People like to pretend that the Olympics happen outside of time. Actually, the Games are always defined by the moment in which they're held, and if Sydney 2000 was the great global orgy, in which the condom machines in the athletes' village famously couldn't be refilled fast enough, Athens 2004 was often the uncomfortable morning after, the reckoning in which everyone was forced to bundle up the sheets and wonder where this whole international relationship was going.
Naturally, most of the anxiety in Athens was directed at, and emanated from, the U.S. Even though terrorism fears dissipated, many American spectators wrung their hands over just how representatives of the world's lone superpower should comport themselves. When can we cheer? Are we cheering too much? Too little? Should I leave the GOD BLESS THE U.S.A. fanny pack at the hotel? It didn't help that a presumed ally, the Iraqi soccer team, was less than grateful during its surprising run to the bronze-medal game (the team ultimately finished fourth). The Bush campaign used the Iraqi team's success to score political points but neglected to mention that one of Uday Hussein's henchmen still oversees the team.
The most glaring negativity directed toward Americans--besides the protests that greeted news of Colin Powell's visit (which he promptly canceled)--surfaced when the U.S. men's basketball team played. The players were booed lustily--though, as Spanish star Pau Gasol suggested, that may have been because they were bad. Coach Larry Brown's team went 5-3 on its way to becoming the first NBA-stocked bunch not to win gold. For the most part, America's athletes were treated courteously, though geopolitics probably kept retiring medalists Rulon Gardner and Mia Hamm from getting the stadium-size love that enveloped Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj. When El Guerrouj, perhaps the greatest middle-distance runner ever, hauled in the 1,500-m gold medal that had eluded him in the past two Olympics, he fell to the track and bawled. His fellow runners hugged him and laughed as he performed a victory dance to the Zorba theme that played only 14,000 times during the Games. Four days later, he also won the 5,000 m.
Coming into Athens, 86 of the record 202 participating countries had never won a medal of any kind, and the loudest cheers went to those who made national history, however small or troubled their nation. Women sprinters from Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia and Bahrain--whose Rokia Al Ghasra ran in full hijab--were treated with special reverence by the crowds, as was windsurfer Gal Fridman, who sailed Israel to its first gold medal in 52 years of competition. The victory was made all the more fascinating with the revelation that his first name means wave in Hebrew. Competition, empathy and entertaining minutiae--it should be the Olympic slogan.
The Greeks' main challenge was to demonstrate that a small country can successfully play host to the Olympics. Somewhere in Athens there is a giant closet full of rubble; the Greeks not only finished all the venues and had 10 volunteers on every almost clean street but eventually met their stated goal of selling 3.4 million tickets too.