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Olympic Memory

One bachelor Sunday morning several years ago I sprawled on the couch drinking coffee and reading the paper when I noticed something extraordinary happening on the television. The Olympics that had been playing in the background turned riveting as a woman marathon runner raced far ahead of the pack soon after the race started. Now she ran by herself through eerily empty Los Angeles freeway interchanges and entrance ramps.

I wanted to shout. I wanted a crowd around me. I wanted to phone someone, but who do you call and how do you explain something like this? She ran and ran, and no matter the camera angle, there were no people, no cars. Just one incredible athlete at that moment outperforming everyone else in the world, all by herself, by what looked like miles.

An essential part of the magic was that the cameras were there for virtually every step of the 26 miles (taking time out for commercials). That kind of Olympic coverage doesn’t exist any more. From Australia the official TV network of the 2000 Olympics has spent the past two weeks packing personality profiles and travelogues into a couple hours of prime time, along with a few taped and carefully edited highlights of this sprint or that long jump.

Oh sure, there was extended coverage on cable channels and Internet Web sites showing complete, live events sometime in the middle of the night. But it’s just not the same.

That’s not to disparage the Internet and today’s modern media. This morning, after a few seconds on a laptop computer, a Web site refreshed my memory that the runner was Joan Benoit Samuelson in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. She entered the stadium and crossed the finish line in two hours, 24 minutes, and 52 seconds, nearly two minutes ahead of second place.

Today’s commentators might call that an Olympic moment. But it wasn’t. It’s a lifetime memory of a heroic performance.

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