, ending a long history of heartbreak for Mongolia. Before Thursday, Mongolia had won 16 medals in its Olympic history, all silver or bronze, by far the most of any country without ever earning a gold.
You could see it in his eyes; you could hear it in the crowd. It did not matter that China had by the end of that day won 22 golds in this Olympiad alone; not at all. This one seemed more meaningful to the Mongols than any one specific medal has to China, even the men’s team gymnastics one. It seemed to define Mongolia.
And finally, there is Emanuel Thabiso Nketu of Lesotho, who after losing his first round boxing match 17-8 to Bruno Jolie of Mauritius, hugged his opponent and lifted him up to bring him over to his corner.
Sure, he had lost, blowing a 4-0 first period lead in the process, but Nketu did not care. His respect for his opponent was so great that he was willing to submit defeat to Jolie by carrying him to his coach.
Maybe that’s tradition in Lesotho, a tiny nation of two million landlocked entirely within South Africa; maybe he just felt it was the honorable thing to do; it does not matter.
Of course I could tell other tales of pride, of sportsmanship, of love and desire. They are everywhere. No matter what I watch during the Olympics, I find something of that sort.
And that is what the Olympics are all about.
The Olympics are all about Elizabeth Poblete enjoying herself for the sport of it, even if not even in her grandest dream could she stand on the podium accepting a medal.
The Olympics are all about Tuvshinbayar Naidan crying as he is hearing his anthem played, the first time it’s ever played on such a stage, because he has earned it for his countrymen.
The Olympics are all about Emanuel Thabiso Nketu embracing his opponent, giving all his happiness to his opponent, after his opponent beat him in his match.
And those are the stories that I love.
I love the story of Derek Redmond at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. I love how, after his hamstring pops, he gets up and hobbles to the finish, how his dad rushes down from the stands, how he does cross the finish line. I love that.
I love the story of the 1980 Zimbabwe women’s field hockey team. I love how, after most every competitor pulled out to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviets called Zimbabwe two weeks before the games and asked them to come. They call up people and form a team at the last minute, fly to Moscow, and win the gold.
I love the story of Jesse Owens in 1936 in Berlin. Had he not been given advice from German competitor Luz Long, who would take the silver, he might not have even qualified for the final. He had faulted on his first two jumps before Long told him to mark a spot short of the line and just jump from there. Owens of course went on to win gold.
These are the stories that make the Olympic Games what they are.
These are the stories that make the Olympic Games compelling.
11,028 athletes from more than 200 entities in 28 different sports. Almost all in Beijing at the same time. And each with a story.
You’ll never have time to hear each one’s story; there’s just too many. But if you take the time, you can at least catch a glimpse.
How do I know what was going through Poblete’s mind when she snatched 86-kg? Or through Naidan’s? Or Nketu’s?
Sure, I can ask them, but I don’t need to.
Each was there to bask in the Olympic spirit, to represent his or her country with class and dignity and to understand what that entails.
Do you really think Ron Artest understands what it entails to represent the Houston Rockets? Or Roger Clemens to the New York Yankees? Or John Daly to anyone?
No, they don’t. That is why god willing none of them will ever be Olympians.
And of course, there are those who do sneak in. There are those who are forced to return medals, whether immediately or years later, for doping. And that is sad.
Those are the stories that I quickly forget.
But I will never forget Poblete or Naidan or Nketu, just like I never forgot Thomas Bimis and Nikolaos Siranidis of Greece from the 2004 games.
Unquestionable longshots before the games began to even contend for a medal, Bimis and Siranidis found themselves in fourth place heading into their final dive in the men’s synchronized diving 3-metre springboard final, less than a point and a half out of third. However, they trailed first-place China by more than 14 points.
Bimis and Siranidis performed the dive of their lives, then watched as China, the United States, Russia, and Australia all botched their dives.
It was the first gold medal of the games for the host nation and no doubt the unlikeliest.
The entire building shook; no one, not even Bimis or Siranidis, could comprehend what just happened.
Sure, Michael Phelps’s quest for eight gold medals is nice, but I’d rather watch the other events. That is where the truly memorable stories are, at least for me.
That is where the stories that define the Olympics are written.