It's easy to get frustrated with professional sports, especially when the massive sums of money at stake threaten to choke you with commercialism or drown you in hype. Sports can, sometimes, represent a total distortion of our values. They give us an excuse to obsess over the trivial and distract us from truly important issues of the day.
But some days, sports are also a reminder of the wonders of human potential. They steal the breath right out of your chest and render you speechless. These moments are rare, but when they happen, you remember everything about them, as if your senses were sharpened: the way it smelled that day in the stadium, the way the colors seemed brighter and sounds clearer.
On Aug. 16 in Beijing, I had one of those days.
It began in the morning, as I watched Michael Phelps storm back from seventh place to win the 100-meter butterfly by .01 of a second. I can still close my eyes, six months later, and feel as if I'm back in the Water Cube. Phelps was running out of pool in his attempt to catch Milorad Cavic, and with each stroke toward the wall, the tension in the arena increased. The 18,000 people in attendance either held their breath or screamed. When Phelps crashed into the wall first, a victory that was impossible to read with the naked eye, my hands were shaking. Phelps' gold-medal quest was alive. By the length of a fingernail.
Later that night, after I had filed several stories and knocked back a few drinks to calm my excitement, some friends and I wandered over to the Bird's Nest to watch Jamaica's Usain Bolt run in the 100-meter track final. We weren't journalists for a few hours; we were just fans. It was humid, we were sweaty, crammed tightly into tiny seats. The beer we had purchased tasted awful, like room temperature apple juice. We were all cranky and, in some sense, wishing we were in bed.
Then Bolt exploded from the starting block. To watch him in that moment, his arms pumping as camera flashes rippled through the crowd like a lightning storm, was to akin to a religious experience. When he started celebrating with 30 meters to go, slapping his chest and extending his arms, the only appropriate response was awe. I looked at the sky and just bellowed with wonder. I realized I would have waited three hours, sweating in sticky chairs, for that moment. On the walk home, I made my friends laugh when I ran down the street, arms extended, thumping my chest. Later, I realized little kids all over Jamaica were running barefoot down dirt roads, extending their arms and doing the same thing I was: dreaming of being the fastest man in the world.
Two amazing men, two amazing races, both occurring in less than 24 hours.
To see all this on the other side of the world, to be so lucky as to bear witness, was to feel, in that brief moment of 2008, truly alive.