"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times" was the phrase that opened "A Tale of Two Cities," and now, with the Olympics having just ended, the same line could be used in a work entitled "A Tale of Two (Hundred and Two) Countries" to describe the Games and its games. Before we return to our routines and forget about the past four weeks, we should take a moment of our time to look back on those times competitive or otherwise that defined the Athens Olympics.
The 2004 games were a time of many times, with many of those times faster than the many times that preceded them. Five records fell at the hands (and feet) of Michael Phelps, who, in breaking one world and four Olympic record times, actually set records by breaking his own earlier times. The success was shared by other swimmers and teams, six of which torpedoed their way into new world record times. Doubtlessly, there were Olympic veterans watching at home, fondly recollecting their old times while fondling recklessly their old medals, cursing the sloth that kept .02 off of their time and twenty years off the longevity of their record.
It was a slow showing in Athens for runners comparing them only to past times and not, say, my times with nary a record broken. However, considering that nearly every running record has been set in the past three Olympics, it shouldn't be too long before more records fall. (I'm predicting a sub-1:00 mile within twelve years, particularly if plans continue to add performance-enhancing supplements to city water supplies.) And that's not to say that the track and field world was devoid of dominance in Athens, as it was finally the time for oft-disappointed 1500 runner Hicham El Guerrouj, who will hopefully celebrate his gold by eating something. Anything.
There are a number of sports that get overshadowed during the Olympics, and it would be unfair to exclude those events in which the athletes spend their time pursuing something other than times. Athens provided an opportunity for badmintonians and fencers alike to reach their sport's center stage and receive much-deserved recognition; sadly, most of those same athletes went unrecognized back home, if not on the medal podium itself. Canoeists just don't draw chicks like quarterbacks do.
(At this point, I will admit that I have my own obscure Olympic aspirations; unfortunately, they're on hold until the IOC consents to my proposal of adding Tecmo Super Bowl an event not judged by time, except perhaps for "'time wasted,' in which case I would effortlessly medal to the summer games. Or the winter games, if that's more convenient. I'm flexible.)
In some cases the absence of time proved to be damaging, as many performances will surely be remembered for the timeless controversies that ensued. That's why the excuses of the U.S. men's basketball squad whose members represented the (supposedly) most talented and the (allegedly) most competitive basketball league in the world were so thoroughly marinated with irony: upon being asked about their lack of cohesion and preparedness, the team cited an absence of time. Meanwhile, taking a step back in time was Cornelius Horan, who attacked marathoner Vanderlei De Lima while wearing an outfit taken from some seemingly ancient and hopefully never revisited era. Appropriately, Horan served time that night a punishment equally deserved for the accuracy-challenged gymnastics judges.
Yet perhaps the most definitive time was late at night, when America was finally able to share with the world its greatest source of a pride: that enduring icon that allowed viewers worldwide to reflect back on those times and those times (or those times not judged by times) and put them all in perspective, keeping in mind all the while that these times are just times, and that in time we won't remember the times, but rather the athletes that had the times of their lives while setting those times. Late at night past the bed time of many, for sure it was time for Bob Costas.
And hopefully not for the last time.