Letter from Athens: the crying Games

September 5 2004 / The Observer

Tears, wrote Voltaire, are the silent language of grief. They can also be a public expression of joy. Tears are mysterious and uncontrollable. They are universal and can often say more about you and how you feeling than any words, which is why the ritual of the immediate post-race interview should be ignored or, better still, scrapped altogether. How do you feel? BBC interviewer Sally Gunnell asks in her screechy voice. The answers are inevitably banal. ‘I’m gobsmacked,’ Kelly Holmes said after winning gold, her second, in the 1500m. In truth, we already knew from what was written on her face how she felt: delighted, amazed, relieved. We did not need any hasty words of confirmation.

The 2004 Athens Olympics were certainly the Games of tears. In triumph and in despair athletes openly wept - for themselves, for what they had won and lost. Here were people of all nationalities competing before a worldwide television audience and in extremis. ‘I have worked so hard for this,’ sobbed forlorn swimmer Sarah Price following an accident, in which she gashed her shins on an underwater camera. Her injury no doubt contributed to her finishing last in her semi-final. When Paula Radcliffe, humbled and exhausted, began to cry after stopping in the marathon, her tears were edged by a sense of an ending - not just of this particular Olympic marathon but for her arduous career-long pursuit of an Olympic medal. She knew that her chance would not come again, which was why, despite her capitulation in the marathon, she pluckily chose to run in the 10,000m, only to drop out once more.

The tears of Matthew Pinsent, at the end of the final of the coxless fours, and of Hicham El Guerrouj, both at the end of the 1,500m and again on the winners’ podium, were those of exhilaration and relief. I was in the stand watching as Pinsent drove on his team to narrow victory over a powerful Canadian team. In the immediate aftermath of that victory, he was inconsolable. He knew how much he had demanded of himself for this, his fourth gold medal, and just how easily the race could have gone against him. His weeping, like the man himself, was hugely open and expressive, ostentatious even. The tears of El Guerrouj were, by contrast, almost like an expression of private grief. It was almost as if in victory the Moroccan could not stop himself from recalling the trauma of former Olympic defeats; he seemed at once elated and forlorn.

These were, on the whole, a good Games for the British. The team won 30 medals, including nine golds, its best haul at a Games since 1924. But we still finished behind France and Italy, countries of comparable wealth and population, as well as, more predictably, behind Germany and the sport-fixated Australians.

Athens itself is a city of spectacular dereliction and of monumental ruin. It must be difficult for modern day Athenians to move forward when, almost at every corner, the very architecture of the city returns you ceaselessly to the past and to the contemplation of a former greatness. And yet Greece is moving forward. These Games - so efficiently run and harmonious - were testament to that.

There is a tradition, at the closing ceremony, for the president of the International Olympic Committee to acclaim the Games that have just ended as the greatest ever. The then president Juan Samaranch certainly said as much of Sydney 2000. This time, Jacques Rogge, perhaps remembering all those empty venues in the opening week, was more circumspect. He simply described Athens 2004 as ‘unforgettable, a dream Games’.

Few who had the good fortune to be present at the Olympic Stadium or who watched the drama on television would disagree.