COLOMBES, France – At whats left of the stadium where Harold Abrahams won his Chariots of Fire Olympic 100 meters, where Paavo Nurmi won the 1,500, caught his breath and then lined up 55 minutes later to win the 5,000, it is almost as if their feats of 1924 never happened.
There is no plaque to commemorate the students from California who won the last Olympic gold in rugby and humiliated France 17-3, infuriating the 40,000-strong home crowd that burned the American flag, knocked an Illinois spectator unconscious and booed The Star-Spangled Banner during the medal ceremony.
There are no statues of William DeHart Hubbard, the Cincinnati-born chauffeurs son whose long jump of 24 feet, 5 inches made him the first black athlete to win an individual Olympic gold, or of Johnny Weissmuller, the U.S swimmer who won three golds and then became bigger in a Hollywood loincloth as Tarzan.
Even with your eyes closed, it is almost impossible to imagine the spectators in their berets and straw boaters whooping from the terraces now thick with weeds and fenced off as unsafe. The Olympics came here? To this bedraggled arena, on the outskirts of Paris, that town planners now hope to demolish? Surely not.
Forget the notion that Olympians and their exploits invariably shine forever. Its not true. They are no more immortal than any of us. How could they be? Because the Olympics are a human communion – between the athletes and us, the people of the world who will be wowed by them again this month and next. And neither we, they nor our collective memory will be around forever.
So feast on London 2012 while you can, because the emotions will be over in a flash. Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or whoever grabs our imagination will be filmed, photographed, tweeted and Facebooked as never before. The records, winning times, throws and point totals, the medal winners names, all that stuff, will again be squirreled away in the vaults. Future generations will have archives far richer than the black and white photos and scratchy footage we have of Nurmi and his peers.
But only we will actually remember the physical sensations, what it really felt like, of watching this generation of London Olympians perform. Only we will be able to say, It sent shivers down my spine. I wish youd seen it.
The same must also have been true for those in the Colombes stadium who witnessed Nurmis same-day Olympic double on July 10, 1924. But 88 years on, how many of them are alive today? In short, appreciate the Olympics for the uniquely human and ephemeral experience they are.
The debate about whether the Olympics have become too big, resource-draining and wasteful is valid, important and needs to continue after London.
But nothing else we do showcases us quite in the same way as the Olympics – our strengths, weaknesses, colors, cultures, our savage hunger to compete and prove ourselves, the pleasure we get from watching others succeed and fail, and the fleeting nature of our youthful years when we are capable of anything but not yet fully aware of how quickly they will be gone.