I was nine years old in 1984. The Olympic Games were held in Los Angeles and I watched Mary Lou Retton with the fixation of cat-to-mouse. I was too young to know that the Cold War was raging on, with Russia boycotting our Olympics as payback for our boycott of the Moscow games four years prior. I was too young to know how big the world really was, and that Germany was split into two pieces divided by a wall, and that people killed each other over petty things like color and religion and oil. I just thought the different costumes were cool.
I was living with my grandparents that summer, staying at their house on Chautauqua Lake. The living room was large with white carpet, the television to the left in a built-in console on the floor. I would lie on that carpet for hours that summer, the only time I gave up swimming in the lake, to look at the costumes and the flags and the colors. I was too young to know too much, but I did know that the Olympics were a very big deal. And more than that – they were magical.
I’m old enough now to know the world. To know the sad truth that the Olympics are, all too often, a momentary break in the anger and animosity that divides our world into countries, races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities. To know that pride in our own origins often comes with hatred for others. To know about war and genocide, revolution and terrorism, civil unrest and refugee camps. And oil.
I’m old enough now to live in equal parts hope and despair at how human beings treat one another.
Except for London 2012.
Our grand Olympic adventure was brief, sandwiched between time in Paris and a visit with friends in rural England. While we would have loved to work our way through the disaster that was the ticketing system to see the final night of races on the track, our purpose in London had always been front row seats to the men’s marathon, and it didn’t disappoint. As a matter of fact, it healed.
The race began at 11 a.m. in Hyde Park near Buckingham Palace. We left our hotel promptly at 8:45 a.m. for a leisurely walk down Regent Street to the Thames River, arriving just minutes past 9 to a beautiful sight: metal barricades, nearly deserted, midway between the London Eye and Big Ben. As a bona fide “shortie” at 5’1”, I was determined that this was one time in my life I wouldn’t struggle to see.
We claimed our spots, and what spots they were. As we hoped, we scored front row seats to miles 1, 9, 17 and 25. We hung our flag and settled in to wait.
In time, I made a run up the street for coffees. When I returned, a lovely couple from the U.K. had arrived and taken the spots to our right. An older couple, they’ve traveled extensively and shared their experiences in the U.S. and other destinations DB and I have considered. The atmosphere became more and more unreal as we stared across the Thames and listened to Big Ben announce each quarter-hour. About an hour before the race, we were joined on our left by the most unique family of all, Indian Kenyans. Or Kenyans that were Indian. It was that simple and that complicated at once; the family was of Indian ethnicity, but born and living in Kenya, proudly waving the Kenyan flag. This, my friends, is the Olympics.
By 10:30, the streets were packed three deep and we had to super-glue our feet to the ground and our hands to the barricades to keep from being pushed out of our spots. The barricades were lined with every flag you could imagine, and many you couldn’t identify. The Union Jack held court of course, surrounded by America, Kenya, Switzerland, Ethiopia, Spain, Italy, France, Jamaica, Uganda, Brasil. Flags lined the barricades, often overlapping each other. It sounds simple, but it’s powerful. It’s powerful to see the flags of different countries not only hung together, but peacefully overlapping each other.
I know how blessed I am to have seen the Olympic Marathon. I know what a privilege it was to have been close enough to touch. To have personal photographs of the Ugandan and Kenyan medalists running by; of Meb the moment before he cracked a small smile at the American flag we waved. It was a once in a lifetime experience, something etched forever in my memory.
And yet, the marathon was a footnote. It was a footnote not just to what I saw, but what I felt. What was the Olympic Marathon really like?
We spent five hours that Sunday morning with a British couple and a Kenyan family that you would have assumed was from India. They’ve invited us to run a marathon on a Kenyan game preserve and take holiday with them.
One of the young Kenyans, who now lives in the U.K., had access to online results on her Blackberry. She excitedly grabbed my shoulders minutes after the marathon finish to announce “your American ran down Brasil and Tokyo” to get fourth.
Did you know that Leichtenstein had a runner in the Olympics? Or Turkey? Or better yet, East Timor? Yes, East Timor was last. East Timor was trailing way behind at the first mile. He was about 7 minutes behind on the second loop. 14 on the third. And East Timor, a nation I’d never heard of and couldn’t assign to a continent, received the loudest cheers.
On the final loop, the medalists were clear. Uganda, Kenya and Kenya. Next came Brasil, followed by Meb and Tokyo running stride for stride. Yet no one left. Not at 2:05. Not at 2:20 or even 2:40. Every single person, country and flag waited. We waited for East Timor.
In an unexpected twist, East Timor was not followed by the final motorcycle. He had picked off one lone runner, a man as small as I, covered in white salt and wearing a plain singlet bearing the single word “Lesotho.”
At the base of the small hill we watched from, he stopped to walk.
Lesotho would finish somewhere around 2:45, but to every flag in the world waving for him, accompanied by the loudest cheers the crowd had given all day.
And just as quickly as the motorcycle drove by, we dispersed.
Kenya went their way; the U.K. couple theirs and the Americans theirs. Back to their countries, their cultures and their lives. The flags came down, and as the thousands of spectators worked their way past Buckingham Palace, the flags, people and languages blended together once again.
And I asked DB for the tenth time that Sunday why we couldn’t fight all our battles through sport.
There were some 200 men in that marathon Sunday, and they all wanted to win. They all thought they deserved or had earned the medal. Certainly they took pleasure in taking each other out, and certainly their countries cheered when they did and felt, at best, relief when other countries struggled or failed. Yet at the finish line, every single competitor recognized, respected, and appreciated the battle the others had been through, and considered them one of their own. And at mile 25.1, every country in the world lent their voices, hearts and flags to those who had lost the battle that day, making sure that East Timor and Lesotho didn’t struggle alone on deserted streets.
It’s undeniably simplistic, and I’m old enough now to know that it doesn’t work that way, can’t and won’t in my lifetime as a result of conflicts dating back to the dawn of time – and even some about the dawn of time itself. Old enough to know that no, right now, we can’t fight all our battles through sport, appealing as it may sound.
I’m old enough now to wish the Olympics were something more, something more than a momentary break in the anger and animosity that divides our world into countries, races, religions, ethnicities and nationalities.
But I’m not too old to hope.