Even after hype, Games still deliver surprises

By the measure of the medal table, the approaching conclusion of the Olympics' first week seems to promise some sense of normalcy, with America again shadowing the top of the list. Yet there is a tyranny to treating the Games like an exercise in arithmetic.

It loses sight of the South African relay team, those four shark-suited Poseidons who stood poolside after shattering a world record, muscles flexing in elation - simply waiting to be carved into stone and set on some ancient pedestal. It passes over the men on the Japanese gymnastics team, who faced 28 years of heartbreak and wrung it like the high bar that they spun into stunning submission.

And it even looks harshly on Michael Phelps, who has failed by Spitzian standards, but has won increasing admiration with every length of the pool.

These Games have not completely played to form, and thankfully so. Amid the expected - and especially the unexpected - there has been the extraordinary, from the subtlest expressions of grace to the tilting of entire nations into unbelieving euphoria.

For despite all the medals, the wreaths, and the anthems, the Olympics - more than any other event in world sport - are about gauging the competitive spirit.

"The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well," Pierre de Coubertin once said. He established his Olympic movement on this ideal, and the truest measure of it comes not only in success or even in noble failure, but also in moments of unvarnished amazement, when the bonds of expectation loosen just long enough to open a world of unimagined possibilities.

For Luo Xuejuan, that gap opened just wide enough to swim through earlier this week, winning the breaststroke against a favored field from Lane 1, the swimming equivalent of Siberia. For Teng Haibin, it opened beneath his feet, as the key member of China's heavily favored gymnastics "Dream Team" stumbled out of bounds on the floor exercise, badly botched his parallel bars routine, and then fell from the high bar.

Yet both performances were irresistible in their own Olympic way - Luo not for her victory but for the manner of it, and Teng not for the lapses but for his dignity in enduring them.

It is the same for this year's version of the United States basketball team. Since the original Dream Team brought basketball to the world in the 1992 Barcelona Games, US basketball's path to its two subsequent gold medals has been a ponderous trudge of pomp and petulance.

This year's team is both meeker and weaker, more admirable and more interesting. This time, the chest-thumping, when it comes, is not a statement of arrogance; it is the rousing of a long-dormant sense of national - and not personal - pride, an iron desire to not yield even in the face of fallibility.

In the face of his own limitations in the pool, meanwhile, Phelps has only grown larger. Hard though it might have been to imagine before the Games began, Phelps has underlined his mettle here not with gold, but with bronze.

His third place in the 200 free - hardly his best event - had the aspect of the kid taking on the playground bullies and coming out of the scrap bruised but not beaten. Yet it was after the bronze in the 4x100 relay - an event that the US was supposed to dominate, but was instead dominated by South Africa - that a US team in crisis again turned to the fearless kid.

Forty-eight hours later, Phelps had two gold medals, and his team had stood toe to toe with the mighty Australians in their favorite event - the 4x200 relay - and won. Almost imperceptibly, the focus shifted. Phelps was no longer the swimmer who failed to break the record of seven golds in one Games; he was on track to become the first swimmer ever to win eight medals in one Games.

It helped that even before these Olympics began, Phelps's gold-medal quest had the scent of the impossible. Japan's gymnastics gold-medal quest, however, was at once more tantalizing and more hopeless. No question, the Japanese were close. But between them and gold were the mighty Chinese.

By the final round of the event Monday night, the Chinese had fallen away, and the only remaining obstacles were a chalk-choked bar nine feet off the floor and the weight of 44 years of history. After winning every team Olympic gold during the five Games of the 1960s and '70s, Japan has since dabbled around the fringes, never finishing higher than third and not even medaling since 1992.

Japan's answer was as emphatic as it was dramatic. Needing only average scores to win, the team turned its three turns into a coronation, stunning in their daring, breathtaking in their precision.

Last of all, the diminutive figure of Hiroyuki Tomita flung off the bar flipping and twisting into a new universe - into a place where the Japanese were once again Olympic champions and the pernicious comparisons to the past dissolved into applause.

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