MINNEAPOLIS — The shelf life for immortality in Olympic athletics is usually brief. The public's appetite for new dazzlements is obsessive. So while the candidates for Olympic fame lasting through time are growing in profusion in Athens daily, only one at the moment seems headed for Olympus.
Paul Hamm has a chance.
It doesn't matter that no one outside the wizards who invented Google and the Palm Pilot can understand the scoring cult of Olympic gymnastics, or that the grace of some of the performances was obscured in the frenetic babble of the analysts.
Paul Hamm emerged as an authentic, back-from-the-pits hero of the 2004 Games in Greece. If so, the purists who nurture the Olympic ideal can come out of the closet and take a bow. Competitive gymnastics is one of the least forgiving tests of athletic skill, muscle, discipline, and will - the whole package that defines the classic athlete. Pardoning some of the kooky impostors that have lobbied themselves into the Olympic game rooms, gymnastics is a competition that belongs in the Olympics almost before all others.
It is a lonely, introspective world, the gymnast's. The thread separating victory and near-catastrophe is tenuous and fickle.
The 21-year-old from Wisconsin's dairyland experienced both almost within the hour in the finals of the men's all-around gymnastics. It was the most absorbing theater of the Olympics' helter-skelter first week and may have redeemed all of the hand-wringing and rolling eyes over empty seats.
In its climactic moment, Hamm starred in what became pure allegory, played out in the most ancient of all Olympic venues, surrounded by the sagas of resuscitated Greek gods and ultimately an unseen audience of a couple of billion people around the world. That's a show. And Hamm brought all the requisites - the world's championship won last year, sculpted good looks and physique that invited all available zoom cameras, and the composure of an athlete who'd been through the crucible.
In midstream of the competition he landed awkwardly in the vault event and sprawled into the laps of the judges. It was a terrible moment, an embarrassment, and it dumped him into 12th place. He might have crumbled. But he rallied in the parallel bars and then, in the supreme moment of his athletic commitment, he seized the high bar and literally flew. Higher and higher he went with each whirl, adrenaline racing but in full command, an exuberance building within him until he leapt to the mat with a perfect landing and then released his sensations before closing his eyes in pride and relief.
That was a scene to engrave, a competitor redeeming himself before the world and fulfilling all of his sacrifice and aspiration.
Some of the exertions we see in Athens - identified as honest-to-Pete, genuine marvels that ought to amaze us - come too quickly and repetitively to be taken seriously. Even world records can be boring.
If you're watching from someplace in the middle of the Corn Belt in the Midwest, the time warp grips you with passing doubts about what is reality, after all. When the warp is eight time zones wide, it's serious. You get on the Internet late Wednesday afternoon, and it tells you Paul Hamm won the gold in the men's all-around. Then you flip on the television a couple of hours later, and the action is just starting.
Your wife knows you know the winner and asks who won. "Do you really want to know?" Your wife is in doubt. So you wade through four dozen commercials, two frowning Romanians, and two disconsolate Koreans, and finally watch Hamm's culminating flight, which confirms the AP story of six hours ago.
This happens just a few minutes after a commercial showing a wacky weight lifter demolishing $40,000 worth of hardware when he drops his weights through the floor while the insurance company helpfully reminds you to make sure you're in good hands.
But if you like a good game, it's hard to resist what you're watching. And if the hype and the dope scandals need cleansing, here is another athlete, 19-year-old swimmer Michael Phelps, supposedly awash in commercialism for trying and failing to win eight gold medals, generously telling us he's thrilled to be in the same pool with his rivals. And here is an American shot-putter admitting his errors and congratulating the winner.
And if you've ever traveled in Greece, and been caught up in the electricity of those Greek dancing rhythms and their noisy, headlong passions, you had to be a little teary when the Greek synchronized divers won the gold. A medal for Greece! Oppa, oppa.
The celebration got sloppy and wild and wet, and then the crowd started the dance from "Zorba." The party rolled into sunrise.
One way or another, the world has come together in Athens, probably the most appropriate place of all to come together, and so far we have at least one candidate immortal for the crowd at Olympus, arriving with gold and maybe a wedge of cheese on his head.