Bill Lyon: London calling, get out your handkerchiefs

Posted: July 22, 2012

Sniffle . . . Sniffle . . .

What's wrong?

Nothing . . . Sniffle-sniffle . . .

Are you sick?

Just allergies, OK? Sniffle . . . Sniffle-sniffle . . .

Hey, wait a minute. Are you crying?

No! I told you. Allergies. Just leave it alone! OK? Take it easy. Geez.

Sixteen years gone by, and still I can summon it, the tears, the American wrestler, the heavyweight Matt Ghaffari, standing there on the victory podium at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, standing one step below the top step, standing not where the gold medalist stands, but where the silver medalist stands, the runner-up, the second best. And now as the Russian national anthem begins, Matt Ghaffari begins to sob uncontrollably, that big body shaking with tremors, and when the Russian anthem is over, his father, who fled Iran 19 years ago to rescue his family and lift them up, rushes to his son and locks him in a mighty embrace.

And then Matt Ghaffri steps back and removes the silver medal and drapes it around his father's neck and says, softly: "For you, Papa."

And with both hands the father holds the face of his son, and with the tears falling hard and fast, says: "Oh, my boy, my boy."

I saw it then, wrote about it then, cried over it then, and struggle not to, even now.

And so once again, the Crying Games are upon us: the Summer Games, this time in foggy old London Town, where it is frequently wet and will be again soon, salted by the tears of winners, the tears of losers, and the tears of those of us who are, in Arnold Palmer's words, "sentimental slobs."

He has company, because for sheer clean-out-the-

tear-ducts emo-tional release nothing in sports rivals the Olympics. Especially if you happen to have the wonderful good fortune to be Irish. Also, I have found it helps to have slipped into that stage of life known as Last Call, in which the older you get, the bigger a softy you become. This, by the way, is not necessarily such a bad thing, as any grandparent can testify.

Send in the heroes

We yearn for them, need them to restore us, replenish us, reaffirm and validate, give us reason to wonder again at the indomitability of the human spirit, and so they will be the saving grace of these Games of the Olympiad. Wherever you turn those 21/2 weeks, you will find them, doing all manner of things that gravity and anatomy insist are impossible, making our hearts swell and our noses leak.

Meanwhile, there remain, in the musty, dusty attics of our memories, reminders of past heroes.

The greatest

Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete of the last century. He played pro football (two ways) and pro baseball, and he ran track and field, and excelled at whatever other sport he picked up and tried out of simple curiosity. So there he is on the victor's podium at the 1912 Olympics, an unthinkable double gold medalist, first in the pentathlon and the decathlon, which means he has competed in 15 different disciplines - the most trying and demanding competition there is - and Jim Thorpe not only lays waste to the field, he scored twice as many points as each of the runners-up.

So there is the king of Sweden, more than a little impressed, and he is draping the gold around Jim Thorpe's neck and saying: "You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world." Nonplussed, Jim Thorpe replies: "Thanks, King."

The world was markedly smaller back then, but Jim Thorpe remains a giant.

King Carl

What is it you do again, Carl? (The interrogator has a tape recorder but not a clue.)

Carl Lewis replies: I run, and I jump.

Well, yes, boiled down to the bare bones, he does. But how he runs is like a scalded cheetah, and how he jumps is like Dr. J on a trampoline.

When he was 15, Carl Lewis sustained a growth spurt so violent that for a time he was forced to walk with crutches. Who knew that one day he'd have rocket boosters in his sneakers?

He won 10 Olympic medals, nine of them gold, and here's the remarkable part - he did it spread over four Olympics and 16 years, which is rare in itself, and rarer still considering that the events - sprints and long jump - are supposed to be the province of young, explosive legs.

Leroy Burrell, not exactly a tortoise himself, said after one 100-meter race in which the field choked on Lewis' exhaust, "He passed us like we were standing still."

Nadia's theme

She appeared before us completely without warning, this hollow-eyed Romanian waif, 14 years old, 4-feet-11, 86 pounds, and utterly without nerve or fear. She was light as a sunbeam, with a body made of Silly Putty, and the first time she exploded a series of vaults and worked the balance beam like a Wallenda and flung herself halfway to the ceiling, I stopped typing and started paying attention. Because this had the feel of something special.

And so it was, in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Nadia Comaneci broke the computer used for scoring, scored the first perfect 10 ever registered in women's gymnastics, then six more, and revolutionized an entire sport. She made it airborne.

So on a scale of 1 to 10, what was Nadia?

An 11, of course.

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