They emerged from around the bend, out onto the stretch that would take them in front of Buckingham Palace, around the Queen Victoria statue to the final 500 meters to the finish line. All different flags from all different people of all different colors and shapes and sizes waved all over.
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Two runners emerged from Kenya. And as they ran through a chute of fans, then the cheers for them came from all over the world. Then, the world cheered for two Ethiopians as they emerged and ran past. A runner from Japan. Then Brazil. Then Jamaica. They came in ones and twos, as if taking a curtain call on the Olympics.
Italy. Russia. Australia.
“The Olympics are such a great celebration of sport,’’ said Paul, a sports fan from Ireland, who stood on the curb next to me in the chute.
I have to be honest: I have always thought that watching a marathon in person must be one of the most boring things possible. You stand there on the side of the road. A guy runs up. Passes you. Runs on. Then another guy comes.
It is totally out of context and without drama.
It is a different experience from watching Usain Bolt fly down 100 meters in under 10 seconds. That’s an adrenaline pump. Watching the marathon from one spot on the side, without a view of the finish line, is more of a way of showing support for effort, courage, for different people brought together.
And where else do you see all of the countries together on the field of competition at the same time? It wasn’t a tournament or a heat with eight countries. They were all blended in together.
New Guinea. Indonesia. East Timor (I think). I’m no geography expert, but this was helpful. I mean, you see a color on a runner that you don’t recognize, and then you turn around and see a family with three kids draped in the same colors.
What flag is that?
“Ethiopia,’’ they say.
So many runners. They all had different backgrounds and stories. They all had different meanings.
What were they all running for? And it makes you think about the whole Olympic Games the past two weeks and all the athletes. What were they running for?
Bolt was running for fun and show, and to be a legend.
Oscar Pistorius, the Blade Runner and double-amputee, was running for inclusion. Born without fibulas, he had most of his legs amputated when he was a baby. Pistorius had years of political fights and battles from fools who suggest that he has an advantage over runners with legs because his blades were too good. He ran the 400 meters, and even advanced to the semifinals.
Watching him was the most emotional moment for me during the Olympics, realizing that history was being made. History of inclusion. How many disabled kids were watching? How many other people who look differently at people who don’t look like them?
“I got goosebumps,’’ Pistorius said.
Greece, Israel, Colombia.
Justin Gatlin ran to get his name back. He had won gold in the 100 meters at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Then, he was kicked out of the sport for four years with a doping ban. It was one of the ugliest doping bans, as Gatlin had promoted himself as one of the athletes who would clean up track and field.
Had Gatlin fallen off too much, it would have looked like he was only good before because of the drugs. Had he improved, people would have thought he was still doing it.
He won bronze in the 100 meters when Bolt won gold. His time was faster, though, than when he was a young man. It might have been impossible to clean up his own name, but Gatlin did as well as he could.
“I went to road cycling, the women’s marathon, this marathon,’’ said Paul from Ireland. “Handball, basketball, judo, taekwondo. Did I say basketball?’’
Yes. How did you manage to get tickets to all of that?
“They sold some at Czech House, where they set up thing for Czech athletes (and fans),’’ Paul said. “I had to do things I’m not proud of to get them. But what happens in London stays in London.
“I slept out for a couple of nights. I got in line at half 11 (11:30 p.m.). They wouldn’t start selling tickets till 12 o’clock the next day.’’
Tahmina Kohistani of Afghanistan won gold. No, not a gold medal. She finished in last place, by far. But what she was running for? She won gold.
Kohistani was the only woman from Afghanistan competing in the Olympics. She crossed the line and broke into tears. Her culture did not approve of her running, and she told about what that meant. All the way down to a taxi driver not willing to take her to the track.
“There are lots of girls in Afghanistan,’’ she said. “Because of some social problems, because of family problems, they cannot do sport. But I’m going to say for them: Come and join me.’’
She plans to set up sports clubs for girls and women.
What do you do back in Ireland, I asked Paul.
“I don’t do anything,’’ he said. “I’m a man of leisure. Heh, heh. The economy there has done that to a lot of people.’’
How did you afford this trip?
“I saved up for it for a long, long, long time,’’ he said. “It’s not that far away.’’
I’m not sure what Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia was running for. She was one of the first two Saudi women ever allowed in the Olympics. And when she was 40 seconds or so behind everyone else in her race, the crowd gave her a standing ovation to the finish. She wore a hood over her head, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. But it didn’t feel the same as Kohistani’s story.
Attar grew up in California, went to high school in California and now runs for Pepperdine University. It is unclear if she has ever even been to Saudi Arabia. She came off the track, and rather than stopping and talking emotionally about what had happened, Attar smiled, said something about it being a great experience, and then left.
What were we seeing? What was she running for? To pave a new path for Saudi women? It seemed that Saudi Arabia was strong-armed into letting her in. They forced her and the other woman they had allowed to compete, a judoka, to walk behind the men in the opening ceremony. And all the sports clubs in Saudi Arabia?
They do not allow women to work out there. They do not even allow them on the premises. But the International Olympic Committee warned the Saudis that if they didn’t let women into the Olympics, then they might not be able to let their men in, either.
Did the Saudis make a step of progress? Or did they just throw the IOC a bone?
When you bring this many people together from so many places, it’s not always easy to know what you’re seeing.
Lolo Jones was running for the future. Heavily criticized, unfairly, for overly marketing herself, she needed a medal to shut up critics. She didn’t get one.
Dawn Harper was running for someone to notice her. Angry about being hidden behind Jones’ spotlight, Harper won a silver medal and snipped that she had shut people off.
“I’ve never been West of Ballybunion,’’ Paul said.
“It’s a seaside town in Ireland.’’
Allyson Felix was running for self-validation, even though she had won silver medals in consecutive Olympic 200-meter sprints. It wasn’t enough for her. She was supposed to be the darling of American track, but those silver medals ate away at her for eight years. She never lost her composure, her grace or her nerve.
Felix won the gold in the 200 in London. And another gold in the 4×100 relay.
And another gold in the 4×400 relay.
The marathon had been won 15, 20 minutes earlier. But tens of thousands of people still made the chute, still cheered for every runner. The guy from Greece smiled as he ran through. A guy from Rwanda was walking. He was done. He was a little aimless. The crowd from everywhere went nuts for him.
He walked a few more steps, and you wondered if he might collapse.
He started jogging.
The guy from Colombia came out from around the corner, saw the chute and raised his arms, appealing for cheers.
But one thing, Paul. You don’t have a job, but you spent all this money. He grimaced in his flip-flops, flower-patterned shorts and Irish regional flag draped over his shirt.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,’’ he said. “Best experience of my life.’’
Someone won the race, but I’m not sure exactly who it was. It was way out of my view. I could tell you who I think the big winner was, but it would sound way too hokey.