The Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) was never so dramatically enacted as during the 29th Olympiad in Beijing these past two weeks. We watched in awe as U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals.
China swept the gold medals in women’s diving and was just one medal short of a men’s sweep. Cuba’s Dayron Robles rocketed to victory in the 100 meter hurdles. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt left rival sprinters in the dust. The 6’ 5” Bolt, 22, dominated track and field as dramatically as Jesse Owens dominated the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which Owens and other African American track greats demolished Hitler’s Aryan Superman myth.
There were also poignant moments: German gymnast Oksana Chusovitna winning a silver medal at age 33 in a sport dominated by waifish teenagers half her age. We had learned Chusovitna’s story of leaving Uzbekistan seeking care for her critically ill child and finding help in Germany which has embraced her as a national hero.
For every story of triumph, there was heartbreak. Wallace Spearmon of the U.S. crossed the finish line behind his close friend, Bolt, thinking he had won the bronze in the 100 meter dash. He was in the midst of a victory lap when he learned he had been disqualified for a lane violation. Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles lost his silver medal for the same mistake. Both were devastated.
U.S. diver Laura Wilkinson, a gold medal winner in 2000, was smiling to keep from crying as she finished ninth behind China’s Chen Ruolin, Canada’s Emilie Heymans and China’s Wang Xin in platform diving. She is retiring from the sport.
From the opening ceremonies on the theme “One World, One Dream” to the joyous closing, these games expressed the desire of humanity for peace and good will. Some media commentators bemoaned the decline of U.S. domination, especially of track and field, though the U.S. captured the largest number of medals overall. But it isn’t that U.S. athletes are getting worse. Athletes from other nations, including nations beset with mass poverty, are just getting better. They are running fast and they are catching up — or winning.