Moment to remember

Updated: August 29, 2004, 10:21 AM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Greece -- There is a single moment at every Olympics that provides the one image of the Games that endures long after the $32 officially licensed T-shirts fade. Whether it is Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists, Bruce Jenner waving a little American flag or Bela Karolyi carrying Kerri Strug, there is always that one moment that repeated washings in Ultra-Clorox cannot remove from our memory. That one moment that never collects dust in the back of a closet.

Athletes enter the arena
Athletes enter the ancient stadium at Olympia.

With apologies to Michael Phelps, Hicham El Guerrouj and Lisa Fernandez, that moment at these Games was when Olympic athletes walked into the ancient stadium of Olympia to compete for the first time in more than 1,600 years.

That stadium was the home to the Olympics for more than a thousand years but none had been held there since late in the fourth century. As late as the 1930s, the stadium lay under feet of soil and debris that had covered it over the previous millennia.

But on one magical, sun-kissed afternoon, the Olympics returned and the stadium stirred to life again in the greatest and grandest Turn Back the Clock Day in sports history.

That afternoon of competition was so emotional that 280-pound men choked back tears as if they had dropped the shot on their toes. Even sportswriters could find nothing wrong with the day, instead searching for souvenirs while repeatedly asking themselves, "Was that the best event you've ever covered? Was it? Was it? Was it?''

Well, it was right up there.

Of course, a couple days after the shot put, it turned out that the Russian who won the women's competition had tested positive for doping and was stripped of her medal. And one of those sportswriters who had been so overwhelmed by the competition wrote that this news ruined the day for him, making the entire competition a mockery.

I don't see it that way.

Greece is one of the few lands that still has more historic sites than Starbucks (though Starbucks is catching up -- it added a dozen stores in Athens in the past year) but the beauty of Olympia is that it symbolizes one of the most basic urges in human nature -- the desire to compete. It also, however, reminds us of another, lesser part of human nature -- the temptation to cheat.

Manuel Martinez
Even cynical journalists were moved by the homecoming at Olympia.

Whenever an Olympian is caught in a drug test, many shake their heads like bobblehead dolls and complain that modern sport is nothing but corruption. But athletes have always cheated, have always looked for an edge that will lead to glory. They cheated at ancient Olympia and when they were caught, their names were recorded on columns so they would live in shame for centuries.

The urge to compete, to see who can go swifter, higher or stronger, is as old as the Games itself. As is the temptation to cheat. They are both part of human nature. You can choose to focus on the first and allow the Olympics to lift your spirit so high Tim Mack couldn't pole vault over it. Or you can remain stuck in your office cubicle and focus on the cheats and bitch that the Olympics are as tainted as everything else in life.

I prefer the former. The view is better.

Whether athletes compete for their country or for their shoe company, for a contract or a gold medal, or for just a humble olive wreath -- and weren't those laurels as wonderful as they were simple -- what is important is that they compete, that they come together from around the globe and strive to be better than they are.

So, as they douse the flame and take down the flags, let's pause to remember that moment -- and all the moments -- that made these Olympics special. As we say good-bye to the Olympics and flip the bird to the gymnastics judges, let's be sure we blow some kisses to the U.S. softball team, Mia and the U.S. soccer team, the Argentine basketball team, Paul Hamm, the Iraqi soccer team, Justin Gatlin, Phelps, El-Guerrouj, the Brazilian fans and all the others who made the past fortnight a delight. We'll miss you all.

Although perhaps not as much as we'll miss the beach volleyball's bikini dance team.

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com